Reading Like a Writer: Memory Triggers in A Gesture Life

Posted on Mon, May 25 2015 9:00 am by Allison Wyss

I want to examine the way memories are elicited in Chang-rae Lee’s A Gesture Life. The narrator, Doc Hata, does not think freely over the events of his life. Instead, his reflections are always provoked. It seems his memories can only happen if inspired by an outside source.

There are three time-lines running through the story. The first is the present day, when Doc Hata is retired and lonely. Events of this timeline include almost burning his house down and building a relationship with his grandson. The second timeline includes the narrator’s troubles with the young version of his daughter. The third strain relates his experiences in the war.

The first timeline happens naturally. Aided by the present tense, we feel as though Doc Hata is recounting what he observes as he observes it. It takes a trigger to move to the second or third timeline, however. The trigger might be a photograph, a place with memories attached, or a question asked by another character. It effectively pops the narrator out of the first timeline and forces him to remember earlier events. Occasionally, the trigger moves directly from the second timeline to the third without moving back to the first.

These triggers work to make the memories seem natural. However, the triggers themselves can feel a bit forced. For example, it's somewhat unusual for a woman to return a box of old photos to someone.

"I just remembered," she said, her face brightening as she approached me. She was holding a dusty box, the kind photographic paper comes in. "I was cleaning out the storeroom last week, and I found this in an old briefcase. I'm sorry, I couldn't help but look inside. There are all kinds of neat pictures in there."

Or, perhaps it's not unusual so much as it's a classic story moment, a device. A memory trigger such as this one can feel more contrived than a random memory would feel. If Mrs. Hickey can "just remember" a box of photographs, why can't Doc Hata just remember an event from his past?

At another point in the book, the narrator makes a special, uncompelled trip to an old cemetery,  which makes him remember a previous day that he spent there. If he chooses to visit the cemetery, why can’t he choose to remember his earlier experience?

I also think about how much can be gained by thoughts that, unlike those in A Gesture Life, occur without an apparent cause. When a thought emerges out of nowhere, we assume there's a reason for it, an unstated one. A seeming non sequitur makes us fill a gap in the narration, so that we can reach a deeper understanding of the character. We wonder: What does it mean that a particular narrator keeps returning, unprompted, to this topic? Why would the narrator think of that now?

So these clear triggers in A Gesture Life—they're not my style. And yet they worked for me. I found this voice quite compelling. Why would that be?

I think the magic happens for me because this is a different kind of narrator—not the kind who can think about whatever he likes. In the quoted passage, Mrs. Hickey is capable of "just remember[ing]" something. Doc Hata, apparently, is not. As proven by the need for obvious memory triggers, Doc Hata is not free with this thoughts, withholding them even from himself. Knowing this, we wonder: What other things are in that mind? What memories are still untriggered? And when we do get a trigger and a memory, instead of pondering why the thought comes now, we wonder why it's only now that he thinks it.

But this method of memory retrieval is not just about compelling the reader. It tells us something essential about the narrator. Lee uses the triggers to show us the state of Doc Hata's mind. That he must be forced to access his memories—it signals trauma. And so we feel the pain of the memories more intensely.

When I let myself enjoy something outside of my usual preferences and then analyze why it works, I can learn something. It turns out there's not a best way to move into memory—just a right way for a particular narrator.

How else have you seen writers skillfully elicit memory in their work? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.

Allison Wyss is teaching "Midwestern Characters: The Polite, the Restrained, the Grotesque" this summer at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters' Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.