Man Walks Into a Room

While Man Walks Into a Room was Nicole Krauss's debut novel, I was first brought to experience her genius in The History of Love. Her first work feels like less of a novel and more like a lengthy short story -- though, to its credit, it certainly doesn't feel any longer than a short story. Instead, it's more of a lingering discussion on an idea that begs to be explored. As a result, it feels hard to summarize the plot in a tantalizing way beyond the initial scenario, as a large part of the novel is really a reaction to just that.

Samson Greene is found wandering the desert outside of Las Vegas eight days after going missing in Manhattan. Almost immediately, he undergoes surgery to remove a newly discovered brain tumor and when he wakes up, he has no memory of his life after the age of twelve. No memory of his loving wife, his career as an English professor at Columbia University, his friends, his dog, his mother's death... nothing. Remarkably, he appears able to make new memories and is still an intelligent and functioning adult, but the slate appears to have been wiped clean of over twenty years of experiences. Without any connection to this life, he doesn't particularly feel a desperate need for these memories to return so much as he just wants everyone to stop looking at him with expectation. This is an unusual response to memory loss and is incredibly painful for Anna, his wife, who just wants her husband back, intact, with memories of their ten years spent together. As he adjusts to this new world (though thankfully we are spared the Big ideas and he seems to have the mentality of an adult if not the personal memories), he struggles to establish a relationship with Anna and find some purpose to his own self. Unsurprisingly, things do not go well. Samson retreats further into himself as he realizes he cannot really make Anna happy, developing a strange friendship with a former student and relying on the companionship of his dog, Frank, who does not expect Samson to remember their time together. This is all moving along when Krauss throws in a bit of a twist: a neuro-scientist offers Samson the opportunity to take part in a hushed-up memory experiment and Samson quickly signs up. The experiment does not claim that it could return his memories, for those are lost for good, but instead the experiment is attempting something much more revolutionary and potentially much more traumatizing. Of course, if one picks up the novel and reads the very first few pages, one might wonder how the depiction of a young soldier witnessing an atomic bomb testing plays into the rest of the story. It is this memory that will hit Samson with all its atomic force, finally breaking him open to understand everything that has befallen him. It takes the story a while to get there, but impact is astounding.

As I mentioned, this novel is not one that should be read for plotlines; it's the exploration of a "what if...?" idea. From the beginning, you should be pretty aware that everything cannot end well. It might end not terribly, but that's about all you can hope for after a tragedy that takes someone from those he loves without actually killing him. Indeed, as characters wonder in the story, would Samson's death have been preferable to wiping his memories but leaving him standing? For a large part, I enjoyed the awkward and painful examination of what to do with this man who has been cut from the ties of his life, yes remains floating around. It's believable and heartbreaking, which is a hard emotion to muster when it comes towards the beginning of a novel and you have not really had time to get to know your characters. Your sympathy focuses mainly on Anna, the "widow" who is told to act against her hopes, to smother her desire that the Samson she knows will return to love her, and to simply help him adjust to his new life as a helpmate rather than a loving wife. Even though Samson is the one to experience the memory loss, he has no real remorse for something he has no attachment to in his present condition, so it's Anna who has experienced the real tragedy.... though Samson does come to understand his loss, in a way. Once we arrive at the memory experiment, things change a bit. Krauss is not interested in creating a science-fiction epic, though its aim to graft the memories from one person to another is rather fearsome in its implications. She uses this experiment as an opportunity to give Samson new ties and to allow him to explore his loss and the burden of what he gains.

Krauss is simply exploring the trajectory of a lost soul... what one might do in today's day and age if completely unanchored from the life they knew and yet somehow still inhabiting the shell of it. Strangely, if there were kids involved, Samson might have felt obliged to make more of an effort at rekindling a relationship with Anna. He trusts her because she's there but perhaps he does love her after all, if he would only open himself up to the idea. Instead, he struggles to find his own way, feeling untethered and yet concerned for Anna's welfare and future. Whether this springs from the knowledge that she tried to reorient him to the world, the fact that she seems so terribly hurt by what has happened to Samson, or a growing/returning love for this woman... well, without memories to understand one's motivations, perhaps everything is wrapped up together. By removing us from the story arch that might define more conventional novels, Krauss achieves a dreamlike state of wandering exploration... perhaps a more pleasant version of what Samson might feel as he suddenly finds himself as a thirty-something year old man with no knowledge of the twenty-odd years that led to his current state. It's haunting and painful, causing readers to question how they might react in similar circumstances, and ultimately having to accept that there is no way to know, as the person one now is would no longer exist without the last two thirds of one's life to shape him/her.

Nicole Krauss writes with such beauty that I now know I'll read anything she publishes. I might not push Man Walks Into a Room on anyone with the same passion as I did The History of Love, but I still think it's a lovely work of incredible quality. Reviews that I've read online have lamented that the ending doesn't seem to bring any real closure or epiphany, but then, the situation hardly suggests that there will ever really be closure. As for an epiphany, well, quite honestly the understanding that life continues on seems to be a rather painful and yet hard-won moral. It may not be the ending that one wants, but such is life.

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