The Explorer’s Task: Of Memory and the Modern Novel

By Patrick NathanSeptember 5, 2012

The Explorer’s Task: Of Memory and the Modern Novel

Boarded Windows by Dylan Hicks

“This writer had argued that each man in his heart
is a traveller in a boundless landscape.”

— Gerald Murnane, The Plains

BEFORE I LOVED BOOKS I loved music. My future, back then, was very different. It looked like the low-ceilinged tunnels underneath stadiums and it smelled strangely sulfurous. It sounded like guitars, kick drums, and a brass section recorded underwater and played on blown speakers hidden in an empty filing cabinet. This future took shape in 1999, when I was 15. I blame my best friend.

“Let me show you what I made,” he said, slipping a disk and a memory card into the PlayStation. The program — nothing but little bars of soundwaves all stacked on top of one another — turned out to be a track sheet made in MTV’s Music Generator software. I had no idea that I’d come to use this software to compose music over the following year, nor did I know how much I’d come to love composition itself. I also didn’t know that he’d simply strung together a handful of the program’s pre-installed royalty-free loops. All I knew was that whatever he played for me sounded awesome. “I thought we could do this,” he said, like it wouldn’t, over the next three years, ruin our friendship for good.

I’d been creative before that, as an aspiring architect, a child model, an attempted actor, a failed painter, a diligent scientist (or, more accurately, a putter-of-things-in-small-containers), and a writer of absurd stories. Musician seemed like a logical progression. After all I’d just discovered Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails and was just beginning to express myself in unique ways by wearing nail polish or eyeliner, dyeing my hair, and piercing my tongue. Though, to be honest, I can’t definitively say that I ever wore eyeliner to school. In the boys’ parlance, the tongue piercing made me a cocksucker, and in the girls’ the red hair made me even pastier. If I think about it, I can picture the high school, and I can picture the spots where my friends and I congregated in the hallways. In searching for a memory like this, you have to ask yourself what kind of stare a high school-aged intolerant would give you if you looked the part they were supposed to hate. In asking, you find a person you knew, and you contort their face into disgust. Recall this and remember that you wore eyeliner to school. Recall your friend showing off his musical talent and remember how little of it he had.


At first the phenomenon of memory seems like a scratched-up mid-nineties hard drive groaning as it looks for a file, but the brain doesn’t work that way. In the 2007 “Memory and Forgetting” episode of WNYC’s Radiolab, the currently under-fire Jonah Lehrer explains the aspect of memory that makes it truly phenomenal. There’s no file at all:

The act of remembering — on a literal level it’s an act of creation. Every memory is rebuilt anew every time you remember it… What you’re remembering is that memory reinterpreted in the light of today, in the light of now. […] The more you remember something, in a sense, the less accurate it becomes. The more it becomes about you and the less about what actually happened.

Now that I’ve grown up it seems I’ve found my true calling, as there’s nobody more obsessed with memory than the modern fiction writer. The idea that even memoirists, whose sales figures murder those of novelists, are writing a kind of fiction — this is fiction’s answer to our culture’s obsession with fact. I’m not talking about a John D’Agata, “the bus was purple not pink because it sounds better” approach to writing. Instead it’s your brain’s own game of telephone, yesterday whispering in today’s ear only for today to whisper into tomorrow’s. It’s a concept that invokes a playful set of meta quirks that would make Nabokov, Borges, and Perec all groan in their graves. Yet to bill anything as a memoir and even hint that there’s an unverifiable memory buried in it is to upset the fact-hungry American stomach.

Fortunately, debut novelist Dylan Hicks has solved this problem. While a novel that questions the reliability of memory won’t sell as many copies as James Frey’s unreliable memoir A Million Little Pieces, Hicks is entitled a certain smugness, if for no other reason than that Boarded Windows is a stellar work of fiction, not to mention a stellar work on fiction.

When we read a first person novel that begins with a sentence like, “The last time I saw Wade Salem was the morning of December 21, 1991, through the window of a green and white taxi,” our assumption is that the narrator has since aged, and that he’s writing this as a kind of reflection. As readers, we’ve come to expect that the narrator remembers this accurately, down to every detail. We anticipate what follows to be a literal account of what happened. Even your average unreliable narrator tends to at least get the facts right. The narrator of Hicks’s novel dispels this within the first twenty pages:

I’ve done some embroidering, intentionally and unwittingly, and will continue to flesh things out with invented details and almost wholly reconstructed dialogue. My story is in part drawn from other stories, from the colored and conflicting stories that Wade and my mother told me, so in spots this book will be embroidered embroidery, in service, I hope, to some fundamental emotional truth… “Why are you people so tirelessly/tiresomely [the exact adverb escapes me] obsessed with the limitations of memory?” someone once asked me. I didn’t pursue whom she meant by “you people.”

The narrator’s book, obviously, is one we’ve committed to reading. His primary focus is nine or ten weeks at the end of 1991, when Wade, his mother’s former lover and basement tenant, pays an unannounced and indefinite visit. It’s shortly before the narrator’s 21st birthday and he hasn’t seen Wade since 1978. At that time he, on his own accord, referred to Wade as his step-dad, though there was never much love between them, and it’s clear that in 1991 nothing has changed. “I’m still taller,” Wade says as he hauls his belongings up the stairwell. Wade, it turns out, is also better-looking, far more intelligent, incurably charming, and a superb liar. Even when he aims for repellence, he succeeds in being more repellent than the narrator. Or at least that’s how he’s remembered. The narrator sees this visit as his moment when everything went wrong — a time on which he blames his “growing coolness” and his inability “to hear music in the same flooding way” he once did. When Wade arrives, the narrator knows one past — his birth mother’s disappearance, his adoptive mother’s heavy-hearted kindness, Wade’s adventures on the road — and over car rides, breakfasts, phone conversations, patented Midwestern passive-aggressive arguments, and a little eavesdropping, that past morphs into another and grows more obscure than ever. Here are the “colored and conflicting” stories; here’s the embroidered embroidery. As the narrator lifts the personal details from Wade’s digressions on linguistics, music, art history, literature, philosophy, sex and sadomasochism, aimless traveling, politics, and his own societal theories, he’s left with a past more fictional than not. “I have a fumelike memory of watching him leave,” he says of Wade when he boards fictional singer Bolling Greene’s tour bus never to return, “of watching my mother upbraid the fat country singer in the havelock and bandolier, the men standing on our lawn, she standing on our stoop, I peering through the mail slot.” It’s no coincidence this calls to mind a marriage’s downfall, a husband leaving his wife for another woman while their child stands by helplessly. It’s the imagistic answer to Wade’s absence — an excuse, even — but the narrator ultimately cannot prove it: “Later, however, my mother insisted that I was hard asleep when the silver tour bus pulled noisily away, its scornful exhaust tones, augmented by a hard-to-attribute auroral whoop, still reverberating several minutes later through the dirty white sky.” I’m not yet 30 and even I know the limitations of a decades-old memory. Age eight was a long, long time ago. What I want to know is how that tour bus sounded, as it kept reverberating, before the narrator tells this story — when he remembered it at nine, at 14, or close to 40. How long until it became scornful? When did the sky grow dirty?

In other novels you’d chalk this up to fictional construct or flourish, but in Boarded Windows these are the sentences we underline. The narrator, in his own words, is looking for a “fundamental emotional truth.” You could, however, say the same thing about anybody. I doubt anyone — novelist, scientist, priest, or hair stylist — would deny his or her receptivity to emotional truth, whatever that is. What strikes me is Hicks’s representation of that search through fiction — both the literal fiction of the novel and the consequential fiction of the narrator’s memoir. Boarded Windows summons the enterprise of fiction itself, always on trial for its supposed uselessness and thus always defended as a core necessity of our culture. It calls into question the significance of authenticity — our obsession with the original. Shortly after Wade’s arrival he engages Wanda, the narrator’s girlfriend (25 to the narrator’s almost 21), in a pseudo-philosophic conversation, following what is certainly his standard procedure for charming and dominating those in his company:

“I don’t know anything about computers, but I used to be what you might call a reproduction purist. I’d read Benjamin’s ‘Das Kuntswerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’ and Berger’s Ways of Seeing” — this title he pronounced with a funny German accent: Vays ohf Zeeink — “and my response to the ultimately liberating ‘withering of the aura’ and all that shit was not just to accept but to prefer and demand everything at one remove, at least one: so the record, I thought, was better than the band; the Memorex better than the record; the Marcantonio engraving better than the Raphael original; the painting inspired by the engraving better than the painting inspired by the original […] the belch better than the hot dog; the photo-booth polyptych better than the kiss; the memory better than the affair; the shadow, in other words, more compelling than the figure.”

“Yeah,” someone said.

Wade’s thread of examples — a pastiche doubtlessly lifted from all the books he’s skimmed and all the polemicists with whom he’s done drugs or jail time — hammers in circles around its target, and the dents it leaves in the wood indicate not only the artist’s obsession with nostalgia but the power of memory itself, and, by extension, that of fiction. Removed from the object, the moment, the person, the place, our past exists only in our head. Every time we bring it into consciousness, we rebuild it, placing more and more of ourselves in that object, that moment, that person, that place. Eventually the people we’ve loved and the places we’ve lived become total fictions. This is why, in One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Macondo that Aureliano Buendía returns to is not the same Macondo he left. This is why Wade Salem, sitting at the narrator’s kitchen table and flirting with his girlfriend, looks and behaves nothing like the Wade Salem who, during a thunderstorm, “carried me from my bedroom down to his apartment and put me in the caved-in middle of his hideaway bed, where I dreamed and drooled between my mother and him.” He was asleep, both Wade and his mother contest, but he remembers it well — strongly enough “to feel Wade and my mother holding hands on my chest.” Of course we prefer the once-removed to the original. This makes it easier, once we’re in power, to give our formative experiences the aspects we require of them in order to shape ourselves into the people we wish to be. It’s necessary that we assign scorn to a separation, not to mention a weight of love where none was.


As keepers of a literary form touched with falsehood or pretense, novelists can go to great lengths to defend fiction’s corporeality, utility, and necessity. As if science will validate our art, we enthusiastically embrace the findings of neurological and cognitive studies on the novel, forgetting that “validating art” is an etymological oxymoron. In March of this year, The Atlantic published Maura Kelly’s short article (or manifesto, as she calls it) on the benefits of reading literary work. She calls for a Slow Books Movement, dedicated to unplugging the computer and turning to works “that took some time to write and will take some time to read, but will stay with us longer than anything else.” Naturally, she begins her explanation with scientific research: “Neuroscientists have found plenty of proof that reading fiction stimulates all sorts of cognitive areas […] Because literary books are so mentally invigorating, and require such engagement, they make us smarter than other kinds of reading material.” She then moves away from science toward something like sociology or moral philosophy: “It makes us us, shaping our consciences and our identities. Strong narratives […] help us develop empathy.” She concludes by venturing into an uncomfortable eat-your-peas kind of argument: “Serious reading will make you feel good about yourself. Surveys show that TV viewing makes people unhappy and remorseful — but when has anyone ever felt anything but satisfied after finishing a classic?” It may be this exact prescriptivism that’s begun to close fiction off from mass American culture. Of course we all want to feel good about ourselves, but when was the last time we took more than five minutes to do it? If fiction is so healthy, why not capture its essence and bottle it as Vitamin-F chewables? Tolstoy’s audience will double.

Kelly’s most valid point is her brief mention of identity and empathy, yet in a blog post for The New York Review of Books — published, coincidentally, eight hours after Kelly’s article went live — author and provocateur Tim Parks asks the question, “Do We Need Stories?” Obviously, he concedes, they increase our awareness and develop our sense of empathy, and obviously fiction carries with it a complex reconstruction of reality that teaches us how to make moral decisions and live our own lives. That is, at least, the argument. Parks atomizes this argument by training his gaze upon that which makes up our stories — language itself:

Even before we actually tell any stories, the language we use teems with them in embryo form. There are words that simply denote things in nature: a pebble, a tree. There are words that describe objects we make: to know the word “chair” is to understand about moving from standing to sitting and appreciate the match of the human body with certain shapes and materials. But there are also words that come complete with entire narratives, or rather that can’t come without them. The only way we can understand words like God, angel, devil, ghost, is through stories, since these entities do not allow themselves to be known in other ways, or not to the likes of me. Here not only is the word invented — all words are — but the referent is invented too, and a story to suit. God is a one-word creation story.

Parks argues that the most important word of the invented-referents is “self,” a story that’s grown incontestably more complex with the proliferation of labyrinthine personal narratives, or novels. The novel, he says, brought the concept of individualism to a wide reading public, along with its consequence of having us “believe more and more strongly in this sovereign self whose essential identity remains unchanged by all vicissitudes […] [Novels] sustain the idea of a self projected through time, a self eager to be a real something (even at the cost of great suffering) and not an illusion.” But do we need it? What, Parks wants to know, has the self done for us? To ham it up, Parks imagines a Buddhist priest’s critique of the novel’s influence: “He or she would probably tell us that it is precisely this illusion of selfhood that makes so many in the West unhappy. We are in thrall to the narrative of selves that do not really exist in the way we imagine.” He then resorts to Schopenhauer: “He spoke of people ‘deluded into an absolutely false view of life by reading novels’ […] Like the Buddhist priest, he would have preferred silence or the school of experience.” Of course Parks is “too enmired in narrative and self narrative to bail out now,” but he imagines a more perfect world, free “from the fiction that wonderfully enslaves us.”


I could, here, splinter outward indefinitely. I’m tempted to gather and cite articles on the phenomenon of the imagination, the only considerable achievement of the human organism over the earth’s millions of other species. I’m tempted to quote and unpack Emily Dickinson’s #466 (“I Dwell in Possibility —”), and to type up all 111 pages of Gerald Murnane’s masterpiece of potentiality, The Plains. Instead I’ll return to Boarded Windows, a work of fiction that, in its honesty and innovation, pulls taut our supposed chains. It’s books like these that make us glad to be so unhappy.

I first met Hicks at a novel-writing conference hosted by the Loft Literary Center here in Minneapolis. I had recently started telling everyone I met to read Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, and a seminar on more-or-less plotless fiction couldn’t have been a better fit for me. The plot has its place, Hicks assured us, but sometimes we read books for reasons that have nothing to do with action. We don’t always want to know what happens next so much as what the narrator will say next, how the characters will feel next. In the case of the text Hicks offered as our prime example — the first two pages of Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story — we want to know what the narrator will remember next. Later, after I’d read both Boarded Windows and the whole of Davis’s novel, it didn’t surprise me to see that Hicks had, in a Bookslut interview, referenced The End of the Story as one of his book’s primary models. Davis’s narrator, he says, “is all the time coloring in details about a long-ago affair, but is just as often questioning her motivations, acknowledging her lapses in memory, and leaving all these lacunae.” Looking back on that seminar, holding a blurred photocopy of Davis’s work, I can recall the excitement in Hicks’s voice as he picked apart Davis’s language, verbally highlighting phrases like “must have,” “might seem,” and “I think.”

It’s clear Hicks does respect the unclarity of memory, but his ambitions go beyond that. His work betrays a passion for uncertainty and ambiguity the way Nabokov’s books do a passion for puns and butterflies, or Burroughs’s for smack and semen. Like Davis’s, Hicks’s narrator is coloring in details that couldn’t possibly have been remembered: dialogue; hand gestures; albums playing in the background; the names of artists, philosophers, and singer/songwriters that fill Wade’s soliloquies; the soliloquies themselves; and a VHS set list as the 1991 Halloween blizzard traps them at home. Again, in another novel we suspend our skepticism — it is, after all, only fiction — but in Boarded Windows the end of this fuckery is more deliberate. The narrator is looking for something. He’s hard at work organizing this moment of his life, and like anyone who seeks to organize he’s pulled in unexpected directions, dragged back to other time periods and other locales, including his hometown of Enswell, ND, where Wade lived in his mother’s basement. Up until the winter of 1991, the narrator had everything worked out — or, at least, he had a story that worked for him. Like an old western, the book plays against the trope in which a character or object from the past reintroduces itself and stirs up the uncomfortable peace in the name of justice or morality. In another book, Wade may have shown up with a scar on his neck and called himself Departed. Wade comes and goes, announcing his plan to deejay in Berlin, and while it’d be dramatic to say he leaves the narrator’s life in ruins, he at least leaves the past tied up in knots too tight to untangle for another 20 years, the time at which the narrator writes this memoir. It’s a mess that, presumably, he’s finally ready to clean up.

Even if the narrator remains somewhat untrustworthy, it’s easy to see too that the 21-year-old bearing the brunt of the novel’s pain could never write a book like this. The author of this fictitious memoir is older, more experienced, and, despite his quip about “not hearing music in the same flooding way” he used to, a virtuosic artist. The novel is rich with an organic, almost Bellovian love of portmanteaux, catalogues, and invention. The singer and figurative homewrecker Bolling Greene (whose songs Hicks has “covered” in the book’s companion album, Dylan Hicks Sings Bolling Greene — available for free download with purchase of the novel, on CD, or vinyl) “always seemed more bisontine than hippopotamian, more gallant than galumphing.” Like a kid mixing too many under-the-sink chemicals, he describes Wanda as “wearing a one-pocket crew-neck T-shirt from a discount-store three-pack.” From any other narrator a sentence illustrating Wade’s “sinisterity, though slight,” as “thick enough to emit bursts of Mephistophelean elegance and allure” would indicate possession by the author’s spirit or, at the very least, by Wade himself, but he’s only an artist trying to decode, or encode, his own life. He’s still trying to organize, and like all artists he’s organizing with an aesthetic diligence. Almost like a player taking his turn at Scrabble, he’s rearranging what he has until he’s found the way to proceed, until he’s satisfied.

Of course, with Wade and Wanda out of his life 20 years, having relocated to the suburbs, and long past his youth, there’s not much the narrator can do with the real Wade, the real Wanda. His record store is long shuttered, the chain out of business. Those people and places exist only in his head, and with 20 years’ separation — 20 years of remembering — the life that ends up on paper can’t be called anything but fiction. Wade becomes his character, a novelistic invention. Like all fictional characters, Wade grows along with the text itself, and the writer is forced to make him consistent. The narrator gets inside of his character’s head and listens to him, and the book’s final recollection is its most pure fiction — a moment the narrator cannot possibly prove or verify: “I imagine him at the radio station in Berlin. The studio is large but not as state-of-the-art as he may have hoped. Maybe the microphones aren’t even German. The pop guard is yellow instead of the standard black. Wade’s chair […] is upholstered in torn, nubby, orange cloth; its squeaks can be heard over the air during quiet moments.” It’s no surprise that this scene reveals the fundamental truth the narrator’s been looking for, but sometimes we don’t want surprises. Sometimes we need affirmation. Boarded Windows is the narrator’s account of what happened. It’s a synthesis of reality meant to infuse his lonely life with meaning. “An explorer’s task,” says Gerald Murnane, “is to postulate the existence of a land beyond the known land. Whether or not he finds that land and brings back news of it is unimportant.” In The Plains, land and landscape are world and wonder; explorers — those who look for meaning. It’s easy to forget that finding truth in wonder is more rewarding than sifting through the facts. That’s why the stars were gods and the sea paid homage. That’s why so many still look to Christ for love. Like this novel’s narrator, we delve into the fiction in order to find what we’d hoped was there in reality all along.


Recommended Reads:

LARB Contributor

Patrick Nathan’s writing has appeared in Boulevard, dislocate, Music & Literature, Revolver, 3:AM Magazine, and elsewhere. His first novel, Some Hell, is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2017.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.