Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Tuxedo Man: A Writing Journal: Part Two

I think every writer is interested, fascinated really, with memory. Nearly all literary work is founded on our assumption that we can recall things and describe them or expose them in such a way that the reader's own memory will be triggered, or even that the reader will acquire a kind of "false" memory. We sort of know the real guy in the corner saloon, but we really know Hamlet, David Copperfield, etc.

Obviously, if I read an account of growing up in Cairo in the 1920s, I can distinguish it from my own episodic memory, although it may become part of my semantic memory—now I know this is what it was like to grow up in Cairo etc. But if I read an account of growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, which I did, then my episodic memory is also compromised in some way. Not only do I think, yes that was what it was like, but also, that it happened to me. This is one of the charms and dangers of reading fiction. The vividness of the fictional account tends to displace actuality. It is the case, for example (see The Sopranos) that actual Italian gangsters model their behavior and interior life on a fictional account written by a man who never met a real mobster in his life. And the same with other walks of life.

In fact, an indeterminate but probably very large part of what passes for our episodic memory is not memory at all, but acquired narrative, either from reading or viewing fictional representations or from family narratives. Mom shows you a photo of you riding a pony, age five, at Coney Island, and in later years you "remember" the pony ride, when in fact you are recalling the picture and Mom's narrative. Which may or may not be true.

I am often amazed by how little I can remember of my life, although I can tell stories about it for hours, as can most people. But honestly, when I search my head, as if I were searching for books in my library, there is practically nothing there that I can vouch for as fact. Besides that there are vivid memories that I know to be false, clear recollections of being in places that I know I never inhabited. So my belief now is that we make it all up. Even famous memory artists like Colette, Nabokov and, most of all, Proust, construct the past, using art and imagination. I think we all do that, if less brilliantly. It's all narrative, and our shock when a "memoir" turns out to be fiction is misplaced. The gross facts are of forensic interest only. That is, if you weren't really in Auschwitz, it's illicit to write a memoir about being there, but even if you were, it's still fiction.

And we don't understand how it works. This opinion is the result of a thirty years' conversation with a friend I went to graduate school with. Jim and I both got our Ph.D.s from a lab devoted to examining the neurological substrate of learning in rabbit brains. Jim went on to become one of the founders of the interdisciplinary venture called neuroscience and I dropped out entirely, because it was clear to me (after seven years) that I was a writer and not a scientist.

Jim says, and I believe him, that the problem with neuroscience is that even though there is an immense body of research, the field never seems to advance. The narrative of the present decade subverts the narrative of the previous decade without yielding any greater confidence that we understand what the brain is doing. This is a big subject, and I can't get into it now because I said I wanted to talk about Tuxedo man. Just hold the thought that memory and brain function generally remain a complete mystery, even to experts.

On August 12, 2001, I had a dream about a man waking up in a hospital dressed in a tuxedo. He has no memories at all, complete retrograde amnesia. The doctors tell him that he's healthy and has to leave. He does and wanders through New York. He meets people and interacts with them, he's open and not at all panic-stricken. He grows hungry and wanders into a Korean grocery, where the owner gives him a job as a clerk, He puts an apron on over his tuxedo. Later he demonstrates that he has a number of physical skills, martial arts and so on. End of dream.

Well, obviously, I'd read the Bourne books and this surfaced in dreamland, but the fact is I hadn't read them or seen the earlier TV adaptation or seen the Matt Damon film until after I had the dream; same with the movie Eternal Sunshine.... I think that these films and books are evidence that amnesia is a societal trope, even an archetypal symbol. It crops up in soap operas all the time. It seems as if everyone loves the idea of amnesia, the notion that we can somehow forget the miseries of the past and start afresh, with a clean tabula rasa, although we'd like to keep the good parts, our hard-earned skills and so forth. We want to be blank like babies, but not helpless. It may be a version of the American theme of re-invention, lighting out for the territory. On the other hand, actual amnesia is not so much fun, it's the great existential fear of our aging cohort, Alzheimer's, the other dementias, the loss of self, the descent into futility and madness.

Well, I have a lot of dreams and like most people I forget about them, although I often write them down—you never know if stuff will come in useful—but this one seems to have stuck in my mind as wanting to emerge from the oneiric and become fiction, maybe for the reason noted above. There is something about amnesia.

So I created a character who has GRA, full episodic and semantic deficit, but he can talk and read. I suppose this is as plausible as anything else that goes wrong in the brain, and is necessary to advance the plot. It cooked for a long time, and I started writing the novel in September, 2009, and will probably finish the first draft in July of this year.

Next: assembling characters, working up the plot


MErhard said...

My goodness, so many interesting ideas. I agree that we 'make it all up' -- how astonishing when someone recounts their take on an event you were both involved in that is completely different than your own; and any ideas, opinions, etc. built on your memory will therefore be specific to you, as the two of you diverge on your merry ways...everything being relative in the mind as well as the physical world.

And is a person with GRA a 'blank slate'? Does this person have the same innate response to the world, the same tendency toward particular fears and preferences that they were (possibly) born with? Why do we develop as we do?

Anonymous said...

.... not just the memories of shared events differ, to the point where one questions how 'true' a memory is, but the sheer perception of 'reality' differs just as much. Eyewitnesses to the same even can tell very different stories!