Thursday, February 22, 2007

Writing about forgetting

There was a neat article about amnesia in the Science Times a few weeks ago that reminded me of The Vintage Book of Amnesia, edited by Jonathan Lethem. The introduction is one of my favorite Lethem essays:

A writer sat in a featureless white room trying to remember a genre which had never existed.

This book of literary amnesia began as an observation of certain resemblances in two or three novels I admired--a passing notion, a reader's list. I had no intention of editing a book, let alone identifying a genre. But amnesia turned up more the harder I thought about it. At first it was the obvious, gaudy cases, amnesia breaking out into an overt premise or plot symptom--there were more of these than I'd ever imagined (in fact, I'd written more than one myself). Elsewhere amnesia appeared pulsing just beneath the surface, an existential syndrome that seemed to nag at fictional characters with increasing frequency, a floating metaphor very much in the air. Amnesia, it turned out when I began to pay attention, is a modern mood, and a very American one.

Not that there's any question that literary amnesia has European grandfathers: Franz Kafka and Samuel Beckett. If it's usually felt that every compelling novel is in some sense a mystery, the examples of Kafka and Beckett suggest that amnesia can be seen as a basic condition for characters enmeshed in fiction's web. Conjured out of the void, by a thin thread of sentences, every fictional assertion exists as a speck on a background of consummate blankness. There's a joke among writing teachers that apprentice writers, at a loss for an idea, will usually commit some version of the story that begins: "A man woke alone in a room with bare white walls," unconsciously replicating their plight before the blank page and hoping that compositional momentum will garb the naked story in identity, meaning, and plot. Our hero might have blood on his hands, or answer a ringing phone, or find himself wiggling an antenna--we'll improvise as we go along.

Here is Sophie Harrison's review (from Sunday's New York Times Book Review) of Paul Auster's new book Travels in the Scriptorium:
Paul Auster is not so much a writer’s writer as a writer for people who long to be writers. His novels have a habit of unpacking themselves as they go, showing their workings with the gentle condescension of a creative writing tutor addressing a roomful of hopeful amateurs. His frankness about technique is complemented by the modesty of his sets. All you need is a bed, a chair, a notebook, a room — or perhaps Manhattan or Brooklyn, if you prefer some slightly bigger rooms — and you’re there, a modern postmodernist, like Beckett and Kafka, only cooler.

“Travels in the Scriptorium” even sounds like the title of a workshop, and the writing-school ambience takes a while to disperse. On Page 1 a man sits on a strange bed in a strange room. He has no idea where he is. He has amnesia. (Your reviewer confesses to sneaking a look at the end at this point, checking for the sentence “It had all been a dream.”) “Who is he? What is he doing here? When did he arrive and how long will he remain?” the narrator asks, closing his inquiry (Four Questions Every Screenwriter Should Answer!) with an unpromising hook. “With any luck, time will tell us all.” With any luck, Auster will tell us all. He doesn’t, of course. This is the democratic classroom of postmodernism: teacher gives the hints, students construct the sense. “For the moment, our only task is to study the pictures as attentively as we can and refrain from drawing any premature conclusions,” the unnamed narrator informs us somewhat priggishly.

It is, in fact, difficult to draw any conclusions at all, but a study of the text will enable the reader to find out this much. The man on the bed is known as Mr. Blank. He is dressed in a pair of pajamas. The first thing he notices is that all the objects in his room are identified by labels: TABLE, on the table; LAMP, on the lamp, and so forth, in a manner that is either deeply mystifying, or deeply cute, depending on one’s interpretation of course. There is a desk or a DESK nearby, with a stack of photographs and some pages of a manuscript. There is a window, but the shade is drawn. Importantly, Mr. Blank feels too anxious and weak to investigate the DOOR.

Returning back to the Science Times article, I had this odd feeling that actually, Auster might be on to something with his schematic descriptions. Here's the data that the scientists collected:
The men, urged to fill out the scenes with imagined detail, described what they could. The researchers analyzed transcripts of their answers, carefully scoring each one for personal touches: projected emotions, sensations and actions. They found that compared with similar descriptions produced by adults without brain injuries, the five men's imagined scenes were flat, barren of personal dimension.
The distinctions the brain makes between loose facts and the richer, wraparound ambience of an experience are important to understanding memory, because people with healthy brain function tend to recall the gist of experience, whereas those with hippocampus damage can often recollect discrete facts with more accuracy. The difference is partly reflected in the study participants' words.

When asked to envision an open-air market, one brain-injured man said: ''I see people, very many people. Most of all um not many men, all I see are young ladies. And basically they are all in a hurry.''

A participant without brain injury responded: ''Right, so on either side of me I've got stalls and it's noisy. We have a person on my right who is selling fruit and veg, and they're telling us that bananas are on special offer this week, and they're shouting about that.''

In an essay published this month in the journal Nature, two Harvard researchers, Daniel L. Schacter and Donna Rose Addis, contend that this ability to richly imagine scenes, whether entirely dependent on the hippocampus or not, is perhaps the most promising frontier for memory research.

Most of the authors collected in Lethem's Vintage Book of Amnesia have imagined amnesia to be much richer than this data suggests--and of course, as readers, we wouldn't want it any other way. (One of my favorite Shirley Jackson short stories, "Nightmare," is in there.) Lethem calls attention to this discrepancy in his description of the genre, where he keeps mentioning his own acts of discovering, making connections, reconsidering, recategorizing, and so on. He had "no intention" of collecting the stories but "the harder [he] thought about it," the more obvious the connections became; then he's able to reconstruct a past history of the genre in Beckett and Kafka, which is of course exactly what an amnesiac couldn't do; then he's able to theorize it and draw more connections; then he's able to tell you what he's doing and theorize it. It's a wonderful essay. Here's the paragraph about the problem of defining a genre of amnesia writing:
Obviously, I risk spilling my precious and only-recently-distilled vial of amnesia fiction into the broad streams of dystopian writing and cultural critique, but, well, that's what genres do under study: merge and disappear into others. (Noir, dystopia, theory, metafiction: watch amnesia swirl and be lost like James Stewart in Vertigo's dream sequence.) Anyway, any good dystopian tyrant knows the use of and value of controlled collective amnesia, or he loses his job.

These lyrical description of a brain injury reminds me of Siri Hustvedt's The Blindfold (any combination of Ben, Miriam, and me in a room discussing this book gets heated very quickly). Hustvedt, Auster's wife, makes a lot out of the migraine as a descriptive and structural device--the gaps in the narrative are like the black holes that appear in the main character's field of vision, stuff like that, and maybe it gets clunky fast. And yet, I think I can outline every single bizarre twist in the novel because it's so weirdly memorable, or at least I remember arguing with Ben and Miriam about it many times. I've always thought that the first section, where the main character is hired by a sinister old man to catalogue and tape-record her descriptions of creepy items in his apartment, is like a writing workshop piece--you know, describe these items in explicit detail as an exercise--with a very loose plot attached to it.