Memory loss, memory overdrive, and other concerns of ‘popular’ fiction

 

 

rosieproject

beforeigo

 

It would seem that, at first sight, S.J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep (HarperCollins, 2011) and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project (HarperCollins, 2013) do not have any threads in common. The first novel describes a woman’s tragic and mysterious consequences of a traumatic memory loss and the second novel is a lighthearted look at an Asperger syndrome sufferer’s attempt to attain a love life. On closer inspection, however, here are some of the elements which allow for an interesting literary comparison:

  1. First person unreliable narrative. Both novels are written from the perspective of the protagonists; Christine Lucas (Before I go to Sleep) and Don Tillman (The Rosie Project). In both cases, they are unreliable narrators: Christine because she suffers from various forms of amnesia so she can narrate only those memories which she writes in her journal every day as she forgets everything while she sleeps and Don because he has Asperger syndrome and therefore his compulsiveness and obsessive logic leave out many normally significant facts. This unreliability, however, creates what could loosely be called a psychological thriller in the first case and  a lighthearted romance in the second case. Both protagonists rely on others to validate what they feel and understand of their own life. Christine has her lover and self-appointed husband as well as Dr. Nash  who supply her with descriptions or photos of past facts and actions which she then attempts to make her own. Towards the end of the novel, Christine’s best friend Claire is instrumental in saving her life.  Don has his two best friends who help him maneuver in social circumstances and who are the bouncing bags for his ideas on how to find a satisfactory partner. The unreliability of Christine’s memory means that the reader does not have steady consistent and trustworthy clues as to who it was that was responsible for her amnesia, but also who it is that is the keeper of her memories: the suspense then leads to continuous reading. The unreliability of Don’s narrative significantly adds to the unpredictable and funny resolutions of his search for a potential partner who is to “provide intellectual stimulation, share activities with, perhaps to breed with”.
  2. The role of memory. Both novels question the extent, utility, and role of memory, but the protagonists find themselves enmeshed with different definitions of what exactly memory does for them. Christine relies on her fragmented, sketchy, constantly recreated memory for the definition of her identity. Don, on the other hand, having exceptional memory, depends on his ability to recall minute details to further his search of or hold on to a possible life partner. Scientific research shows that our memories are never written in stone, but are re-elaborated, re-worked, and transforming continuously. This leaves the question open regarding whose memories are fabricated when an amnesiac is given created memories every single day. As there are almost countless novels whose plot relies on a character’s memory loss (see the list for specific examples in  https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/10996.Amnesia_and_Memory_Loss_Fiction), Christine’s plight has numerous literary precedents. In Don’s case,  his memory is nowhere near as prodigious as that of Funes in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story Funes el memorioso, and therefore his situation is not tragic.
  3. Characters’ unethical behaviour. In both narrations, characters behave unethically: in Before I go to sleep, Christine’s lover and self-proclaimed husband  is not only deceitful and dishonest, but also pathologically violent. Although his love for her keeps him busy with taking care of her, this love is possessive and unnatural, as she is shielded from realities of her family life. His character, however, has not received a full treatment, so the motivation behind his violence and unethical behaviour is unexplained. In The Rosie Project, Don not only collects DNA surreptitiously but also has the samples tested without the subjects’ approval, a situation which no self-respecting institute for higher learning would ever allow. This unethical behaviour, however, is needed for the story to proceed in a certain direction.
  4. The Nature of love. Love takes on various forms and definitions in both novels. Christine’s situation is intriguing, since she does not know who she slept with when she wakes up every morning: perhaps sleeping around was her customary activity before her trauma, but that means she kept yearning for love and not being able to get it. That calls into question her marriage and her having a son: clearly, these do not need to be based on love. Her lover and self-appointed husband’s situation is every different: his love is overpowering to the point where he obsesses over her and in fact turns extremely violent against her. It is not clear what Don imagines love to be, and, being very methodical, his search for a partner involves a research project. Ironically, the woman whom he chooses does not make it on the list of prospective partners (for ex., she smokes, and he is against smokers!), indicating not only that opposites attract each other but especially that one cannot simply treat human encounters as academic projects.
  5. Pitfalls in writing the first novel. Both novelists are first-time authors, and as much as their good intentions result in readable stories, there are some stumbling blocks which detract from a thorough enjoyment of reading their creations. Firstly, Before I go to sleep is written from a woman’s perspective (an always contentious choice on the part of a male author),  but the character’s past before her trauma is not fully explained. This lack of  content makes the trauma almost unbearably judgmental: she was punished to the extreme for her marital infidelity. The feminine traits that the author proposes are petty. Even though she wrote a novel, she is an uninteresting, gray character without redeeming features, one who lets herself be controlled like a puppet even by her best friend. Her trauma only underlines these traits.*   The Rosie Project‘s protagonist is a university professor: not an original choice, but writing about academia without being stereotypical seems to be impossible.  Secondly, and more importantly, both authors (as well as countless others who write ‘popular’ novels) set their work in a vacuum: there is no sense of the general social, political, and economic environment to their stories: the protagonists’ issues are of a navel-gazing sort. Giving the characters a middle-class, pretty comfortable life lessens the impact which the narrations could have had. Fiction is not about accuracy, however, but if after having read the novel there is no answer to the question “So what?”, something really profound is missing.

*One member of our book club took it further: Christine is a perfect sex doll, as well as victim of violence. Instead of focusing on the violent man, the book focuses on the victimized woman.  Furthermore, the notoriety/popularity (?!) of the novel and the subsequent film illustrate the perpetuation of the disconnect between the act of violence/abuse and its result (so obviously put to the forefront in the news these days  on account of the abusive Hollywood bully).

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Love, lose, live (not necessarily in that order)

The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (W.W. Norton, 2006) offers all that an entertaining, thought-provoking, and richly-styled fiction should contain. Unlike other cases, its inclusion on The New York Times 2005 bestseller list is well deserved.

krauss

There is no doubt that the novel is entertaining and deceptively uplifting: the backbone of these positive reactions is created by the protagonist of one of the three main distinct but intertwined sections of the novel: the lovable, witty, imaginative, sensitive octogenarian, Leopold Gursky.  Despite all the adversities history tests him with (fleeing from the SS, leaving his family behind, disappearing from his Yiddish Polish hometown, living an immigrant’s life in New York, losing his one and only love to another man by coming to her too late, shadowing his son who never knew him, giving up one book he authored and losing the authorship of another he wrote), Leopold Gursky attempts to survive these painfully traumatic events and go on living as best as he knows.  His coping strategies are varied. For example, he is “trying to make a point of being seen”, such as dropping his change all over the floor in a crowded store. Clearly, this plan of action not only covers up his present loneliness but also balances out the times he was utterly alone while hiding in the forests.The act of appearing and disappearing,  being a leitmotif of the novel,  is also true of other people and things. He often imagines his death which in his opinion should happen on a day when he was seen. His witty comments open up different sides to him (for ex., “Put even a fool in front of the window and you’ll get a Spinoza”, p. 5; “I consider it a small victory that he [the husband of his love] kicked the bucket first”, p. 85).   After ending up in New York, he became a very competent locksmith and the only time he is tempted to and actually does open a locked door was to get inside of a Broadway theatre where he could imagine his love Alma play her violin to a full house. Significantly, he writes one book to Alma, when in his twenties, then life gets in the way, and he starts writing again after his heart attack in his fifties.

The sections of the book devoted to his life are expressed in the first person narrative and labeled with an anatomical heart. Needless to say, Leo Gursky’s personality is made more complex by his use of the adversative conjunction which he is fond of in a phrase like “And yet.” which he ends with a full stop. This stylistic device, stopping the narration and seemingly adding a contradicting value to what was stated previously, illustrates Leo Gursky’s  humanity, fallibility, insecurity, and in the final analysis makes the reader question everything he narrates. This attitude is similar to that of the Italian author Leonardo Sciascia who is often referred to by the phrase Disse e si contraddisse (which, loosely translated, means “He stated something and then he contradicted himself”).

The thought-provoking aspect of the novel leaves the reader with numerous questions relating, for example, to the title, the meaning and force of words, the inspiration for and the function of writing. The title (not only of the novel but also of the first Leo Gursky’s book) is interesting: The = the definite article points to one definitive explanation; History = process of modification through time; of  = belonging to; Love = feeling of tenderness and affection. And yet, the novel contains many personal histories of the feeling of tenderness and affection, not  the definitive one. The three narratives of Leo Gursky, Alma, and Emanuel/Bird) all deal with the meaning and force of words.  Leo Gursky’s second novel is entitled Words for Everything, underlying the cognitive importance of language for the possibility of explaining and understanding our place in the world. The girl Alma’s narration is devoted to the search for her father’s past in order to comprehend the force that binds her mother to her father. This can only happen through Alma’s deciphering  of the contents of the book her father gave to her mother: The History of Love. Alma, as it happens, is the name of all the women in the book, and, importantly, means “soul” in Spanish.  The book is indeed the virtual meeting place between the teenager Alma and Leo Gursky who do not know about each other until the end and whose destinies intertwine on a number of levels.  The meaning and function of writing is dealt with both openly and also less so. When Leo Gursky, in his youth, offers to Alma, his love, his first written piece which deals with their village Slonim and the people who live there, “she shrugged and said she liked  it better when I made things up”. Then he gives her his second piece of writing, which contained all made-up things,  she reacts by saying that maybe he “shouldn’t make up everything, because that made it hard to believe anything” (p. 8). His third attempt becomes his final version of The History of Love, which destiny did not let her read.

Stylistically, this novel proposes a complex, rich, and varied narration. Each character (Gursky, Alma, Emanuel/Bird) has a special voice, expressive communicative strategies, and particular flights of poetic expression. There is also the unnamed author of the introduction to the Spanish version of The History of Love. Bird’s voice is that of a very young boy who looks for his place in the world by constructing his function as one lamed vovnik,  by engendering mystical, helpful, but also impractical attempts at what others construe as sublimation of the loss of his father. Bird’s love does not have one specific outlet, and it finds its place in mysticism. The teenage Alma’s drive to find out what underlies her parent’s  love for each other propels her to understand her father by learning to do things he used to do: camping, surviving in inhospitable places, knowing which plants are edible. The most intricate voice is that of Leo Gursky because he has two functions in the novel: he is the protagonist of Krauss’s vision and he is the author of his The History of Love, in this way, his voice is both biographical (in the first person narration of Leo Gursky’s life) and authorial (as the one who wrote the first The History of Love). The first person narration offers a number of poetic passages (such as Leo trying to burden his heart as little as possible by taking humiliations, displeasure, hardships to his other organs; p. 10). The most poetic is Leo Gursky’s The History of Love, which we as readers do not get to enjoy in its entirety (a pity), and we have to be satisfied with Alma’s mother’s English translation  of Zvi Litvinoff’s Spanish version of the original Yiddish (which apparently was lost). Gursky’s The History of Love contains poetic, comical, sarcastic gems which intrigue the reader and leave us wondering what else we are missing. The book contains parts dealing with humanity’s (love’s?) growth in stages (reminiscent of Giambattista Vico’s Age of Gods, Age of Heroes, and Age of Humans), such as Chapter 10, which describes The Age of Glass, when

“…everyone believed some part of him or her was extremely fragile. For some, it was a hand, for others a femur, yet others believed it was their noses that were made of glass. The Age of Glass followed the Stone Age as an evolutionary corrective, introducing into human relations a new sense of fragility that fostered compassion. This period lasted a relatively short time in the history of love – about a century – until a doctor named Ignacio da Silva hit on a treatment of inviting people to recline on a couch and giving them a bracing smack  on the body part in question, proving to them the truth. The anatomical illusion that had seemed so real slowly disappeared and … became vestigial. But from time to time, for reasons that can’t always be understood, it surfaces again, suggesting that the Age of Glass, like the Age of Silence, never entirely ended.” (p. 61).

In the final analysis, Krauss wrote about the multifaceted and yet specific meanings of the words love and loss: love of a father (for a son who he did not get to raise), love of a mother for her children, love of the daughter for her mother and father (who passed away), love of a young man for a young woman, love of a young woman for an older man, love for a friend; loss of a loved one on account of political circumstances, loss of a son, loss of hope, loss of a father, loss of a manuscript.  The loves and losses are intertwined and their metaphorical meeting point is the original The History of Love. One can discern echoes of Italo Calvino and Franz Kafka. Entertaining and seemingly uplifting, the novels ends with an indirect commentary on loneliness and vastness of the cultural loss suffered by  immigrants. Moreover, the book is also a statement about the various possible but really important  connections among humans of which they do not have any knowledge.  In conclusion,  Krauss succeeded in drawing this reader into her interestingly constructed fictional world.

 

Livido/Nexhuman

Livido/Nexhuman

 

Francesco Verso’s SF novel Livido has recently been translated into English with the new title Nexhuman (Xoum 2015). What follows is a slightly reworked short Afterword* to the English version (with permission from Francesco Verso).

What follows is not intended to be a conclusive statement about this remarkable novel, but to serve as a springboard for discussion about the ever-elusive definition of what it means to be human, this time from transhumanist and literary perspectives.
Transhumanism is an international philosophical and cultural movement whose main tenet is the belief in the positive outcomes of enhancing and augmenting all human faculties. The improvements go beyond simply alleviating pain or bettering one’s eyesight. They involve using prostheses, implants, nanotechnology, exoskeletons, DNA editing, and much more to augment human abilities beyond their natural limitations (for example, adding gills, making night vision possible, etc.). Transhumanism values reason, progress and optimism through self-determined, self-directed evolution. According to this movement, death is not inevitable and senescence can be rendered negligible.
If science fiction can be defined as works of literature that are contingent upon some as yet unfulfilled scientific advancement, transhumanist science fiction refers to those works of literature that deal with self-directed evolution, not with cyborgs created by others, but with subjects whose enhancement is directly willed by themselves.
Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman can be considered a transhumanist trailblazer in the more and more verdant forest of Italian science fiction. Although the novel does not focus specifically on self-directed evolution, the narration proceeds towards one of the crucial aspects of transhumanism – that of mind uploading. Nexhuman paints a dystopian picture of the future, where the complexities of a consumerist, profit-driven, technology-obsessed, trash-filled world, populated by humans and nexhumans, seemingly obliterate those aspects of humanity which matter most: love, identity, family, friendship and aspirations, to name just a few. However, these themes and many others find a common thread in the question of the Self: not just the basic ‘Who am I?’ but other probing queries, such as ‘Who is the Other?’, ‘How do I exist with the Other?’, ‘Where do I fit in?’, or ‘What should I do with my life?’. And, above all, ‘Who will the Self be in a world where the external body can be of any shape and material?’.
Nexhuman offers a most noteworthy possibility regarding the relationship between the Self and the Other. For millennia, humans have acknowledged the fact that there exists a chasm between the Self and the Other: a binary, exclusionary relationship that separates the two fragments into clearly delineated compartments. It is true that anthropological triangulation, or double-consciousness, offers a tripartite view, but it still relies on the same components: self, other and other-self. The novel describes, in stark and nasty detail, the results of this antagonistic stance: quasi-fratricide, possible matricide, ‘nexhuman-cide’, exclusion (seen in the character of Ion) and separation (human vs. nexhuman; male vs. female). Peter Payne attempts to avoid falling into the trap of hate even when he is bent on vendetta. He falls in love with a being he does not know is a nexhuman, and he keeps loving her even after finding out that she is a copy of a sixty-year-old woman’s mind that has been uploaded. His search for Alba’s severed pieces symbolises his quest to find himself – but not at the cost of excluding others. And here is the point at which transhumanism’s mind-uploading technology shows yet another possibility, clearly illustrated in the novel: to live as Self within the Other(s). The Self can be uploaded into any form (human or not), of any age, and this can be done many times over – just as Alba’s example shows. The Self can live within other people’s memories: Peter Payne uploads his own memories into the program of his mother’s hologram, where she will live on. However, the most inclusive sense of the Self within the Other is Peter’s feeling that Alba lives within him. Of course, these serious aspects of the ‘payneful’ experience receive good doses of irony (specifically: love growing out of a trash-filled environment; trash-forming and recycling of garbage, but also of mind; Peter’s approval to upload his mind not because of his mutilated, bruised body, but on account of love; etc.).
Therefore, the Self and the Other(s) are categories that are not exclusive, but are subsumed within each other: the new consciousness of both Peter and Alba are not simply imagined but embodied, not dreamt but uploaded. There is no antagonism between the Self and the Other(s), nor are there blurred, indistinct outlines. They are enclosed, experienced, practiced, familiar and deeply felt. They are not fluid but embraced, and readily received.
Frederick Pohl, the American science fiction writer, claimed that, ‘A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.’ Nexhuman’s traffic jams include the usual problems encountered not only in science fiction – extreme environmental degradation, unscrupulous employers, failure to stop aggressive and violent behaviour – but also those created by new transhumanist technologies, such as self-constructed bodies, mind uploading, misuse of mind-transforming technologies, inability to educate the young, and wide gaps between humans and nexhumans. The novel does much more than this since it redefines the relationships between the Self and the Other(s), offering a new way of being human: that of embracing one Self within the Other(s).

 

*Some of the ideas elaborated on here were first presented at the Graduate Students’ Conference entitled ‘(Un)human relations/ Relazioni (dis)umane’, held at the University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada, 6 May 2015.