Memory in Antonya Nelson's Short Stories

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In Antonya Nelson’s short stories, I find the way time is handled to be intricately connected with how convincing the particular world is that she has created. While I liked many of the stories in her latest collections, Funny Once (2014) and Nothing Right (2009), there are some I enjoyed more than others. This is, perhaps, to be expected, but what stands out to me about the stories I liked best seems to have to do with memory and how it is recreated.

“Chapter Two,” my favorite story, is a layered piece—that of someone telling a story about someone else (and at one point, of the latter also telling another story). We open with:

Tired of telling her own story at A.A., Hil was trying to tell the story of her neighbor.

Hil’s neighbor is the wacky Bergeron Love, one of those larger-than-life characters: old-moneyed and too old to care what people think about her. She once went to Hil’s house completely naked and demanded the police arrest her; on another occasion, she had a neighbor’s girl taken away by Child Protective Services because of an abusive father—though we are unsure if he really was abusive. Part of the brilliance of this piece—aside from the interesting characters—is the way Nelson deals with time. There are two obvious ones: the “present” or “outer” story, which are Hil’s A.A. meetings; and the “past,” which is the story Hil is telling. Nelson doesn’t use any transitions; we simply go from one world to another. Hil’s own story begins:

So she comes to my house a few nights ago … like around nine …

But there’s a third story here, too, which is the story residing in Hil’s actual memory—not the one she’s retelling, but the one she has presumably experienced. This shift is the most subtle but also the most interesting. And again, Nelson doesn’t use any transitions. We simply dip from one layer to the next:

“Looks like somebody’s not getting enough attention,” Hil had murmured as she unlocked the door.

Through context (and also a subtle past perfect tense shift—more analysis here), we realize that we’ve gone inside Hil’s head, because the dialogue is likely too minor to be told, and the third person attribution and action (“she murmured as she unlocked the door”) set us up for a scene. The abruptness gives an effect of randomness and lightness—there is no hand guiding us through the different layers, to sort and organize meaning. Indeed, at the end of the story, even Hil hasn’t reached the kind of awareness we’re often familiar with in literature: a kind of epiphany. Hil’s realization of her own state of drunkenness is “only obliquely available” to her, Nelson stated in an interview about “Chapter Two”: “The story, in my mind, is about her slowly coming to understand the ways in which the world is going to treat her from here on out.” The lack of transitions perfectly captures this sentiment, and convincingly portrays the different layers of the story as being bigger than any one story itself.

Book Cover of Nothing Right“Literally,” on the other hand, is about Richard, the father of two kids—Suzanne, 16, and Danny, 11. The outer story is that of Richard’s growing closeness with Bonita, their housekeeper, while the inner story has to do with the death of Richard’s wife three years ago and the circumstances surrounding it. The past is recalled several times along the way. Richard’s memories are often stirred because of something that happens in the present, such as when Bonita brings her son, Isaac, to Richard’s house because Isaac is having trouble at school, and Richard remembering how his wife used to be the one who dealt with the school–she being the one “who played intermediary”–because Bonita is afraid of the administration.

Several times, too, the memory of Richard’s wife comes up because of certain objects or phrases, such as when Isaac smiles from the doorway and his silver front tooth catches the light: “Whenever Richard spotted that tooth, he had the same thought: if his wife had still been alive when the tooth was knocked out, she’d have seen to an ivory replacement.” Or when Richard and Bonita are about to get into a car, and he notices her fail to buckle her seat belt, which then reminds him that his wife also didn’t buckle up in the accident three years ago. Or when he receives a phone call from Bonita, which reminds him that it was she “who’d phoned him to report his wife’s car crash, she who’d fielded the notification from the highway patrol.”

This technique is not uncommon, and is used perhaps most pervasively in television when characters see images that swoosh us into flashback mode. Why, then, is this problematic? I think the neatness of the transitions, as opposed to those in “Chapter Two,” simplifies the way our memory works, which is sometimes provoked unaccountably; if we feel the transitions are there to aid us, they become artifices which cause us to view the whole story as such. The outer story also suffers, because it becomes a prop to take us deeper into the story about the wife’s death. Indeed, there are several realizations that Richard makes as the narrative progresses, one of which is:

A time would come… when he and his children’ wouldn’t think of that terrible car crash and death every day, when they would no longer be ambushed by missing her.

And another:

For an instant, a wave of rage filled Richard, a plosive pure fury at his wife for not being here where she was needed.

One of the great things about telling a story-within-a-story-within-a-story is that it throws us off guard about the intent of such storytelling. We are coaxed into relaxation, if only for a moment, eager to just enjoy the tale. If the current frame of “Literally” were to be retained, then perhaps we need something to throw us off, too. Perhaps the neatness of how memory is evoked in the story has to be balanced by some kind of messiness, to shake up the rather simple equation of present-events-reminding-character-of-the-past-which-leads-to-realization. I’m thinking along the lines of introducing another person’s recollection, which would challenge Richard’s own memory and, therefore, his realizations. (Or perhaps this has become overused, too?) Whatever it is, there has to be a way out of the literal, out of a world in which we understand and understand too quickly.

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Antonya Nelson will be reading at Literati Bookstore on May 23, 2015 as part of a nine-city event to launch the collection Every Father’s Daughter: Twenty-Four Women Writers Remember Their Fathers.

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