Living in Oblivion


American society thrives on flux. Relocating to a new town, adopting an alternate identity on the Internet, even swapping one’s gender are within the realm of possibility. Marx once wrote, “All that is solid melts into air.” This dictum evokes the destabilizing logic of capitalism, eroding national borders, dissolving traditions and everything else that blocks the free circulation of money, commodities, and desire. We cultivate a kind of collective amnesia (as numerous European commentators pointed out in the wake of 9-11), filtering out events that don’t further America’s optimistic sense of itself.

In a world that feels ever more accelerated and transitory, memories are anchors mooring us to a semblance of stability. Which is one reason we find the subject of forgetting both dreadful and thrilling. Amnesia has become a popular theme in fiction and film: Last year alone it made star turns in the movies Memento, Mulholland Drive, and The Majestic. Compelled by the conviction that amnesia “is a modern mood, and a very American one,” Jonathan Lethem compiled The Vintage Book of Amnesia. This anthology set out to trace and define the amorphous genre of amnesia literature, which ranges from the “who fired this smoking gun in my hand if it wasn’t me?” strand of literary and film noir to the more Kafkaesque “meditation on the absent, circular, and amnesiac nature of human existence.”

Nicole Krauss’s Man Walks Into a Room blends these versions, translating our anxiety about amnesia into a meditative debut novel about the pleasures and dangers of forgetting. Samson Greene, a professor at Columbia University, leaves the campus gates one day and vanishes. A week later, police find him wandering in the Nevada desert. A large tumor pressing on his brain has caused him to forget everything about his life, including his wife. Although oblivion is usually portrayed as frightening, Krauss toys with the idea that Samson might have experienced a state of bliss. “Maybe the look on his face the police officers had taken for blank was the ecstasy of absolute freedom, of becoming only weather.”

Samson savors the blankness as if it were an intense, enjoyable spiritual cleansing—less messy than an enema and quicker than selling off one’s material goods on eBay. Untroubled by regrets or anticipation, he is instead dazzled by “each vital detail, shocked color, the fall of light. Like film stills. The mind relentlessly open to the world, deeply impressed, even hurt by it; not yet gauzed by memory.” He resembles Greg, a real-life amnesiac, who Oliver Sacks described in The Anthropologist From Mars. An East Village hippie-turned-Hare Krishna, Greg had virtually no memories past the year 1970 and couldn’t register new memories—also thanks to a tumor. He appeared “bland, placid, emptied of all feeling—it was this unnatural serenity that his Krishna brethren had perceived, apparently, as ‘bliss.’ ” That’s because existing in the present tense and emptying one’s head of all earthly concerns is a mystical aspiration. Unfortunately, amnesiacs don’t reach this state willingly, and for Samson it is short-lived.

His euphoria dissipates as soon as his childhood memories trickle back, leaving him stranded between the comforting world of his youth and the disorienting, unfamiliar present. His wife, Anna, is understandably devastated by Samson’s defection: This man looks and smells like her husband, but he can’t recall anything about their decade together. Krauss, a poet and critic, delicately evokes the elusiveness of human relationships. She imbues Samson with a mounting sense of existential loneliness, while Anna remains a shadowy, vague figure throughout, perceived mostly through her husband’s murky consciousness. In one of the book’s loveliest passages, he tries to imagine the intimate textures of their marriage:

Perhaps his love for her had frustrated him, the impossibility of ever getting through. Maybe they had taken drives out of the city, crossing delicate bridges whose steel fibers hummed and swayed imperceptibly in the wind. . . . She would be silent, her head tipped against the glass. Then suddenly she would look up, her mouth open, her face changed by an expression he’d never seen before and that made her seem unrecognizable.

This process of imagining the past forces him to contemplate just how much he’s lost and to figure out which emotional responses remain intact.

Lethem suggests in the introduction to his collection that amnesia and fiction are naturally intertwined. “Conjured out of the void by a thin thread of sentences,” he writes, “every fictional assertion exists as a speck on a background of consummate blankness.” Krauss’s Man Walks Into a Room plays with this ground-zero notion on numerous levels. Much of the novel unfolds against the desolate blankness of the Nevada desert, where personal amnesia collides with collective amnesia. A charismatic scientist convinces Samson to take part in an experiment aimed at transferring memories between people. Samson’s vacant mind is the perfect receptor, and aging Las Vegas real estate developer Donald Selwyn’s the ideal donor. As a young GI, Selwyn witnessed the explosion of an atomic bomb—a moment in history we’d like to erase from our collective memory banks, one with indelible, everlasting repercussions.

Krauss is a fluent, thoughtful writer who takes on a lot of complex ideas and rarely loses her grip on them. Most budding novelists would have succumbed to the temptations inherent in the theme by going nuts with structure (think of the fragmented, backward thrust of Memento), but Krauss’s narrative is straightforward and accessible. She does try too hard to sync up all the elements, approaching amnesia from every imaginable angle: scientific, emotional, historical, religious, literary. But the novel survives this overkill because Samson is an intriguing, submerged character, forever grasping at feelings just beyond his reach. In the end, Man Walks Into a Room is a chilling addition to the annals of amnesia lit. It’s a novel that grapples with the ephemeral experience of being human and the realization that we create a lifetime of memories that vanish when we do.