Monday, August 15, 2011

Book Review: Man Walks Into a Room

I found myself waiting in the library a few weeks back while Trevor attended a Science show. To kill the time, I picked up a book magazine (I know it wasn't "Book Page" but cannot remember the name). I wanted to find a really riveting book to take along to CBLI (our annual ten day Bible camp). Nicole Krauss' Man Walks into a Room sounded like it fit the bill. However, I didn't wait until camp to read it.

The first half, while interesting was a bit plodding. It tells the tale of Samson Greene, an English professor who turns up in the desert, caught in the throes of amnesia from the pressure of a brain tumor. Once the tumor is removed, Samson awakens with only the memories of his first 12 years. His entire adult life is unknown to him, yet he must return to his wife, his job, his associations as if he understood them all. This what-if question elicits plenty of fodder for thought.

It focuses on the idea of memories, asking whether they are a blessing or a curse. At one point, the main character says of Dr. Ray Malcolm's extravagant house which he holds onto because of the memories it holds : "Seems like maybe it's a burden to keep." (both the house and the memories).

As Samson continues to interact with Dr. Ray Malcolm (for an experiment in the possibility of transferring memories from one brain to another) he examines the idea that man can harness some power, but then watch it used for evil instead of good, as happens time and time again. As I read, I felt very connected to Samson. I wanted to know what image, what memory, would be transferred to Samson's consciousness from the mind of someone else.

Although it would be a blessing to share the good in someone else's memory (to be able to witness a loved one's entrance into the world when say, you were far away, in the military), what grace that we cannot fully share the evil in someone else's mind.

Krauss manages to nail key aspects of the human longing for connection, as well as the incredible resilience people often demonstrate in the face of tragic loss. She writes (through the narrator):

"When you're young, you think it's going to be solved by love. But it never is. Being close - as close as you can get - to another person only makes clear the impassable distance between you.... You fall in love, it's intoxicating, and for a little while you feel like you've actually become one with the other person. Merged souls, and so on. You think you'll never be lonely again. Only it doesn't last and soon you realize you can only get so close, and you end up brutally disappointed, more alone than ever, because the illusion - the hope you'd held on to all those years - has been shattered.... But see, the incredible thing about people is that we forget ... time passes and somehow the hope creeps back and sooner or later someone else comes along and we thing this is the one. And the whole thing starts all over again. We go through our lives like that, and either we just accept the lesser relationship - it may not be total understanding, but it's pretty good - or we keep trying for the perfect union, trying and failing, leaving behind us a trail of broken hearts, our own included. In the end, we die as alone as we were born, having struggled to understand others, to make ourselves understood, but having failed in what we once imagined was possible."

Later, she writes of the horrific experiment:

"No matter how great the desire to be understood, the mind cannot abide any presence but its own. To enter another's consciousness and stake a flag there was to break the law of absolute solitude on which that consciousness depends. It was to threaten, and perhaps irrevocably damage, the essential remoteness of the self. This transgression was unforgivable."

Thus, our consciousness is the very thing that keeps us separate from another, yet this separation is actually quite necessary and beneficial. It is interesting to contemplate how I might respond to the loss of all memory apart from my childhood memories.

Apart from some raunchy talk in spots, I found the book to be quite interesting. It raises questions worth thinking about. It would especially appeal to male readership, I believe. It is a quick read, yet will leave you thinking for a good while after.

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