Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Enright and the Workings of Memory

Just a-musing for my own amusement ...

One aspect of Anne Enright's Booker winning novel that I found fascinating was the way the author takes apart memory.

As I mentioned in the review I wrote for the Star:
Most novels play out the past in flashbacks which make memory appear to be an instantly accessible video with every detail rendered distinctly. This is of course not at all how our minds work, and Enright shows how an apparently solid memory of an event has to be modified in the light of objective evidence. “I don’t know if I have the correct picture in my mind,” she says, and talks of “shifting stories and waking dreams” which she must sift through to find the truth.
How do we actually remember things that have happened to us in the past? In fact we don't, the brain quite simply creates an illusion.

Here's an extract from Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness. Try this on for size. :
If you've ever tried to store a full season of your favourite television show on your computer's hard drive, then you already know that faithful representation of things in the world require gobs of space. And yet, our brains take millions of snapshots, record millions of sounds, add smells, tastes, textures, a third spatial dimension, a temporal sequence, a continuous running commentary - and they do this all day, every day, year after year, storing these representations of the world in a memory bank that never seems to overflow and yet allows us to recall at a moment's notice that awful day in the sixth grade when we teased Phil Meyers about his braces and he promised to beat us up after school. How do we cram the vast universe of our experience into the relatively small storage compartment between our ears? ... We cheat ... the elaborate tapestry of our experience is not stored in memory, at least not in its entirety. Rather, it is compressed for storage by first being reduced to a few critical threads, such as a summary phrase ("Dinner was disappointing") or a small set of key features (tough steak, corked wine, snotty waiter). Later, when we want to remember our experience, our brains quickly reweave the tapestry by fabricating - not actually retrieving - the bulk of the information that we experience as a memory. This fabrication happens so quickly and effortlessly that we have the illusion (as a good magician's audience always does) that the entire thing was in our heads the entire time.
The other writer I said similar things about was John Banville - the way memories in The Sea cascade one from another.

Both Enright and Banville are Irish writers, so is there something in the drinking water that makes them so concerned with the depicting memory in a more realistic way?

Of course, they might be part of a legacy inherited from James Joyce, the grandaddy of stream-of-consciousness writing and they must be influencing each other.

Truth is, I'm getting less and less happy to read novels in which characters remember everything in full technicolour detail without the slightest hesitation.

But then there's the danger of slowing the narrative down so I suppose that as a payoff we accept the artifice.

So how do the writers among you deal with memory?


animah said...

Black and white flashbacks?
Or if you were born in the 21st century, probably CSI style zoom- ins accompanied by a Roger Waters yowl.

gnute said...

Re: fabrication. What happens when you are made to recall events under hypnosis, do you think it is mostly made up as well? I thought the basis of hypnosis was that the brain does not lose any detail. Perhaps someone could shed some light.

bibliobibuli said...

yeah but ... how would you actually write it?

gnute said...

To me, Virginia Woolf does it really well in Mrs Dalloway & To The Lighthouse. She lets us see anecdotes as remembered by more than one character. I think she's awesome. She looked up to Proust more than Joyce, I believe, with regards the stream of consciousness.

Hsian said...

Milan Kundera's Ignorance also dissects memory in an interesting way. Have you read it, Sharon?


I was quite fascinated by how it managed to approach memory from so many angles; with how two people have different memories of a similar incident, being confronted with a memory of what you once were when finding an old journal, reunions where everyone is more interested in dwelling on shared memories instead of updating relationships with new experiences (parallels drawn with Odysseus)

bibliobibuli said...

gnute, hsian - thanks you both for suggestions, really am grateful for the pointers. nice topic to ponder actually.

love kundera and haven't read "ignorance" but now have to. the woolf i have skirted around but it remains a serious gap.

bk said...

Haruki Murakami writes beautifully about both the power and fragility of memory. All his heroes cling on to one moment in time and are in many ways destroyed by it.

And many Murakami fans often love the movies of Wong Kar Wai for the same reason: the fascination with the subject of memory. If you've not watched them, try "In The Mood For Love", then followed by "2046". But do be warned about the deliberate slow pace of the movies.

msiagirl said...

I like to have my brain do that weaving thing and simply show that - hey it's all a story. Funny there must be something in the water as there seems to be a "memory" thread in posts I've read lately, including mine! Sharon - I don't know if you do tags but I've tagged you for your fave food.

bibliobibuli said...

thanks bk for both pointers. am a fan of murakami already but still have several more of his books to read.

Hsian said...

BK, you are right, Murakami also often uses memory in his stories. One good example is Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Have you read that one, Sharon?

Another movie dealing with this topic is Memento, where the protaganist suffers from a lack of long term memory.

bibliobibuli said...

i love "hardboiled wonderland" = a book i'm haunted by.