Wish for Amnesia
By Barbara Rosenthal
Deadly Chaps Press, 2017
314 pp./$15.00 (sb)
Barbara Rosenthal’s Wish for Amnesia is a fable-like fiction rooted in the late twentieth century. Actually, it is made of two projects: a novel and an interwoven photo series, which serves to illuminate slivers of the narrative and also to act independently, self-reflexively, as photographs do. Dolls and treed landscapes are recurrent themes among the black-and-white chapter headers and full-page photos. Silhouettes or shaky, dreamlike images of people and objects and collages also play in and out of the story. Whether they seem to belong to the narrative as in a graphic novel or merely run alongside the text is for the reader to decide in the moment of seeing each one. None of the images is a direct illustration of text.
The narrative is primarily about four people: Jack, the son of European Jewish Holocaust survivors who immigrated to the United States; Caroline, or Cary, wife to Jack and former art student; Jewel, Caroline and Jack’s daughter, conceived during a ménage à trois on the day they met in 1969; and Beatrice, blind artist, Cary’s teacher and Jack’s lover, and possible sorceress, who introduced Jack and Caroline and possibly, probably, orchestrated their union and the conception of their child.
Each episode in the book is a well-drawn mise-en-scène of the senses in which the characters deal with their inner thoughts and voices. Jack literally hears voices; later Jewel hears voices, too. The inner dialogues and/or free associations of the characters carry them along with the reader through time and place. Each character describes her or his existence as well as relationships with the other characters.
They debate philosophies, science, and concepts of time, but they also know or suspect magical manipulations and interference from Beatrice. By the end they are all transformed including and, especially, Beatrice. The existential seems to have no problem with the magical as the characters acknowledge God, albeit more as a scientist than as omnipotent. Nevertheless, in the face of a disappointment with her godmother Beatrice, Jewel tries to make sense of the unfathomable:
Jewel wondered, as she never had before, was this a pose with Beatrice, or could it possibly be true after all? Is Beatrice just a clever artist, or is she supernatural? If she’s supernatural, then she would be more powerful than God! Because even God can’t work beyond the confines of physics, can he? Even if He made the laws, from all evidence He obeys them.
Jewel again finds science and religion at once:
She banged her fist on the water to see the ripples disperse evenly, to see God faithfully illustrate the principle that Huygens recognized. Science answers theology’s questions, she thought, as she shared these waters and this sky with all thinkers before and after her.
This thinking person’s narrative in Wish for Amnesia is complex and folds back on itself even as it moves forward through forty-one years in very few scenes. Discussion of time takes up much debate among the characters in the written story. The emphasis lands mostly on the questions What is the present? and How does the future happen? Incidents that seemed inconsequential in the beginning of the book find their moment again later in the book. But nothing feels like a set up for a punch line.
In Jack’s first scene, he is a well-known activist in the late 1960s and admirers and hangers on swarm him as he walks near Columbia University in New York City. A swarthy sailor accosts him for his autograph and Jack pockets the man’s pen. The pen later makes its way back to its original owner in 1985. How it gets there is in the telling of this story, the construction by the author, of meticulously describing each scene. In Section II, it takes Caroline twenty pages and two chapters to park her car and walk to a party in Greenwich Village. Caroline’s inner dialogue mixes it up with the sensuality of being present in the world and interacting with others. Of course, she smoked the last of a joint in the car, so she may be especially tuned in. Rosenthal makes the scene vivid in few words:
She couldn’t find the rhythm to continue, once aware of the scene she was in. But the experience itself impatiently prompted her to stumble a few steps forward. A bicycle came from nowhere. A car turned into the crosswalk. The “Don’t Walk” sign flashed a warning for the last time, then held steady. She couldn’t run in those high heels, so stepped back up onto the sidewalk amid a different crowd waiting for the next light.
A full page later the light turns green. Death in Venice (1912) is quoted somewhere in the book. I thought of Thomas Mann, but more of The Magic Mountain (1924) and how time works in the narrative. The marijuana-fueled thought processes and philosophical ciphering of life in Wish for Amnesia is far more high-minded than the characters’ often callous treatment of each other. Does this make them more relatable? Is it possible to relate to this fiction or should one read it as a fabulous folk tale? The bizarre, somewhat magical, occurrences seem to be so weird and yet run-of-the-mill for the characters at the same time. It is a Möbius strip of science and magic.
But the novel is not bleak. It is a tale told by modern stoners in a post-modern world. It is a wild ride, careening through time, space, and levels of reality. One scene literally has characters skidding off the road into a field as a storm rages until there is no visibility: it is a pivotal scene, but also just another thing that happens.
The writing is rich. The photos and the narrative play off each other, play with each other, sometimes leading or following and sometimes illustrating the other. A few pictures struck me as perhaps generators of the text. Chapter 25 (the first chapter in Section III) begins with a photograph of a row of stone pine trees, iconic along the Tiber. Another, deciduous, tree’s foliage intrudes from the left, while sunlight from the top left part of the image washes out the trees below it. The image’s title is Pos Neg Trees along the Tiber near Tyler, Orange & Aqua, 1931. Rome 2015. The chapter’s text begins after the chapter title, “BEATRICE AND JEWEL WALK ALONG THE TIBER.” The text begins:
Sun and shade. Sun and shade. Warm and cool, hot and cool oscillated over the faces of Jewel and Beatrice walking between the rows of formally planted and evenly spaced trees along the promenade of the Tiber River. . . . Under trees they were a couple in love, secluded, contained, enclosed in secret freedom from the prying, public sky.
Another example, from earlier in the book, is a photograph at the beginning of Chapter 8 (Section I). Although I could be wrong about the photographic relationships, Rosenthal mixes photos, drawings and texts in her chapbooks and performance media pieces. Inspiration for inclusion of an image could come from the text. Or for the text to come from an image. While immersed in the reading I enjoyed my own conjecture for which one might play muse for the other in this novel. The photograph, of a diminutive figure lying still and intubated in a hospital, is titled Mother’s Dying 7-84-4-31. Franklin Square, NY, 1984. The chapter is about Cary’s childhood friendship with Letty and the latter’s mother dying of cancer.
The collisions of the characters are mirrored in the jump cuts in scenes and years, spanning forty-one years. The 1940s prologue provides a backdrop for the latter-twentieth century American Jews in the rest of the story. Or rather, the backdrop against which all subsequent generations seem to have gone forward. The heirs of that genocide are the protagonists. The son of the survivors feels it his duty to save the future from a recurrence of that past: to help humanity move on, even if it means creating a different species than human beings through science and technology (by mixing his daughter’s DNA with the genetic material from extraterrestrial species with whom he is in communication).
In the end, perhaps the supernatural Beatrice has orchestrated a coup against Jack’s plans. Or perhaps, really, humans and their fallibilities will always throw an unexpected wrench into the works. Or, perhaps, as the teenaged parents of Jack managed to escape their fate, something happens to inject chaos into everyone’s plans. Wish for Amnesia is well worth reading. Multiple times.
PAM KRAY is a film, video, and multimedia artist, writer, and editor who has exhibited in the United States and internationally.