Biography 24.4 (2001) 922-924
[Access article in PDF]
I remember a "droodle," or pictorial puzzle, that was going the rounds when I was a child and that gave me particular pleasure: four elongated rectangles point from each side of a square to a circle in the middle. How to read this design? Maybe it represented four elephants smelling a grapefruit. Maybe four snooker players were aiming for the same ball. The reading challenge was enjoyable, and the ambiguity was delightful, as was the simplicity of the design. With rather more sophistication, Nicola King approaches the ball, the grapefruit, the circular and overlapping relations of memory, narrative, and identity from distinct but related directions--through narrative theory, psychoanalysis, fiction, and autobiography. In particular, she tackles the problems of memory as nostalgia for an imaginary plenitude that cannot be recovered, points of origin being always in retreat from our attempts to locate them; as always affected by the present and therefore delayed; and as outgrowths of the relations between individual and cultural memory. King's metaphors for imagining and formulating memory, metaphors that she reworks throughout her analyses, are narrative, the snapshot, and experience of the body. For narratives of both personal and cultural trauma, King works with memory in terms of Freud's analogy with archaeology, and with the extensive work that has followed his treatment of Nachträglichkeit (Bollas's "the unthought known"). Given the belatedness of memory, King describes its fullest affect as dependent on the immediacy constructed in narrative. Hindsight creates significance: reading forward, like living forward, is an interpretive act in process; memory, reconstructed in narrative, is therefore implicated in self-identity.
King develops her treatment of memory and narrative with an unusual and thought-provoking combination of texts. Following an opening chapter on "memory in theory" both psychoanalytical and narrative, King turns to Ronald Fraser and Carolyn Steedman to examine the problems of time in memory and narrative, the processes of reconstructing many versions of the [End Page 922] past that are necessarily affected by the present-tense of remembering. Both Fraser and Steedman reinterpret personal histories in terms of others' histories, thereby negotiating the individual and the collective that is, in these cases, also already distinctively inflected by gender and class.
Analyses of Sylvia Fraser (My Father's House) and Margaret Atwood (Cat's Eye) in Chapter 3 introduce a Canadian pairing of autobiography and fiction with a focus on personal trauma. Choosing an autobiography that depends on novelistic techniques and a novel that takes the form of an autobiography, King highlights "the fact that creation or impression of truth is an effect of language and narrative" (62). With full attention to the psychoanalytic tropes present in both texts, King focuses on truth resulting from a narrative shape.
Chapter 4, "Myths of Origin," strikes me as King's boldest move; she explores the work of the detective writer Barbara Vine, whose cases turn on mistaken or uncertain identity or origins, and whose processes of detection rigorously preserve "doubt at the heart of things" (qtd. 93). Because these works are explicitly fiction, King uses them to examine the reader's participatory role both in the narrative acts of detection and in the recognitions that come with rereading. While Vine's work is clearly an inspired choice for consideration of all these issues, the intricacies of plot in each case make the details of these analyses complicated for readers who do not know Vine's work.
With Chapter 5, King moves to historical trauma represented in narratives of individual experience: Georges Perec's W and Anne Michaels' Fugitive Pieces. Again combining discussion of autobiography and fiction, King provides a superb reading of Perec in particular, discussing the crisis of witnessing and the Holocaust in which the narrator cannot bear witness to the self. Identities in this chapter are founded on absence and silence and in the collective history that is the hardest to recall. King recognizes trauma in these texts in Perec'...