None of your memories are real.
This is an unfortunate and fascinating fact about how human psychology works. All of your treasured reminiscences are just a memory of you remembering them. The more you try to remember something, the sharper the playback seems as it slides further away from the reality of what you really experienced.
Katya Gould thinks she can remember how the first gunshot sounds, but mostly she remembers the remembering of the memory before she is kidnapped.
Katya’s job is to track down the recollections that mean the most to the richest of people–a vintage typewriter, or a herd of deer walking quietly across the road on a Spring day, for example. These memories come in the form of Authenticities, which seem to be tangible items from a long-passed past, and Captures, which seem to be the visual and auditory aspects of real-life incidents that are captured like videos. She collates these with the help of Lizzie the i-Sys, an AI that’s been talking into her earbud her whole adult life. Katya is used to being permanently connected and assisted in a world where the veracity of memory–hers, and the ones she collects–is an undeniable truth. When Lizzie’s voice goes dead and the mysterious hunter Johnny abducts Katya deep into the forest, there is nobody but Katya and her faulty organic memories to find a way to make it back home.
Forest of Memory is a nihilistic sci-fi novella about a tech-dependent woman’s return to the world, and how it feels to be uncertain in a society where nothing is forgotten.
This is yet another story about how technology is evil and killing off everything that is important to us, a moral with which I struggle to connect. Without the connective technology of the Internet, how would I be telling you about this book right now, and how would I have downloaded and read it? It seems a little rich for an e-book to denounce the use of computers. If you can look past that negativity, however, there’s a lot more to see, and the book taps into real human fears around loneliness and aloneness. The technophobia here is a fear that often borders on a melancholic wonder instead of outright hatred.
The narrative indulges in one of my very favourite tropes, that of the guiltily unreliable narrator who knows they’re unreliable but can’t help it. It’s a very human thing, to doubt your own memory while trying to prove its realness to others. It is rare that anything we read about in Forest of Memory is unquestionably certain or genuine, perhaps even whether the person Katya is writing this account for is a real person. The pacing can be slow, but rarely in a boring way–it has an anxious molasses quality that generally holds you in its sticky grip, encouraging a sense of sad quietness that creeps in the background. This is a stylistic choice that fits the questions of the story well, a laminated folding down of the comparative slowness of a one-person world, disconnected.
Having said that, there were little stylistic quirks that rankled. The script is littered with typos, which apparently indicates that Katya, using her retro typewriter, is freeing herself of perfectionism. Unfortunately, if you are not yet free of your own perfectionism, this may just tick you off and trip you up.
Explanation of the story’s world-building is also sparse, and I feel that this would have been a good reason to develop Forest of Memory into a novel. We are expected to understand many of the futuristic technological terms in the novella, and we learn so few facts about the curious technology that Katya and her society rely on so much. Many of the words used just don’t make sense to the 21st Century reader, so there are parts of the story which are difficult to visualise. Katya herself comments that “the hints are what make it so intriguing” but here, in this particular story, that falls flat. This, plus the irritatingly sparse knowledge of the characters’ motivations, means that Forest of Memory sometimes suffers from a lack of complete immersion, and with that comes a frustrating absence of closure by the novella’s resolution.
It’s an extension of the uncertainty rippling through the plot. At the beginning this was a solid motivation to keep reading, but by the conclusion, there’s an unsatisfying sense of loss that’s difficult to chalk up to theme, and even more difficult to enjoy. Katya notes that she has given the reader “the gift of uncertainty,” but it doesn’t feel like much of a gift.
But then, maybe that’s because of modern technology’s tainted offering to us all? Perhaps your humble reviewer is more addicted to certainty, to the comfort of knowing absolutely, than previously imagined? Maybe I should Google that.
Either way, there is much to this quiet, creepy, and existential novella to enjoy and to ponder over. It has a lot to say about the ambiguity and connectedness of daily life, and is a measured encouragement to stop and smell the roses once in a while. Whether you want to photograph said roses on your iPhone and upload it to Instagram is entirely up to you.
Top photo: Ecklonia maxima from Wikipedia Commons