Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Are You Seth? vol.11

Today, in the 11th volume of AYS? I will be directing your attention to Anthony Doerr's new short story collection, Memory Wall.  I know, I know, nobody likes to read short stories anymore, but people, I'm here to tell you that you need to get over this phobia.  Short stories are the best way to discover new writers!  Where would we be without Chekhov, Poe, or O. Henry?  Most authors of quality start out writing short pieces before they can convince anyone to read their full-length novels.  Tobias Wolff, Jhumpa Lahiri, Robert Olen Butler, Ron Carlson, Alice Munro, Lorrie Moore, Wells Tower...embrace the short form!
"It's fair to say that Anthony Doerr is doing things with the short story that have rarely been attempted and seldom achieved."  -Dave Eggers
Doerr is also the author of one of my favorite novels from the past few years, About Grace.  (Still available for viewing on the Warwick's Bestsellers display.)  Sidebar: Grace is the story of one Henry Winkler who, throughout his life, experiences prescient dreams, usually of mundane, everyday occurrences that nevertheless come true every time.  Henry goes about his life, gets married, has a daughter, names her Grace.  One day, he has a dream that he is caught in a massive flood and has Grace swept from his arms by the torrent.  Naturally, this is a problem, as his dreams literally come true, so Henry decides that if he isn't around for the flood to sweep Grace away, it can never happen.  So he leaves his family behind in an attempt to save his daughter.  The rest of the book is about the circular path Henry's life takes, always trying to get back to his wife and child.  Heartbreaking, beautiful, great.

The title story from Memory Wall starts off with the Doerr's characteristic strength of prose and vivid descriptions of the natural world at large that instantly hooked me:
Seventy-four-year old Alma Konacheck lives in Vredehoek, a suburb above Cape Town: a place of warm rains, big-windowed lofts, and silent, predatory automobiles.  Behind her garden, Table Mountain rises huge, green, and corrugated; beyond her kitchen balcony, a thousand city lights wink and gutter behind sheets of fog like candleflames.
I always recommend reading the first page of anything you're interested in - if it grabs you right away, keep reading.  If not, move on.  Memory Wall is, as Mr. Doerr says "a collection of 4 stories, two novellas, all spiraling off the central idea of memory."  The two novellas - the bookends of the collection - are far and away the strongest of the bunch.  The title story is set in a sort of dystopian Cape Town, South Africa where the technology has been invented to retrieve memories from the brain and store them digitally for later re-visiting by the owners.  For example, Alma is an elderly woman who has the means to be able to afford such a luxury (it is almost prohibitively expensive) and as she is slowly succumbing to the ravages of memory loss and dementia, she can now access the memories of her life that she has lost.  Alma is vulnerable and dependant on others, and so open to the evil machinations of men.  When nefarious parties learn that Alma may have a memory stored away of a lucrative, secret event, she and her memories are exploited for financial gain and potential fame.  Is there enough of Alma still inside her own head to keep her memories safe?

The other novella, Afterworld, reminded me quite a bit of another contemporary of Doerr's, Kevin Brockmeier and his novel The Brief History of the Dead.  In Brockmeier's novel, when we die, we pass over to a massive city, where we wait, living rather normal lives, until there are no more people left on the planet with a first hand memory of us.  Doerr's story is similar in that Esther, raised in a German Jewish orphanage during WWII, is the sole survivor of the group of young girls who were living in the orphanage when all were sent to concentration camps  by the Nazis.  Now an elderly woman, she slips in and out of our world and the next, where her childhood friends await, ready to move to the next, final world.  For Esther, the memories flood her mind and she floats through the diaphanous, fragile barrier that exists between these multiple worlds, only to return to reality, as her corporal body is not yet ready to depart.  Sad, but a beautifully wrought & powerful story.

Among the other stories, Village 113 - about the building of China's Three Rivers Dam and the ancient community uprooted by its construction - won a prestigious O. Henry Prize in 2008 (his third win) and The River Nemunas - a young, orphaned girl moves from Kansas to Lithuania to live with her grandfather - just recently won a 2011 Pushcart Prize.  So, other people think these are pretty good too, just in case you didn't want to take my word for it.

Don't dismiss a book just because it is a collection of short stories - you may be missing out on a fantastic new author that could expand your reading horizons to levels you never thought possible.  Dip in, read one or two, put it down, read something else, loan it to your friend, come back to it later - they're not going anywhere.

Visit anthonydoerr.com for more - you can also read some of his stories as well as a few of his fantastic nonfiction essays.  (My favorite is "Butterflies on a Wheel" from 2008's Granta 102.)

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