Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

On the morning of September 11, 2001, sixteen year old Kyle Donohue watches the first Twin Tower collapse from his classroom in Stuyvesant High School. As he is evacuated across the Brooklyn Bridge, Kyle spots what he first thinks is a bird, but soon discovers is a girl wearing a pair of giant white wings that look like part of a costume. She appears ready to jump but Kyle pulls her up and makes her run with him across the bridge. Kyle's father is back in Manhattan, where two planes have been flown into buildings like bombs. He's part of the Joint Terrorist Task Force, the first sent into crisis situations like this. At this point, Kyle has no idea if his father is alive or dead.

Kyle takes the girl to his apartment building where his family lives on the eleventh floor. He tells her that his mom and sister are in Los Angeles and that his uncle lives with them. Kyle is unable to reach his father or his mother by phone.

Kyle takes the girl who is covered from head to toe in white ash to their four bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights. When Kyle gets home he has another message on his phone from his father, filled with sounds of crashing, sirens and chaos. His father asks him to contact his mom but also to get to somewhere safe. Kyle tells the girl to shower and gives her clean clothes and tells her she can rest in his sister Kerri's room. He then attempts to call his mom and Kerri at Chase Knolls Garden Apartments where they have been staying over the summer in Los Angeles. Kerri has been attending acting camp and her departure was delayed by a week when she got a callback for an audition. He is not able to get his call through though. Meanwhile the girl gets cleaned up and Kyle notes that she's quite pretty with all the ash cleaned off. He informs her that he will wash her clothing and that he needs to reach his mom and tell his Uncle Matt about her presence. When he asks her her name, she tells Kyle she doesn't know which only puzzles and upsets Kyle more.

He decides to check up on his Uncle Matt who is in the guest room and finds him asleep in his wheelchair. Kyle's Uncle Matt was a lieutenant in the Emergency Services Unit before his accident. He is kind and very smart. Uncle Matt would defend Kyle from the criticisms of his Uncle Paul and his dad who believe all Donohue men are cops. It was especially bad after Kyle transferred to Stuyvesant. Now Kyle misses the old Uncle Matt. Uncle Matt has been living with them after his serious motorcycle accident. The scenes on the television screen confuse Kyle because they are saying that the North Tower collapsed when he knows he saw the South Tower fall. From the television Kyle learns that both towers have collapsed, that a plane was flown into the Pentagon and that a fourth plane believed to be hijacked, crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Military jets have been scrambled and it is unknown how many other attacks might happen.

Eventually Kyle does receive a message from his mother who is not able to work a cell phone properly and keeps hanging up. She does let him know however that their flight has been cancelled and that they are going to try to find a place to stay in Los Angeles. In the guest room his uncle is watching coverage of the disaster in disbelief. Kyle fills him in on what happened to him that morning and on what he knows so far about the attack, and his mom and dad. Later on he also tells his uncle about finding the girl around his age on the bridge and that he has brought her to their apartment. He tells him that based on the amount of ash on her she must have been at the towers when they collapsed. His uncle suggests that Kyle call "Missing Persons" but Kyle tells him it's unlikely he will get through. As the day wears on and Kyle tries to carry on as much as possible, making pizza, taking care of his uncle and trying to reach his mother. What should he do with the girl who doesn't remember her name? Is his father safe? Will his mom and Kerri be able to return home soon? When will it be safe to go outside? Over the next several days Kyle will find himself falling for this mysterious, captivating girl. And he will discover his act of kindness in saving a girl in a moment of despair, gives her a second chance to make things right. In saving her, Kyle saves himself too.


The Memory of Things is a poignant story about how,in the face of the incomprehensible, we struggle to continue on with our lives. The terrorist acts of 9-11 certainly can be described in this manner. How do we comprehend the act of hijacking two fully fueled planes, using them as bombs to bring down two iconic buildings trapping and pulverizing to death thousands of innocent people. Polisner was inspired to write The Memory of Things in the years after 9-11 but waited because she required time to process the depth of the tragedy.

To tell her story, Polisner uses the two main characters of Kyle and a girl whom readers eventually know as Hannah. Kyle's narrative is the principle one, written in prose because his memory is intact. Hannah's narrative is inserted into Kyle's and is in free verse. Initially Hannah's narrative consists of simple broken verse, representing her broken memory;
"Wait to fall
but don't
Am tethered here.
A boy shouts,
eyes full of terror.
He grabs hold of me...

In the day following the terror attack, Hannah makes many references in her narrative that seems random and meaningless. For example,
(Words slip in, echoing and distant:
attitude devant...)

As Hannah spends time at Kyle's family's apartment, her memory begins to return and her narrative is more fluid and coherent.

The tears come so hard I can't catch my breath,
can't stop my body from shaking.
Kyle hugs me, and I fight him off.
I"m so angry and broken, I can't even bear to be hugged,
don't deserve to be hugged.
But then I give in, because I'm
lonely and

Eventually Hannah's story becomes coherent, revealing a heartbreaking story filled with grief and regret but not without hope.

As the tragedy unfolds, two people who would otherwise never have met, come together and briefly find comfort in each other, helping each other to cope and to begin healing. Their budding relationship is temporary though as Kyle suspects. "Besides I have this aching sense that what Hannah and I have is one of those things that happens in a vacuum, that can't be sustained under normal conditions. Under the pressures of school, and life, and parents, and siblings, and distance. It's something quiet and possessive, that will fall apart once it's diluted." Despite that both Kyle and Hannah have each other's contact information - she his email, he her phone number.

A major theme in the novel revolves around memories and how they are an important part of our lives, defining who we are and even the choices we make. This is demonstrated in the novel especially through the characters of Uncle Matt and Hannah Marconi. Kyle's Uncle Matt was badly injured in an accident, breaking his neck, jaw and fracturing his skull. His speech is slurred and he is partially paralyzed. Uncle Matt has been reciting things that appear to be random but Kyle knows he's working on a "practical skill called the method of loci, a memory trick in which certain types of data get stored in storylike sequences." According to Kyle, his uncle "is a genius and a memory expert." Although he's been a cop, the other part of his life has revolved around competing in memory competitions. Before his accident, he was planning to attend the U.S. Memory Championships for the third time with the intention of winning. The fact that Uncle Matt is able to still practice the method of loci demonstrates to Kyle that despite his physical limitations his mind is still very sharp. When Hannah shows an interest in Uncle Matt and talks to him like he's present, she motivates him to practice his memory trick, leading Kyle to recognize that his uncle is healing and to tell his father that Uncle Matt needs to stay with them.

While Uncle Matt still has his memories, the girl Kyle rescues does not. She doesn't remember her name, is suicidal and dazed when he pulls her off the bridge. After a day or so, she tells Kyle "I keep remembering little things. Bits and pieces. Like those things that flash at the end of a movie reel when the film runs out..." She remembers voices, faces, music and dance steps. Her broken memory is reflected in her broken poetry narrative. Eventually Hannah recovers her memory after spending a few days in a safe place. Her memory of her last conversation with her father haunts her. Hannah's father, John Marconi is the lawyer for Harrison Highfront, accused of raping a girl. Eventually Hannah's memory is restored when she sees a magazine article about her father and the case in Kyle's apartment. She tells Kyle that the last conversation she had with her father was an argument. The memory of those last words haunts Hannah.

For Kyle, the presence of Hannah helps him forget the reality of what is happening. When Kyle and Hannah are practicing Uncle Matt's memory trick, Kyle forgets the attacks, about Uncle Matt's accident, about Jenny Lynch's dad and Bangor's uncle dying in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. "I forget that this day isn't normal, that yesterday wasn't normal, that the whole world as we know it has stopped...But then she sits down and sighs, and like that, I'm slammed with the memory of things. The cold hard truth that she doesn't belong here with me, that this is just temporary..." Kyle notes working on the memory trick to remember ten insignificant things makes them happy because for a moment they forget what they can't or don't want to remember.

It's interesting how Polisner has her characters carrying on with seemingly mundane chores and the regular business of living. People need the familiar in times of stress to help them cope. While waiting to hear from his father and his mother,Kyle does laundry and cooks. His father returns home after several days of working at Ground Zero and Kyle wakes in the morning to him making a batch of pancakes. His father explains "It's been tough, Kyle, I won't lie. Brutal. Which is why I needed to get home. See you guys, do something normal. Sit and eat a few pancakes with you and my brother, here." People find comfort in the routine of daily tasks when times are difficult. They also need something to tether them to reality. Kyle is the tether that Hannah needs while she struggles to remember. "Well, it feels like that, Kyle, back there. Like I"m adrift, in soaking wet clothes that are too heavy with the weight of things I don't even know...It's like I'm here, solid, but I'm not connected to anything. I'm completely untethered. I know that makes no sense," she says. It does, I say, 'I think I get it. but you're wrong. You're tethered to me.' "

The Memory of Things is tender, a delicate story about two people who come together unexpectedly and help each other in a time of great distress - the terrorist attacks of 9-11. It is a story about fear, loss, struggle, love and hope. And a brilliant piece of writing by Gae Polisner.

Book Details:

The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner
New York: St. Martin's Griffin    2016
279 pp. 

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