“Maybe a memory is like a prayer”
I Have Blinded Myself Writing This is a first book by Austin-based writer Jess Stoner (Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2012). Nicely packaged as a faux student composition book, the journal-like work moves between prose, poetry, lists, and numerous illustrations, including photographs. While it seems like nearly every work of fiction these days is somehow about ‘memory,” Stoner gives the topic an innovative turn by linking the problem of memory and forgetting with an acute physical corollary. Her unnamed narrator has (or thinks she has) an unusual affliction: “her body needs her memories to clot her cuts, to heal means to lose parts of her past” (I’m quoting the publisher’s website here.) Her every action is circumscribed by potential loss. A paper cut might mean forgetting the name of her husband (Teddy); an accidental slice on the hand while putting away a knife might mean forgetting details of her wedding. By the end of the book, which spans five or six years, the narrator and Teddy have had a child and gotten divorced. And we are left wondering if she has lost the name of her never-named daughter somewhere along the way.
In reality,the mysterious affliction that clouds the life of Stoner’s narrator is never as succinctly described in her book as it is by her publisher’s website blurb, which I quoted above. The narrator’s discussions of the science of the brain and the repeated use of photographs of a human brain that ostensibly show the location of memory activities serve, ironically, to undercut a purely clinical connection between the brain and remembering or forgetting. The episodic, intensely-focused nature of I Have Blinded Myself Writing This (hardly anything enters the notebook that isn’t directly related to the issue of memory) makes the book feel more like a prose poem than novel. The work has a skeletal feel, as if we were intended to deduce an entire body merely by running a finger down one’s spine. Characters disappear from sight (or memory) and there are gaps of months, if not years.
The book uses diverse typographic styles, including vertical and backward texts. But most significantly, a number of pages have large sections of the text set in strike-through,
as if the page itself retained a memory of the narrator’s deletions.
Even though the narrator’s affliction apparently causes memory loss, Stoner doesn’t fetishize memory for its own sake. For every moment when the narrator feels a sincere loss – “I can’t remember how a new mother smells” (this shortly after giving childbirth) – there are times when the primary consequence of a memory loss is an awkward situation or public embarrassment rather than a deeply personal loss. Even false memories seem acceptable: “Remembering wrong is still remembering.” And then there are times when Stoner’s narrator admits to a desire to forget – or to transform a mental memory into something purely tactile.
What if we didn’t build monuments in memory of, but we returned to making quilts, knowing the texture of those worn fingertips stitched what now keeps us warm? What if we didn’t keep memories underneath the sink, where we thought other people would never think to look, but burned them and then we could remember the burning but we wouldn’t have the thing, just the heat of what it was, which everyone tells us will wane. Yes, I think some memories should be burned, not to make them disappear, but to transform them into something we can chose whether or not we want to cling to.