Study Guide

Memory Wall

by Anthony Doerr

Memory Wall Summary

Summary

Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr is a collection of five short stories, all written in Doerr’s beautiful and ponderous prose. “Tall Man in the Yard” is the first and longest story. It centers on seventy-four-year-old Alma Konachek, who is a widow with severe memory loss. She lives in Cape Town, Africa; her servant, Pheko, takes care of her during the day. Pheko uses his pay to try to care for his son, Temba, who lives with him in the slums of the city—he is a hard-working man just trying to help his son.

A new medical procedure allows Alma to extract her memories and put them on film so she can watch them like a movie. She spends most of her days watching her memories. Just before her husband died, he discovered a rare dinosaur fossil; however, due to Alma’s faulty memory, no one has been able to discover where that fossil is.

A local con artist, Roger Tshoni, reads the article about the fossil in the paper and is determined to find out where it is. After observing Alma’s trips to the doctor, he realizes she is undergoing the memory treatment and that the memory containing the fossil discovery might be on her cartridges. He sneaks into Alma’s house each night, hoping to find the one where her husband discovered the fossil. He recruits a local orphan, Luvo, to watch Alma’s memories. Luvo is young and underwent an operation to be compatible with the machine that plays the memories. Through Luvo’s viewing of the memory cartridges, Alma is revealed to have been a discontented character who held to class distinctions and a bit of racism. She was just about to leave Harold, her absent-minded husband who seemed to love fossils more than he loved her, when he died. Luvo gets lost in her memories, and they become part of his own dreams at night.

Alma’s memory loss makes it such that she never remembers that Roger, a stranger to her, daily breaks into her house. Each night she is startled, goes downstairs, and sits and talks with Roger while Luvo searches her memories for the right one. However, one night, Alma is so startled by Roger’s intrusion that she grabs a gun and shoots him—killing him instantly while Luvo is upstairs watching her memories. Pheko arrives with Temba shortly after and reports the death.

During the evening, Luvo finally discovered the memory of the fossil; he manages to escape out the back. As he is running through the backyard, Temba sees him. They have a brief conversation before Luvo flees. Luvo perceives the poverty of the boy and the difficult situation in which he lives, and he is moved. Luvo sells some of Alma’s memory cartridges to buy supplies, then he spends a week in the desert until he finds the fossil. He sells the fossil for a phenomenal sum of money. He is a kind-hearted character, so he donates the money to Temba and Pheko before checking into a hotel from one of Alma’s memories. He dies there from complications of his memory operation.

In the second story, “Procreate, Generate,” Herb is a patient, diligent, and loving husband, and Imogene is a hard worker who is introverted and private in nature. They have been married for and years. The story begins as they decide they are ready to have a child. However, they are not able to conceive. The story outlines in detail all of the haranguing steps they take to try to get pregnant, including rigorous and financially stressful in vitro fertilization.

The first round of in vitro does not result in pregnancy; Imogene and Herb are devastated. They each cope in their own way—Imogene retreats further into herself and Herb attempts to comfort her, with no results. Their marriage starts to feel the strain. Herb considers an affair with one of his students and Imogene considers just leaving everything and starting over somewhere else. They decide to go for one more round of in vitro; the story leaves it open-ended as to whether it works the second time.

The third story, “The Demilitarized Zone,” tells of Davis, a recently divorced man whose son is fighting in the Vietnam War. He is a patient and caring man whose love for his absent son is deeply evident. His son sends home letters that tell of his life at war, including his disenchantment with his purpose there and the various jungle diseases he has contracted. Davis treasures these letters and reads them over and over. Davis has yet to tell his son about the divorce. His wife cheated on him,...

(The entire section is 1793 words.)

Ed. Scott Locklear