The Memory of Things
When I first found out that THE MEMORY OF THINGS by Gae Polisner was set in the immediate days following 9/11, I thought I was in for a very bleak, depressing story. I was certain the protagonist’s parents or friends were going to die in some way related to the event and then the book would slowly get sadder and sadder as each tragedy became more terrible than the next. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t hoping Polisner would sugarcoat one of the most terrible days in the history of the United States, but I also wasn’t ready to emotionally deal with it. Luckily, I was pleasantly surprised.
THE MEMORY OF THINGS is not really a story about 9/11. It’s a story about hope and how it can thrive in even the darkest of moments. It’s a story about family and how they can surprise you. It’s a story about friendship and how we can better understand one another. It’s a story about first love and the intangible connection between two people. It’s a story about survival and those left behind.
This novel will certainly make people recall where they were when 9/11 happened, but it will also do so much more than that. The book is told from two points of view, primarily from Kyle Donohue, and secondly from “the girl.” The novel goes back and forth between the two within the same chapter and without headings to indicate who is talking. The girl, however, has her own font to help differentiate and her thoughts are also very distinguishable. They are scattered, terse, and poetic as she is recovering from an amnesiac episode. Needless to say, it is the most creative way I have ever seen an author handle multiple perspectives.
Without being pedantic, the book also provides many opportunities for the readers to learn something new. For instance, Polisner incorporates lessons from NINE STORIES by J.D. Salinger, and as a result, I now know what a Zen Koan is. Polisner also teaches the method of loci, a memorization technique that Kyle introduces to the girl. As she goes through the procedure, so does the readers, and we get to see firsthand how it works. As a result, we end up participating in the story with her, studying the list of ten objects too. Polisner is wildly smart.
Avoiding any clichés, Polisner is able to lightly touch on a very broad spectrum of emotion after the events, such as the fear of flying and the strong sense of nationalism. She also shows how a vast array of people were touched by this, such as students, first responders, the disabled, those inside the towers, those outside, those living in Brooklyn, those living in Manhattan, those elsewhere in the country, and more.
Overall, THE MEMORY OF THINGS is a nuanced slice of life set in a very particular and unstable moment in time, and it is a rare gem.