The Use Of Memory
Being between two lives – unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the pastT.S. Eliot, 'Little Gidding,' Four Quartets
Sometimes, a loss can stop time, or at least seem to. Time becomes divided: the past, where the loss didn't exist, and the future, where the loss will always be present. This year, I read many books that are concerned with the time between that division. They follow a structure that begins with a character, having experienced a profound loss, frozen between the past and the future. Rather than grieve, the character recounts the history of his or her loss, until the retrospective narrative dovetails with the frozen present. These novels are not about nostalgia; they are about the paralysis of shock, and how it traps people in the present, while simultaneously thrusting them into the past.
The characters are caught in what David Bergen calls, in his novel's title, The Time In Between. In Bergen's book, and in many others, characters unexpectedly find themselves foreigners: in countries distant from home, camping in the wilds of northern Ontario, or simply so numbed by the unfamiliar (a refugee, a granddaughter of an Alzheimer's patient) that their own friends and lovers feel like strangers. They do not recount the past to offer up whodunits. There are no great mysteries here. The characters know the end of the story already. Nor do they try to escape their grief. Rather, they cast their eyes backwards, using memory to free themselves from the desire for a different history, so that they can finally accept loss and begin grieving.
The structure of these novels is ritualized, often alternating chapters between the present and the past. It is like a wake, or sitting Shiva, or the many other rituals that human beings use to address loss. We sit in the [End Page 185] present, looking back, before we embark on the rest of our lives. When we have finished our ritual, it is not that we move on free of loss. We begin the rest of our lives with the grief integrated into our existence.
Although Bergen's novel addresses more than one character's 'in between' time, it begins with Ada, who is in Danang with her brother Jon, searching for her vanished father, Charlie, a us veteran of the Vietnam War. Ada is in stasis, despite her fruitless attempts to act: she visits a police officer, tracks down people who knew her father, and performs other acts of a detective. But her search does not yield her father's whereabouts. So she also falls asleep on the beach, reads, and wanders aimlessly. This period becomes a time for moving backward into her past with her father, and into her understanding of him. Eventually, it becomes clear that her father was profoundly depressed, and that in some part of herself Ada believes he is dead. The time in between is the time between her father's disappearance and the certainty that he is actually dead.
In Bergen's novel, Ada's stasis is interwoven with her father's. For him, the time in between has lasted over thirty years, since he fought in Vietnam and committed an atrocity he has admitted to no one. He has been in a holding pattern ever since, because 'it was one thing to survive the war, and another thing to survive after the war.' Since then, he has suffered from the burden of his memories, even as he raised his three children in isolation in British Columbia. (In this novel, as in others, the characters seem to go to uncharted wilderness – whether a foreign city or the wilds of northern Ontario.)
His own trip back to Vietnam, and to the village of his crime, is a...