I spoke to many other people, as well. I spoke to my father, as well as my aunts and uncles. They pointed out grandfather’s omissions as a father, and fondly recalled his sporadic attempts at parenting. This is likely the substance of most children’s memories of their parents. Some parents just have more on the positive or negative side of the ledger. He was not unkind, but he was distracted by his gambling and his love affairs, and so he was negligent as a father.
Teachers who had once worked with my grandfather spoke very highly of him. He had been a fair and kind employer. I asked them to describe his teaching techniques, his management style, but it was hard to pin down. Many said he was inspirational, that he had shown them how to be successful, but they could not say precisely how this had been conveyed to them. Students who had studied at my grandfather’s school had similar appraisals. I asked some whether it bothered them that he was also somewhat of a man about town. They said that they vaguely knew of this, but it didn’t concern them as they were his students. Unlike now, an age in which everyone feels free to criticize everyone else, more so if they are more rich, famous, or lucky, at that time being an educator still conferred some of the distance of respect.
If asked to describe memory, I think many people would instinctively agree with a suggestion that memory is like a movie - a sequence of events, ordered one after another. This sounds right, perhaps because we live in an age which is saturated with moving pictures on screens. Except, I think that’s a little too simple. It is partly true, but I’m not sure that is all of what memory really feels like.
Think of a time you were really scared, and a time you remember being excited with joy. Likely these appear to you in a flash. They are images, of particular moments. You might recall the events that led up to that moment, but not as vividly as the moment itself. The things that came after that peak might also be remembered, but possibly not. There is a central moment of emotion that gleams with intensity. It does not run at a constant speed, like film reel. Instead, there is a central piece with great weight, and other surrounding incidents
I think memory is actually more like a pebble dropped into the water.
The impact of certain events disturbs the liquid surface of our lives, throws the droplets of emotion into the air, and sends ripples out in concentric circles which physicists would tell us continue forever.
How is it, then, that memory is related to a novel? If memories are at best vague, incomplete, and distorted, while words on the page are best when they are specific, coherent, and sharply rendered, are the phenomena of memory and that of a novel even related?
Before I ever met my grandfather, I had heard stories about him. Through these, his ripples had reached me. The Vietnam War was finished by the time of my first awareness of the world. Its pain, its confusion, and its dislocations rippled for years – and still do, through world consciousness. It is one of many wars and geopolitical events that have this effect, their waves intertwining and overlapping, smaller and smaller with the distance of time. By the time I met my grandfather, the reality of his own circumstances had changed entirely, and yet Vietnam remained important in who he knew himself to be, and how he understood his own history. For all of those people whose lives intersected his, there was no way for them to replay a film strip of his life, nor did it matter. What they knew was the way his ripples had pushed them, hard or gently from the water’s surface.
A novel is like this in many ways. It is written with one word after another – each of these to be experienced in this order. Flashbacks and temporal dislocations notwithstanding, it is an exercise in linearity. Yet, it does not exist as a film strip. A week after reading it, a reader could summarize the plot. A year after reading it, a reader might remember some key characters, a poignant scene. Ten years later, the reader knows the way it made them feel. Like the memories which it may be related to, it is a pebble dropped in the water, ripples spreading outwards.
Copyright Vincent Lam 2012