Carrying on with the Story Prize anthology.

86. "Memory Wall,” Anthony Doerr, 2010
I rather like this lengthy story, which uses the conceit of a device for capturing and replaying memories analogous to the Pensieve in the Harry Potter stories. The device extracts memories from a person’s mind and records them on little cartridges, from which other people can replay and experience them, provided they have the right surgical implants. The story uses this device to entwine the life of a rich old white lady (it takes place in Capetown, South Africa) suffering from dementia with that of an itinerant black orphan teenager. The connection that forms between them, though odd and one-sided, is touching in a peculiar way, and inspires the boy to undertake the completion of the woman’s dead husband’s life’s work, which is what allows for the story’s refreshingly happy ending. What I liked about the story is that the woman is not herself a particularly likeable character; she is racist in an old-fashioned Apartheid-inflected way, and rather a snob in other dimensions as well; she’s not particularly charitable toward her husband about his work though his enthusiasm seems pure and endearing. But the presentation of her in her dementia-addled present, combined with the flashes of her past delivered through the memory device, make her a very rounded and sympathetic character. It’s an interesting bit of craft; I said in a few posts earlier this year that I’ve been intrigued by these stories with unlikeable yet sympathetic protagonists, and this is a great example of one.

87. “Snowmen,” Steven Millhauser, 2011
I am not sure whether I liked this story. I’ll have to go back and see what ChrisP and mrsmig had to say about it. In the story, some boys wake up to a prodigious snowfall in their neighborhood, and everyone sets to making snowmen that become increasingly more filigreed and lifelike, in settings that become ever more complex and involved reproductions of buildings and parks, until the weather changes and everything melts and colorful reality is restored from the crystalline facsimiles. The metaphors here, for the process of creation and the art of representation and the transience of beauty, are either far too on-the-nose or so subtle that I missed the point entirely.

88. “Ghosts, Cowboys,” Claire Vaye Watkins, 2012. Oh, wow. I really have to go read Chris and mrsmig’s comments on this one. This is a story about the extended wake left by the Manson family. It extends backwards through the history of the Spahn ranch where the Manson family lived for a while, asking questions about where stories can be said to begin. And it reaches down to the present day, showing how the offspring of the Manson family continue to suffer under the weight of that legacy. But there’s this: Like the Chernobyl story earlier in the book, this one mingles quite a bit of history in, as evidently Claire Watkins’s father really was Manson’s right-hand man during the Spahn period, who later testified against the family. So this author is working out her own psychology in these pages, in a startlingly intimate way. She creates (I believe this part is fictional, but it’s really just a guess) an anonymous baby born at the Spahn ranch of one of the Manson family orgies; now a grown woman, the “Razor Blade Baby” (as the narrator calls her, for gruesome reasons described in the text) is a sort of shadow to the narrator, literally following her around wherever she goes and forming a barrier between herself and normal life in the world. That Razor Blade Baby is a metaphor for the burden Watkins bears due to her parentage is apparent, but personifying that burden is kind of a stroke of genius, as it allows a relationship to form between Watkins and her burden, allows them to interact and talk to one another, for Watkins both to indulge the burden and also, in the end, maybe try to draw some boundaries against it, or assert that at least some part of her identity is separate. Anyway, yeah, wow.

This collection is really killer.

88/100 read, 38/50 from the last five years.