Thursday, October 30, 2008

Alice Mattison/NOTHING IS QUITE FORGOTTEN IN BROOKLYN

In 1989, the worst week of Constance Tepper's life begins when her purse is stolen while she's cat-sitting at her elderly mother's Brooklyn. Fourteen years later, in another Brooklyn apartment, Con finds her weekend crowded by her underachieving 29-year-old daughter, Joanna; her mildly annoying amateur historian ex husband, Jerry; her late mother's pushy neighbor, Peggy; and, most problematically, Marlene, her mother's best friend and Con's long-time idol. The combination of personalities begin to jostle all kinds of suppressed histories, from 1989 to 1942 to 1927, and, it turns out, nothing is ever quite forgotten in Brooklyn.

Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn is quiet and absorbing, a quick page-turner that revels in the honest details of our everyday lives and the mediocre motivations that inspire our actions (but, more often, our inertias). In a cast of very average and yet interesting characters, Mattison creates a stupor under which something dark is bubbling, just out of reach. As the reader experiences two incredibly mundane weeks in Con's life, it becomes clear that there's something much more sinister going on, if only Con would make herself ask the right questions, but for much of the book it's an itch that has to go unscratched for the reader as Con, so close to catching onto the full story, instead chooses to think about things like when she's going to use up the chopped meat she bought. The effect is spellbinding and infuriating; it becomes impossible not to finish reading in a big hurry.

For me, the most effective point of the novel is the idea of surpressed memory, which is something novels systematically ignore. I'll quote here instead of paraphrasing poorly:
As I've said, this is anot a story about memory, and in November, 2003, Con hadn't been thinking about the week in 1989 that I've chronicled. If anything this is a story about forgetting. Con had forgotten that week as much as it is possible to do so. I don't blame her. Fourteen and a half years had passed. If we're accustomed to reading novels, we're used to stories told by someone who remembers, much later, the order of events, who said what, and how each person moved and gestured. Of course we all have detailed, possibly accurate memories of striking scenes from the past--but not of what happened an hour later, or the next morning. In real life, aside from vivid flashes, we usually can't remember the exact words of a conversation we had minutes ago. We remember, a week or a year later, that someone's story made us uncomfortable, but not necessarily why, or what the story was about. So, Con had forgotten a great deal, but any of us might have done the same.(174)

Con's character nearly survives the entire book without ever scratching the itch that's so obvious to the reader; of course, it'd obvious to us because we see her past clearly around her while she simply doesn't.

Why did Mattison have to remind us of this? How could I never have come across this concept in a novel before? We never ask ourselves how heros and heroines experience scene after scene so vividly; in real life, we never sustain that level of presence in action for such a long period of time, and as such most real drama is simply de facto, the upshot of other things that we just become too tired to think about.

A smart read. Give it a go.

1 comment:

Leigh Russell said...

Yes, I read a quotation somewhere along the lines of, 'I won't remember what you said, but I will remember how you made me feel.'