Meaning & Memories
Rosecrans Baldwin has few memories of Chicago, the city of his birth. He was only 2 when his family moved to Nashville, Tenn., where his father had been offered another job.
But the rhythms and textures of Chicago life — the blues music his parents relished, the excitement of game day at Wrigley Field, the cool blue of the lake — lived vividly in their dreams, and when his parents talked about these memories, somehow they made their way into a young boy's dreams as well.
That's what memory does, Baldwin notes. It's not a seamless, linear process of accumulation, a simple matter of storage and retrieval. As a character puts it in Baldwin's elegantly perceptive new novel "You Lost Me There":
"Some theories said the most accurate memory was the one that's never recalled. The more the mind retells a story, the more that story hardens into a basic shape, where by remembering one detail we push 10 others below the surface and construct the memory touch by touch. A sculpture between the neurons that looks like its model, just not completely."
In the shadowy alleys of Baldwin's brain, then, you might be as likely to find flashes of Michigan Avenue and State Street — his father managed the toy department at Carson Pirie Scott — as you would the thoroughfares of Brooklyn, N.Y., Paris or Chapel Hill, N.C., all cities in which Baldwin has lived as an adult.
Memory is a trickster, a scamp, a rogue. And, as Baldwin demonstrates in his novel, it can be a heartbreaker, too. "You Lost Me There" is about Victor Aaron, a scientist specializing in Alzheimer's research for whom memory goes from an abstract, clinical topic to a searing personal issue. After his wife is killed in a car accident, Victor is gradually learning how to cope with his memories — until he finds a series of index cards upon which she recorded her impressions of their marriage.
Her memories don't match his, leaving him to wonder about the truth of his past. Or of anyone's past, for that matter, if memory is so tentative and malleable that it can warp and twist and shift, depending on whose mental finger is doing the probing.
"I wanted to write a book about issues I cared about — what is love, what is memory, what do people care about?" said Baldwin, 33. He and his wife, Rachel, now live in Chapel Hill after a two-year stint in Paris and almost a decade in Brooklyn, where he worked in Web design and founded the Webzine The Morning News.
He studied Alzheimer's, Baldwin said, to merge the latest findings on the science of memory with the plight of one lonely scientist.
"My grandmother died from Alzheimer's, and it was a big shock," he said. "For the families left behind, it is not an easy closure. It's not a gradual fading. The person is losing so much of their humanity as they're dying. Losing your memories, you lose so much of who you are as a person.
"To be human is to have a collection of memories that tells you who you are and how you got there."
Baldwin's book joins other recent novels that use Alzheimer's as a theme, including "Still Alice" (2009) by Lisa Genova, a moving story about a brilliant academic who realizes her mind is being steadily worn away, like a shoreline crumbling into the sea, and "The Wilderness," (2009) by Samantha Harvey, an extraordinarily lyrical meditation on a man's slow unwinding on account of Alzheimer's.
Among nonfiction accounts, David Shenk's beautiful, harrowing "The Forgetting/Alzheimer's: Portrait of an Epidemic" (2001) remains the standard. It is one of those rare books that lifts journalism — the gathering and dissemination of topical facts — to the level of literature.
Memory is at the heart of art. "Imagination is memory," wrote James Joyce, and Baldwin's tender, funny, generous novel and others of its ilk gently reinforce that thought, while reminding us that memories are as slippery as they are essential, as protean as they are profound.
When memory goes it takes with it identity, hope — everything that matters. As Harvey writes in "The Wilderness" of her protagonist and his struggle: "It is impossible to accept that you will never be well again, and everything you have will be lost. A man is not pro-grammed to think this way, he will always seek out the next corner and look around it in expectation that something, something, will be there."
Even when we face a malady as frightening and soul-destroying as Alzheimer's, we keep seeking, keep looking around corners; if we are scientists, we head for the lab, and if we are novelists, we head for the writing desk.