When I began this column, one of my goals was to shine a flashlight on short stories, the neglected baby sister of the fiction world. But when I sent out an APB last year for under-the-radar story collections, and the writer Steve Almond recommended “Tony” Doerr’s latest, I balked.
I do not doubt that Steve, prolific scribe and TNB contributor, has good taste. But Anthony Doerr — author of four books, three-time O. Henry Award–winner, Guggenheim Fellow, winner of the Rome Prize, one of Granta‘s 21 Best Young American Novelists, and a finalist for the $20,000 Story Prize — isn’t exactly under the radar. Didn’t People magazine once report that Laura Bush read Doerr’s debut collection, The Shell Collector? I had images of Tony, in book-avatar form, canoodling with the former First Lady on Air Force One. This guy, I decided, didn’t need my flashlight (which is, come to think of it, more like a laser pointer, anyway).
Upon further reflection, I realized that no matter how many awards you string after your byline, the act of writing short stories is, by its very nature, under the radar. Unless you are Alice Munro, committing to short fiction is like announcing to your banker friends that what you really want to do is make dollhouses out of tongue depressors. To your average American, it’s not even as compelling as scrapbooking.
With that in mind, and with fond reminiscences of The Shell Collector, I decided to give Memory Wall (Scribner, 2010) a chance. After all, TSC included a vivid tale about a psychic hunter’s wife who could read the mind of a hibernating bear, and any writer who can pull that off deserves a second look.
A reviewer of science books for the Boston Globe in his spare time, Doerr is known for his moving depictions of people and their relationships to the natural world. He has a lyrical sense of place, a traveler’s avidity for detail, and he shows that talent to full advantage by setting the two novellas and four stories of Memory Wall in locales as far-flung as South Africa, Lithuania, China, Germany, and Korea. (Curiously, the least memorable story, “Procreate, Generate,” is the only one that takes place entirely within the United States.)
While some collections include so many narratives that they almost drown each other out, this is not the kind of fictional smorgasbord that makes you feel like you’re glimpsing too many stations from a speeding train. The satisfying length of the entries in Memory Wall (the first novella is 85 pages long) allows for the total immersion more characteristic of novels.
Despite Doerr’s geographical range, the real landscape here is memory. In the title novella, we’re introduced to the premise of a helmet that can archive memories on cartridges so they can be experienced again and again. This is a science-fiction trope we’ve seen before, but Doerr makes it entirely his own through careful composition: Suburban Cape Town, a setting where all is not forgotten, is the perfect place for him to braid together the narratives of an elderly white woman suffering from dementia, her deceased fossil-hunting husband, her black houseman, and a pair of memory thieves fishing the woman’s brain for information about a priceless archaeological find.
In the last novella, “Afterworld,” the narrative shuttles between World War II Europe, the present, and a purgatory populated by eleven orphans, as an elderly seizure-prone woman struggles to reconcile her survivor status with the events of the Holocaust. In “Village 113,” the construction of the Three Gorges Dam in China (which forced the relocation of well over a million citizens) complicates the relationship between a rural seed-seller and her only son, a city-dwelling bureaucrat overseeing the evacuation.
The motif of faith resonates throughout the book: Doerr writes unsentimentally about very sentimental things — the marriage of memory and identity, seeing versus believing. From “Village 113”: “Don’t disbelieve what you can’t see.” From “Afterworld”: “Isn’t everything that’s real only real in our heads?” From “The River Nemunas”: “He says this means that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean you shouldn’t believe in it. I can’t tell if he means Jesus or gravity.”
The following sentence, from “Afterworld,” could be referring to the brave scope of Doerr’s own writing: “Within the wet enclosure of a single mind a person can fly from one decade to the next, one country to another, past to present, memory to imagination.” But the author’s greatest gift lies in taking potentially melodramatic setups and infusing them with genuine emotion. In Memory Wall, he dodges a series of Hallmark landmines with empathy and elegance: Apartheid? Check. Infertility? Check. Broken marriage? Check. Orphanhood? Check. The Holocaust? Big check.
Yet it would be simplistic to look at this list of hard topics and dismiss Memory Wall as earnest or dispiriting. There is hope and beauty here too — and that’s something the scrapbookers can definitely get behind. After all, they’re archivists too.