“(Man Walks Into A Room) is the story of Samson Greene, a professor of English at Columbia University found wandering the Nevada desert with a cherry-sized tumor in his brain. Doctors are able to successfully remove it, but he is left with an obliterated memory; 24 years, the latter two-thirds of his life, is effectively redacted. His wife, Anna, brings him back to New York, but Samson is unable to reconcile his former life and the situation in which he finds himself. He flees the daily pressures of the unknown past for the empty canvas of the western desert and the pull of a charismatic doctor who is pushing the limits of experimental neurological research.” (Randomhouse.com)
This is another book in the amnesia lit category, a genre which, no matter how often criticized for being an easy narrative device, is one I quite enjoy. Krauss raises some interesting questions about identity and memory: Who are we without our memories, is a person a construct of their habits, is real empathy at all possible? This novel is interesting in that it works in balancing storytelling with postmodern concepts. The plot is carried by the main character Samson Greene and his attempt to navigate a life that does not seem to be his own anymore. He is portrayed as a man of intellect, and this is how I could relate to him, for the most part intellectually and not emotionally. Although Samson does not come across as a cardboard character, he does not inspire much warmth either. It is through Samson that Krauss explores human identity and the power of memories. Samson is cut off from the persons he should have strong emotional ties with, such as his wife Anna. He is struggling with people´s expectations of him, everyone hoping to be the trigger to his lost memories. While Samson himself remains curiously detached, his observations of the people around him and his childhood reveal plenty of emotions.
Krauss has a wonderful way with words and it is a testament to her writing skills that her poetic devices and some scenes in the book that I might otherwise have thought of a as too cliché, were beautiful and rang true. The other characters, Samson´s wife, and the people he meets on his journey, feel very real. Anna´s situation is a big part of what makes this a very sad and sometimes depressing story. Samson does not suddenly regain his memories, it´s not that kind of book, but he can and does form new ones.
Krauss manages to explore themes such as the construction of identity and the relation of memories and personality without losing herself in narrative devices. I often resent postmodern writers, or those strongly influenced by postmodernism, for questioning the story and experimenting so much with it, that the story itself does not survive or only remains a shadow of itself. This novel challenges head and heart, and surprisingly, I enjoyed it as much as The History of Love.
Nearly every line of this novel is beautifully written and very quotable but here are some of my favorite passages:
“To lose your memory would be to forfeit your position as the Original.” (45)
“She stopped crying after that, and now she only cried once in a while, when she least expected it or when she finished books that she especially loved” (56)
“The kind of kid, Samson thought, who takes everything apart to see how it´s wired. Who starts out by leaving pennies to be flattened on the railroad tracks and ends up controlling push-button bombs.” (95)
“It was a story he´d told countless times, now whittled down to a few phrases; a story that, like all true stories, lost something with each telling.” (119)
“The emptiness an infant possesses in the very first moments, when consciousness begins like the answer to a question never asked.” (122)
“How can a mind know how alone it is until it brushes up against some other mind?” (193)
“And what is lif, Samson wondered now, without a witness?” (209)