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Memory Wall

Memory Wall

4.2 13
by Anthony Doerr

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Winner of the 2010 Story Prize

From an award-winning and extraordinarily eloquent author whose "prose dazzles" (The New York Times Book Review) comes a second stunning collection.

Set on four continents, Anthony Doerr's new stories are about memory, the source of meaning and coherence in our lives, the fragile thread that connects us to ourselves


Winner of the 2010 Story Prize

From an award-winning and extraordinarily eloquent author whose "prose dazzles" (The New York Times Book Review) comes a second stunning collection.

Set on four continents, Anthony Doerr's new stories are about memory, the source of meaning and coherence in our lives, the fragile thread that connects us to ourselves and to others. Every hour, says Doerr, all over the globe, an infinite number of memories disappear. Yet at the same time children, surveying territory that is entirely new to them, push back the darkness, form fresh memories, and remake the world.

In the luminous and beautiful title story, a young boy in South Africa comes to possess an old woman's secret, a piece of the past with the power to redeem a life. In "The River Nemunas," a teenage orphan moves from Kansas to Lithuania to live with her grandfather, and discovers a world in which myth becomes real. "Village 113," winner of an O'Henry Prize, is about the building of the Three Gorges Dam and the seed keeper who guards the history of a village soon to be submerged. And in "Afterworld," the radiant, cathartic final story, a woman who escaped the Holocaust is haunted by visions of her childhood friends in Germany, yet finds solace in the tender ministrations of her grandson.

Every story in Memory Wall is a reminder of the grandeur of life--of the mysterious beauty of seeds, of fossils, of sturgeon, of clouds, of radios, of leaves, of the breathtaking fortune of living in this universe. Doerr's language, his witness, his imagination, and his humanity are unparalleled in fiction today.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In multiple O. Henry Prize–winner Doerr's latest (after Four Seasons in Rome), the presence and persistence of memory thematically binds stories set apart by vast distances of time and space. The title story finds a South African woman at the end of her life, taking part in a procedure that records her memories on cassettes; meanwhile, a pair of thieves rifles through the recordings, hoping to discover a secret her husband took to his grave. Bookending the collection is “Afterword,” about a woman in her final days whose seizures take her back to her youth in a Nazi-era Hamburg orphanage. In between are a couple of domestic stories, one about a village's impending erasure by flood, and another about a teenage orphan adapting to life with her grandfather. Doerr has an incredible sense of language and a skill for crafting beautiful phrases and apt metaphors, but he doesn't always connect with his characters, a shortcoming most obvious in the first-person pieces. For the bulk of the collection, though, Doerr's prose brings home the weight of his troubling thesis, that “every hour... an infinite number of memories disappear, whole glowing atlases dragged into graves.” (July)
From the Publisher
“Doerr writes about the big questions, the imponderables, the major metaphysical dreads, and he does it fearlessly.”—New York Times Book Review
Library Journal
Suppose you've entered the foreign territory of senile dementia and a surgical procedure could charge your brain's damaged neurons and make your memories available to you once again. That's the supposition behind "Memory Wall," the title story of Doerr's compelling new collection and the metaphorical underpinning for the five stories that accompany it. But rest assured, this is not magical realism. No shape shifting or prestidigitation takes place in these intensely observed narratives, which capture what poet Elizabeth Bishop has called "a mind thinking." That mind could belong to a 15-year-old girl from Kansas getting off a plane in Lithuania with a poodle (memorably) named Mishap, a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor with a seizure disorder, or a fertility-challenged couple in Idaho who must document their every move and who may or may not have finally achieved their objective. Acclaimed author Doerr (The Shell Collector) is equally at home in long and short form, as his numerous O. Henry Awards and presence in anthologies attest. VERDICT This book is a gift to the memory-impaired reader in all of us. Reading it will recharge your neurons and stimulate a few memories of its own.—Sue Russell, Bryn Mawr, PA
Kirkus Reviews
A collection of six stories-at least one long enough to be considered a novella-that illustrate Doerr's sparse style, command of language and mastery of characterization. The title story, the most elaborate in the collection, features the "harvesting" of the memories of 74-year-old Alma Konachek, who lives in a suburb of Cape Town. Three years earlier her husband, Harold, died immediately after discovering a rare fossil in the Great Karoo, a desert region in South Africa. Because the find is valuable as well as rare, a "memory tapper" breaks into Alma's home, seeking the cartridges containing memories that have been harvested from wealthy people. While Luvo, the tapper, reviews the cartridges, the reader becomes aware of Alma's past home and family life as well as the tensions in her marriage. Eventually, Luvo and his mentor Roger find the right cartridge and are able to retrieve the fossil, something of a miracle since the late Harold Konachek is convinced that the only permanent thing is change. The next story, "Procreate, Generate," follows the heartbreaking story of Herb and Imogene, who after ten years of marriage decide they want children and are unable to conceive. The story almost reads like a documentary of their struggles with in vitro fertilization and the strain it places on their marriage. They finally conclude that "Nothingness is the rule. Life is the exception." In "The Demilitarized Zone," Doerr tells the story of an American soldier in Korea who buries a crane that hit a communications wire and almost gets court-martialed for his humanitarian act. In epistolary form, the story makes these implausible events both believable and moving. Doerr (Four Seasons in Rome, 2007, etc.) moves the reader gracefully from place to place (the stories span four continents), from incident to incident, and from memorable character to memorable character by focusing on small acts that have larger resonances.

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Memory Wall


Seventy-four-year-old Alma Konachek 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.

One night in November, at three in the morning, Alma wakes to hear the rape gate across her front door rattle open and someone enter her house. Her arms jerk; she spills a glass of water across the nightstand. A floorboard in the living room shrieks. She hears what might be breathing. Water drips onto the floor.

Alma manages a whisper. “Hello?”

A shadow flows across the hall. She hears the scrape of a shoe on the staircase, then nothing. Night air blows into the room—it smells of frangipani and charcoal. Alma presses a fist over her heart.

Beyond the balcony windows, moonlit pieces of clouds drift over the city. Spilled water creeps toward her bedroom door.

“Who’s there? Is someone there?”

The grandfather clock in the living room pounds through the seconds. Alma’s pulse booms in her ears. Her bedroom seems to be rotating very slowly.

“Harold?” Alma remembers that Harold is dead but she cannot help herself. “Harold?”

Another footstep from the second floor, another protest from a floorboard. What might be a minute passes. Maybe she hears someone descend the staircase. It takes her another full minute to summon the courage to shuffle into the living room.

Her front door is wide open. The traffic light at the top of the street flashes yellow, yellow, yellow. The leaves are hushed, the houses dark. She heaves the rape gate shut, slams the door, sets the bolt, and peers out the window lattice. Within twenty seconds she is at the hall table, fumbling with a pen.

A man, she writes. Tall man in the yard.


Alma stands barefoot and wigless in the upstairs bedroom with a flashlight. The clock down in the living room ticks and ticks, winding up the night. A moment ago Alma was, she is certain, doing something very important. Something life-and-death. But now she cannot remember what it was.

The one window is ajar. The guest bed is neatly made, the coverlet smooth. On the nightstand sits a machine the size of a microwave oven, marked Property of Cape Town Memory Research Center. Three cables spiraling off it connect to something that looks vaguely like a bicycle helmet.

The wall in front of Alma is smothered with scraps of paper. Diagrams, maps, ragged sheets swarming with scribbles. Shining among the papers are hundreds of plastic cartridges, each the size of a matchbook, engraved with a four-digit number and pinned to the wall through a single hole.

The beam of Alma’s flashlight settles on a color photograph of a man walking out of the sea. She fingers its edges. The man’s pants are rolled to the knees; his expression is part grimace, part grin. Cold water. Across the photo, in handwriting she knows to be hers, is the name Harold. She knows this man. She can close her eyes and recall the pink flesh of his gums, the folds in his throat, his big-knuckled hands. He was her husband.

Around the photo, the scraps of paper and plastic cartridges build outward in crowded, overlapping layers, anchored with pushpins and chewing gum and penny nails. She sees to-do lists, jottings, drawings of what might be prehistoric beasts or monsters. She reads: You can trust Pheko. And Taking Polly’s Coca-Cola. A flyer says: Porter Properties. There are stranger phrases: dinocephalians, late Permian, massive vertebrate graveyard. Some sheets of paper are blank; others reveal a flurry of cross-outs and erasures. On a half-page ripped from a brochure, one phrase is shakily and repeatedly underlined: Memories are located not inside the cells but in the extracellular space.

Some of the cartridges have her handwriting on them, too, printed below the numbers. Museum. Funeral. Party at Hattie’s.

Alma blinks. She has no memory of writing on little cartridges or tearing out pages of books and tacking things to the wall.

She sits on the floor in her nightgown, legs straight out. A gust rushes through the window and the scraps of paper come alive, dancing, tugging at their pins. Loose pages eddy across the carpet. The cartridges rattle lightly.

Near the center of the wall, her flashlight beam again finds the photograph of a man walking out of the sea. Part grimace, part grin. That’s Harold, she thinks. He was my husband. He died. Years ago. Of course.

Out the window, beyond the crowns of the palms, beyond the city lights, the ocean is washed in moonlight, then shadow. Moonlight, then shadow. A helicopter ticks past. The palms flutter.

Alma looks down. There is slip of paper in her hand. A man, it says. Tall man in the yard.


Pheko is driving the Mercedes. Apartment towers reflect the morning sun. Sedans purr at stoplights. Six different times Alma squints out at the signs whisking past and asks him where they are going.

“We’re driving to see the doctor, Mrs. Alma.”

The doctor? Alma rubs her eyes, unsure. She tries to fill her lungs. She fidgets with her wig. The tires squeal as the Mercedes climbs the ramps of a parking garage.

Dr. Amnesty’s staircase is stainless steel and bordered with ferns. Here’s the bulletproof door, the street address stenciled in the corner. It’s familiar to Alma in the way a house from childhood would be familiar. As if she has doubled in size in the meantime.

They are buzzed into a waiting room. Pheko drums his fingertips on his knee. Four chairs down, two well-dressed women sit beside a fish tank, one a few decades younger than the other. Both have fat pearls studded through each earlobe. Alma thinks: Pheko is the only black person in the building. For a moment she cannot remember what she is doing here. But this leather on the chair, the blue gravel in the saltwater aquarium—it is the memory clinic. Of course. Dr. Amnesty. In Green Point.

After a few minutes Alma is escorted to a padded chair overlaid with crinkly paper. It’s all familiar now: the cardboard pouch of rubber gloves, the plastic plate for her earrings, two electrodes beneath her blouse. They lift off her wig, rub a cold gel onto her scalp. The television panel shows sand dunes, then dandelions, then bamboo.

Amnesty. A ridiculous surname. What does it mean? A pardon? A reprieve? But more permanent than a reprieve, isn’t it? Amnesty is for wrongdoings. For someone who has done something wrong. She will ask Pheko to look it up when they get home. Or maybe she will remember to look it up herself.

The nurse is talking.

“And the remote stimulator is working well? Do you feel any improvements?”

“Improvements?” She thinks so. Things do seem to be improving. “Things are sharper,” Alma says. She believes this is the sort of thing she is supposed to say. New pathways are being forged. She is remembering how to remember. This is what they want to hear.

The nurse murmurs. Feet whisper across the floor. Invisible machinery hums. Alma can feel, numbly, the rubber caps being twisted out of the ports in her skull and four screws being threaded simultaneously into place. There is a note in her hand: Pheko is in the waiting room. Pheko will drive Mrs. Alma home after her session. Of course.

A door with a small, circular window in it opens. A pale man in green scrubs sweeps past, smelling of chewing gum. Alma thinks: There are other padded chairs in this place, other rooms like this one, with other machines prying the lids off other addled brains. Ferreting inside them for memories, engraving those memories into little square cartridges. Attempting to fight off oblivion.

Her head is locked into place. Aluminum blinds clack against the window. In the lulls between breaths, she can hear traffic sighing past.

The helmet comes down.


“Memories aren’t stored as changes to molecules inside brain cells,” Dr. Amnesty told Alma during her first appointment, three years ago. She had been on his waiting list for ten months. Dr. Amnesty had straw-colored hair, nearly translucent skin, and invisible eyebrows. He spoke English as if each word were a tiny egg he had to deliver carefully through his teeth.

“This is what they thought forever but they were wrong. The truth is that the substrate of old memories is located not inside the cells but in the extracellular space. Here at the clinic we target those spaces, stain them, and inscribe them into electronic models. In the hopes of teaching damaged neurons to make proper replacements. Forging new pathways. Re-remembering.

“Do you understand?”

Alma didn’t. Not really. For months, ever since Harold’s death, she had been forgetting things: forgetting to pay Pheko, forgetting to eat breakfast, forgetting what the numbers in her checkbook meant. She’d go to the garden with the pruners and arrive there a minute later without them. She’d find her hairdryer in a kitchen cupboard, car keys in the tea tin. She’d rummage through her mind for a noun and come up empty-handed: Casserole? Carpet? Cashmere?

Two doctors had already diagnosed the dementia. Alma would have preferred amnesia: a quicker, less cruel erasure. This was a corrosion, a slow leak. Seven decades of stories, five decades of marriage, four decades of working for Porter Properties, too many houses and buyers and sellers to count—spatulas and salad forks, novels and recipes, nightmares and daydreams, hellos and goodbyes. Could it all really be wiped away?

“We don’t offer a cure,” Dr. Amnesty was saying, “but we might be able to slow it down. We might be able to give you some memories back.”

He set the tips of his index fingers against his nose and formed a steeple. Alma sensed a pronouncement coming.

“It tends to unravel very quickly, without these treatments,” he said. “Every day it will become harder for you to be in the world.”

Water in a vase, chewing away at the stems of roses. Rust colonizing the tumblers in a lock. Sugar eating at the dentin of teeth, a river eroding its banks. Alma could think of a thousand metaphors, and all of them were inadequate.

She was a widow. No children, no pets. She had her Mercedes, a million and a half rand in savings, Harold’s pension, and the house in Vredehoek. Dr. Amnesty’s procedure offered a measure of hope. She signed up.

The operation was a fog. When she woke, she had a headache and her hair was gone. With her fingers she probed the four rubber caps secured into her skull.

A week later Pheko drove her back to the clinic. One of Dr. Amnesty’s nurses escorted her to a leather chair that looked something like the ones in dental offices. The helmet was merely a vibration at the top of her scalp. They would be reclaiming memories, they said; they could not predict if the memories would be good ones or bad ones. It was painless. Alma felt as though spiders were stringing webs though her head.

Two hours later Dr. Amnesty sent her home from that first session with a remote memory stimulator and nine little cartridges in a paperboard box. Each cartridge was stamped from the same beige polymer, with a four-digit number engraved into the top. She eyed the remote player for two days before taking it up to the upstairs bedroom one windy noon when Pheko was out buying groceries.

She plugged it in and inserted a cartridge at random. A low shudder rose through the vertebrae of her neck, and then the room fell away in layers. The walls dissolved. Through rifts in the ceiling, the sky rippled like a flag. Then Alma’s vision snuffed out, as if the fabric of her house had been yanked downward through a drain, and a prior world rematerialized.

She was in a museum: high ceiling, poor lighting, a smell like old magazines. The South African Museum. Harold was beside her, leaning over a glass-fronted display, excited, his eyes shining—look at him! So young! His khakis were too short, black socks showed above his shoes. How long had she known him? Maybe six months?

She had worn the wrong shoes: tight, too rigid. The weather had been perfect that day and Alma would have preferred to sit in the Company Gardens under the trees with this tall new boyfriend. But the museum was what Harold wanted and she wanted to be with him. Soon they were in a fossil room, a couple dozen skeletons on podiums, some as big as rhinos, some with yardlong fangs, all with massive, eyeless skulls.

“One hundred and eighty million years older than the dinosaurs, hey?” Harold whispered.

Nearby, schoolgirls chewed gum. Alma watched the tallest of them spit slowly into a porcelain drinking fountain, then suck the spit back into her mouth. A sign labeled the fountain For Use by White Persons in careful calligraphy. Alma felt as if her feet were being crushed in vises.

“Just another minute,” Harold said.

Seventy-one-year-old Alma watched everything through twenty-four-year-old Alma. She was twenty-four-year-old Alma! Her palms were damp and her feet were aching and she was on a date with a living Harold! A young, skinny Harold! He raved about the skeletons; they looked like animals mixed with animals, he said. Reptile heads on dog bodies. Eagle heads on hippo bodies. “I never get tired of seeing them,” young Harold was telling young Alma, a boyish luster in his face. Two hundred and fifty million years ago, he said, these creatures died in the mud, their bones compressed slowly into stone. Now someone had hacked them out; now they were reassembled in the light.

“These were our ancestors, too,” Harold whispered. Alma could hardly bear to look at them: They were eyeless, fleshless, murderous; they seemed engineered only to tear one another apart. She wanted to take this tall boy out to the gardens and sit hip-to-hip with him on a bench and take off her shoes. But Harold pulled her along. “Here’s the gorgonopsian. A gorgon. Big as a tiger. Two, three hundred kilograms. From the Permian. That’s only the second complete skeleton ever found. Not so far from where I grew up, you know.” He squeezed Alma’s hand.

Alma felt dizzy. The monster had short, powerful legs, fist-size eyeholes, and a mouth full of fangs. “Says they hunted in packs,” whispered Harold. “Imagine running into six of those in the bush?” In the memory twenty-four-year-old Alma shuddered.

“We think we’re supposed to be here,” he continued, “but it’s all just dumb luck, isn’t it?” He turned to her, about to explain, and as he did shadows rushed in from the edges like ink, flowering over the entire scene, blotting the vaulted ceiling, and the schoolgirl who’d been spitting into the fountain, and finally young Harold himself in his too small khakis. The remote device whined; the cartridge ejected; the memory crumpled in on itself.

Alma blinked and found herself clutching the footboard of her guest bed, out of breath, three miles and five decades away. She unscrewed the headgear. Out the window a thrush sang chee-chweeeoo. Pain swung through the roots of Alma’s teeth. “My god,” she said.

© 2010 Anthony Doerr

Meet the Author

Anthony Doerr is the bestselling and prize-winning author of The Shell Collector, About Grace, Four Seasons in Rome and Memory Wall. In 2007 Granta named him as one of their 21 Best Young American Novelists and in 2011 he won the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Prize. Doerr lives in Boise, Idaho, with his wife and two sons.

Brief Biography

Boise, Idaho
Date of Birth:
October 27, 1973
Place of Birth:
Cleveland, Ohio
B.A., Bowdoin College, 1995; M.F.A., Bowling Green State University, 1999

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Memory Wall 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A stunning collection of short stories you won't want to put down. Doerr is a brilliant writer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not as good as his other title The Shell Collector, but still a great piece of Anthony's Doerr style of writing and creativity. Give it a read!
mellow More than 1 year ago
Insightful and beautifully written, after I read this I looked for other books by Doerr and read About Grace, which I also recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
amazing writer; terrific if dark stories; I plan to seek out everything else he has written!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
After reading the Shell Collector I had to buy this collection also. I don't normally like short stories. I have loved every one of these.
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Hey wanna chat? Im single and i need a boyfriend
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He got to his feet and grinned. "Hello." He said then said "Please lay down." He grinned.