Two Memory Banks

The mysteries of memory and its role in the formation of one’s identity are endlessly alluring for writers of speculative fiction and fantasy.  A. E. van Vogt featured many characters whose pasts had been deleted or overlaid.  In the late 1950s The Manchurian Candidate played with brainwashing to notable effect.  Philip K. Dick’s oeuvre, of course, was rich with instances of false memories and pseudo memories and simulated memories. Keith Laumer used memory-tampering to good effect in his thrillerish The House in November. George Alec Effinger’s The Wolves of Memory was a heartbreaking examination of an Alzheimer’s-like disease.  Gene Wolfe tackled the quandary of being unable to lay down new short-term memory traces in his Soldier of the Mist and its sequels.  The Separation, by Christopher Priest, dealt with conflicting memories that bleed over from one timeline to another.  And of course Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind brought such matters before an even wider audience.

For those of us who find endless fascination in this theme and its variations, this season brings two new novels on the subject from writers of note.  One, Mary Rickert’s The Memory Garden, is the more traditional, dealing with suppressed memories, their haunting tangibility and their life-altering powers.  The other, Jo Walton’s My Real Children, is the more radical, looking at parallel worlds and their entwined memories in the manner of the Priest book cited above.

Since her first story sale in 1999, Mary Rickert, employing the byline of “M. Rickert,” has amassed two collections — Map of Dreams and Holiday — stuffed full of deft and haunting stories that have earned her much acclaim and several awards.  Fifteen years into her career, though, it began to seem hopeless to wish for a novel from her.  And yet, life being full of miracles, here such a charming beast crops up, issued under her full name and proving just as rich and resonant as her short fiction. 

The book opens on a decidedly Bradburyesque note of From the Dust Returned midwestern oddness (with signature references to dandelion wine and Halloween to follow).  In an isolated and dilapidated old house, surrounded by castoff shoes turned into flower planters, lives an elderly woman named Nan, and her fifteen-year-old daughter Basil, or Bay.  Bay is not Nan’s biological child, but was abandoned on the porch in, of all things, a shoe box, and informally adopted by Nan.  (Rickert deploys this, ah, pedestrian motif of shoes in clever and subtle ways throughout.)  Nan and Bay lead a happy if eccentric existence, full of small celebrations and rituals and pleasures.  Nan has something of a local reputation as a good herbalist witch, in fact.

But this idyllic life suddenly verges on being shattered.  Actual ghosts — an old woman, a young (shoeless) fellow lurking in the woods — have begun to appear, tied to several hidden events in Nan’s past.  Bay can no longer remain blissfully ignorant of the content of her mother’s suppressed memories, and a decisive weekend is at hand.  Nan has invited two old friends over, women she has not seen in decades, since they were all young together.  Mavis and Ruthie and Nan formed an inseparable quartet with Eve, who died tragically at age eighteen.  Their complicit presence is necessary to bring fully to light the long-buried circumstances of Eve’s untimely death.  Also present during moments of the drama are Thalia, Bay’s school chum; Howard, a local lad hired as chauffeur; and Stella, Eve’s great-niece.

Rickert employs a skittering spotlight of word-besotted consciousness which jumps between Nan’s point of view and Bay’s to present the disparate worldviews of youth and old age, and their points of intersection.  Nan’s worldview predominates, as is only justified, given the centrality of her memories in the story and her weightier life experiences.  But Bay’s blossoming maturity and sense of innocent wonder get full treatment as well. Rickert’s loopy dialogue and deliberately dithering narration serve to conjure up the oddball lifestyle of the two women, young and old, and also serve to conceal and disclose the secrets in a suspenseful and teasing manner.  Echoes of Shirley Jackson consort handily with traces of the work of Rickert’s quirky peers, James Blaylock and Jeffrey Ford.

The story is enacted on what is basically a single stage set — the house and yard—save for those locales witnessed secondhand in flashbacks.  This deliberate theatrical structure summons up associations with the kitchen-sink naturalism of such playwrights as Maxwell Anderson,  William Inge, and Eugene O’Neill, as well as the melancholy romanticism of Tennessee Williams. In fact, one can easily envision this book as some long-lost film, maybe scripted by Paddy Chayefsky, along the lines of Winterset or Marty or A Patch of Blue.  One of those almost-allegories, where roles are labeled in the script “Young Dreamer” or “Sensitive Boy” or “Rueful Old Lady.”  But it’s to Rickert’s credit that this old-school ambiance is well under her control and never devolves to pastiche.

Nan’s ultimate wisdom is embodied in her admonition to Howard:  “Make memories… How do you know what will make you happy? In the end? Ask yourself what kind of memory you’re making.”

Nan’s reclaiming of her own painful memories illustrates how tragedy and even ill-formed time-bomb memories can be transmuted through understanding into wisdom.

* * *

Jo Walton’s novel My Real Children centers also on an elderly woman, Patricia Cowan, the nearly-ninety-year-old resident of a nursing home in the present day, and the world — or worlds — she holds in her head.  However, unlike Nan, Patty is suffering from dementia, and her memories are curiously unstable.  Whereas Nan’s dangerous memories might have been, admittedly, multivalent and subject to parsing, Patty’s are decidedly contradictory and divergent, apparently revealing that she’s led two quite different lives more or less simultaneously.

After a unified and non-bifurcated childhood, rendered by Walton with robust delicacy and sensitivity to the resonant quotidian details of life, Patricia’s existence manages to follow both of Robert Frost’s famous two roads simultaneously.  In one continuum, she marries her somewhat cold-blooded college sweetheart, Mark, who turns out to be a sour and mean bastard.  Enduring numerous pregnancies and stillbirths, Patricia is initially and for a long time forced into an entirely domestic life as a beast of burden, abandoning all her intellectual capacity.

In another timestream, she turns down Mark’s proposal — the “jonbar hinge” that connects her parallel selves — and become a writer of Italian travel books, entering happily into a permanent relationship with her lesbian soulmate, Bee.  The two women lead a life of rich independence in the UK and abroad, and with the aid of a sympathetic male friend, they have children together.

Walton covers Patricia’s dual lives in their tapestried entirety, from her birth in 1926 and through the next nine decades, etching complexly contrasting mirrored biographies in dense and flavorful detail.  Along the way, we also learn that neither continuum is our known history, as we encounter JFK’s death by terrorist bombing, the nuking of Kiev and Miami and other counterfactual likelihoods.

Walton is very careful not to privilege one timestream above another.  At first we tend to assume that Patricia’s time with Mark is hellish, and her time with Bee idyllic.  But a realistic mix of tragedies and victories soon comes to characterize both paths.  And so by the final chapter, which circles back to the first, when Patricia wonders who her “real children” were, the answer has to be that any life fully invested with blood, sweat, tears and laughter must be regarded as just as real as any other.

Walton’s book summons up comparisons to two other recent titles, Samuel Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which similarly examined the full course of two lovers down the shifting currents of time; and Terry Bisson’s Any Day Now, which charted an alternate twentieth century and focused on many of the same cultural revolutions.

But a third book relates even more closely.  In an example of “steam-engine time,” that cosmic cultural phenomenon that produces multiple examples of a category when the zeitgeist demands, Walton’s book overlaps and dovetails with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life from 2013.  Both seem to be intent on showing us that even a single liberated life is not enough any longer for women, who, like Whitman, now proudly declare, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”