In The Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (January, 2006), researchers argue that “emotion enhances remembrance of neutral events past.”1 Investigators speculated that the reason for this might have to do with more pointed attention during the coding process or enhancement after the event, but what they showed more centrally was that emotion enhances long-term memory, “determining what will later be remembered or forgotten.”2 Virginia Woolf wrote in her journal that there was a certain advantage to memory stripped of its emotional coloring, which doesn’t contradict the recent claim of the Academy, but adds to the complexity of the relationship between memory and emotion which would have considerable impact on literature and its sibling sciences—the law and psychology.
In Kaitlyn Palacios’s essay “The Waiver,” all of these sciences emerge in a testament to what the Academy found in 2006. Palacios captures a history of a marriage wrecked by incomprehensible bureaucracy and yet also depicts a clean, simple sketch of youthful love. The protagonists: an American Spanish-language tutor and her husband, a native of El Salvador. The conflict: after a marriage, the husband must return to El Salvador as the two seek to establish citizenship for the husband in the United States. The antagonist: an immigration system too busy to honor the plea of the protagonists to resolve the conflict. The resolution: about as resolute as an unfinished Kafka novel. Palacios narrates the deeply ironic story of their first Fourth of July. A more painful irony is her husband’s statements: “The problem is that nothing bad ever happens to you” and “You’re just a silly little girl.” Palacios’s essay is an unfurling testament to memory, love, youth and nationhood, and it is an irony such as the husband’s statement that makes you suffer on her behalf. Her memories become the reader’s, as the cadence of her language echoes her conversion. The narrative is so well-crafted, ebbing and rushing in an almost oceanic pull, I am late for everything today for reading it, unable to rescue my index finger from holding the page.
Nine hours and a workday later, I open the magazine again. Fiction, this time. I find the specter of Raymond Carver in Kyle Mellen’s short story “Just Like A Man,” a terrific (and I intend the root of that word here) mix of Carver and Edgar Allen Poe. As a rule, I am unsympathetic to what might become a cliché in voice—you take a moderately educated, working-class bloke who fancies beer and buddies at the neighborhood bar down the street from the obligatory machinist shop of sorts. The man has obligatory trouble with his wife, and his transformation necessary to the formula is typically internal. (The only dreadful variation is when the man’s wife somehow harms him and he is forced into the arms of a younger woman.)
I seek something more—take Austin Gilmour’s “On Huron,” where the short fiction explodes with language and ideas . . . but I left the discussion of “Just Like A Man” too quickly. Mellen uses the voice as a clever ruse; what you perceive as an exercise in the voice of the typical American man takes a story wildly out of the formula’s context—when you might expect a certain outcome, you are arrested by escalating violence and grotesque murder in a nihilistic framework that will freeze your blood. The risk in the plot development is well-managed; I found the pacing to be virtuosic. I think the effort would be terrific even in translation.
The afore-referenced Austin Gilmour’s “On Huron” speaks directly to memory, in one instance here: “My Grandfather was dear to me in my youth and dearer still after his death. But memory has a harsh agenda and often he seems little more than an image coming variously in and out of focus.”
This is where science and manifesto diverge, where the memories that can be tested like copper in rain are not the memories that perhaps persist in wanting to be named. Specifically, it might be said that we own our memories, and the way we showcase that property is going to be unique to the individual, and as writers, we resist the obvious—that memory might somehow conform to a rule or equation. And the refusal to conform to a rule is what facilitates evolution—we modify and twist our thought processes into something vibrant, something new, just as Gilmour does in this story.
Moreover, Gilmour’s work is classed as fiction but comes across by virtue of “telling” rather than illustrating—perhaps, to be fair, “telling” to build to a higher illustration—as a work of nonfiction. And you find yourself trusting the narrator because the story poses so much like a confession. Bobby Rogers’s poem “Interesting Case” provides insight into the mechanism of telling: “But who can presage what piece of our telling will be the detail / that condemns us? . . .”
From a layman’s perspective, many of the poems tend to inform each other and complement the prose while invoking tradition. The bravery to embrace erudition is appreciated (see Richard Jackson’s poem “Prophecy” and Leslie Adrienne Miller’s “Colette as Trope”). I remember reading Wallace Stevens in recovery of something awful and feeling worse for it because the poetry was too dense with allusion, but in these authors, the references work very well—maybe because I am no longer seventeen. Or because I can’t remember now what I didn’t understand at the time.
1 Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2006 Jan 31; 103(5): 1599-604 Epub 2006 Jan 24
[PubMed – Indexed for MEDLINE]