Friday, September 09, 2005

Spilling Clarence: a novel worth remembering

"What we can infer from Freud's theories is there is something innate about the tricks our mind plays. Perhaps we are biologically programmed to distort the past. Memory is associative, and we are surrounded by its cues all the time---smell, sensation, word, place---without these screens, perhaps, we would be constantly wallowing in trauma. Forgetfulness is not a sign of disease. It is natural, and may even be biologically positive. Perhaps the mind's ability to make the past malleable is essential for our survival."

Bennie begins to pace back and forth on the stage, as he usually does at the half-hour point.

"Because we've all made horrendous mistakes, suffered trauma, committed troubling acts in our lives. What would happen if we could remember them all, call them up with just a smell or a word? What would it do to us if we remembered our childhoods, our whole lives, every day?"

- Spilling Clarence by Anne Ursu, page 69
Anne Ursu's novel is about just such a situation: a pharmaceutical factory disaster in the small town of Clarence releases a chemical which renders people prisoners of their own memories. Ursu's novel is full of clever, heartwarming touches, especially in the character of 8-year-old Sophie, but it also has a dark and tragic side, in the psychology professor (and Sophie's dad) Bennie, who lost his wife to a car accident five years ago.

I always seem to be wishing my memory could be better, more detailed, more accessible - yet this novel reminded me that forgetting has its merits as well. Sometimes our most powerful memories, like the presence and impressions of a lost loved one, are best kept secreted away in some hidden corner of the mind, where they can't overwhelm us quite so easily.

A lot of my memories are locked up in pieces of music, I think - as in the Bruckner symphony I wrote about the other day. When I listen to that music, a whole other period of my life seems to come into focus, a time when I was tremendously determined and ambitious, and tremendously lonely. These are memories I never want to lose, because they make my life so much richer; yet to think of them every day might be painful and crippling.

Ursu's characters are beautifully drawn, sympathetic and funny, and their struggles through the obstacle courses of memory are fascinating and moving. I imagine Charlie Kaufman could write a great cinematic screenplay based on Spilling Clarence - as in his movies Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the tension and action takes place largely inside the characters' minds. No adaptation is really necessary, though, to appreciate what a lovely and sweet little novel this is. I suppose it would be an exaggeration to call it unforgettable - even the sweetest things in life are destined to be forgotten, but they are still worth experiencing!

Anne Ursu has a great website with lots of reviews and information about Clarence and her other novel, The Disapparation of James. She also blogs daily on a very funny Twins baseball fan site,, which is how I first heard about her.

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