Style and Delivery of the Themes in Carla Harryman's Memory Play



Memory Play, by Carla Harryman, is a unique piece of fiction marked with an unusual cast of characters and a surreal style. In it, the characters volley seemingly nonsensical dialogue back and forth; however, different elements of the book, including the title itself, lead us to realize that piece is more than just nonsense. The text is a thick weave of dreamy scenes that incorporate stimulating and dialogue and curious images, and engages higher cognitive capacities by challenging readers to read not only what is there on the surface, but also what is not. It is a piece with a nebulous, unclear meaning deeper than the words alone, and is given shoddy structure through a cast of children, toys, and animals. It is the odd set of characters that give the play its deliberately awkward physical form, and precisely because the characters are children, toys, and animals, the readers are thrown into even deeper throes of wonder. To note that the play is intended to be spoken aloud is a note of import: when brought to life, the dialogue is even more bewitching, who are brought that much closer to the misty border between dream and reality.
Many central themes in the book are presented as two-fold concepts, and the characters, style, form and delivery are all functions of this purpose.
The prologue introduces the play as a “bedtime story”, which prepares us to embark on a tale of "Youth"; and as the reader continues, this idea can be confirmed through the simple and two-dimensional dialogues, stylized as if being told for a child. The fact that disturbingly mature thoughts bubble up out of the simple and dreamy dialogue, however, is pleasurably jarring, and ultimately brings the reader into questioning the real meaning behind the hauntingly childlike text and characters. Topics that are even beyond most adults are manifested in a small, glossy, youthful packages, and delivered by animals - giving readers a shiver.
For example, in one of the first dreamy scenes of the play, Pelican is trying to open a cash box on the step while Fish, after preparing a chair on the porch, speaks about the Beginning. “In the beginning, there was nothing. No cattails, no wigs, no paws. There was no doom,” she announces. She continues: “In the beginning, there were no instructions, and nothing was abstract.” She goes even further, now speaking specifically about the evolution of language: “Sound, word, rhythm, pucker, loss, organization, and signature were nothing.” The surreal, disconnected quality of the scene lends itself to what Fish is trying to say: in the beginning, there was only purity: since there was nothing, there were no misunderstandings, and nothing to be misconstrued. There was no symbolism – no need for it. Everything was crystal-clear, which is something significant to say in a story where the characters themselves are probably symbolic, and the setting unsettlingly surreal. This is one example of how the content and form are related.
The end of her soliloquy is of notable import: “In the beginning, there was no apoliticized movement of the absolute and no political critiques. Neither was there the hibiscus flowering bearded orchid cunt juices or a male suspect. Neither black nor brown nor white. No maiming, and nothing to maim. No future and nothing to preserve.” Simultaneously, as Fish finishes her dialogue heavy with political suggestion, we are told that Pelican has succeeded in opening the cash box. Pelican seems indifferent to the words of his friend Fish, choosing instead to continue concentrating on trying to get to his treasure (Pelican's bouts of concentration are of course puncutated by random and abrupt changes in modes of thought, reflecting his childlike lack of control, attention and resolve).
Pelican is the primary agent in manifesting the question of Corruption/Innocence. Just as, in this play, maturity is delivered in childlike dialogue, innocence is delivered through selfishness and ignorance. Pelican is obtuse: in Act II, Scene 2, Pelican involves himself in nonsensical exchange with Child (Pelican is tireless – he leads Child for 8 pages), and towards the end, sneaks away, tricking Instruction into replacing him. He did not listen to Fish while she spoke of the Beginning, and simple-mindedly lost interest in her after she changed (shed her fish bowl). Pelican is also greedy (profits from Miltonic Humiliator’s suicide by taking his ice skates), but unusually enough, the text does not present Pelican as a villain: his two-dimensional personality is as pure as white snow. As Pelican tries to command, manipulate, and lead the other characters, it is easy to consider him with pitiable tenderness. Pelican’s character is a strong example of one of many dreamy dichotomies in the book (dream/reality, youth/maturity, innocence/corruption). The text effectively conveys this particular dichotomy through Pelican, primarily.
There are other themes that are not presented as dichotomies. Ideas about memory and language, and the theatrics of memory recall, are included in the dreamy dialogue. Fish says to reptile, “I am stung with the deception that the past recollections interfere with one’s current state of affairs,” to which Reptile responds, “I could respond to that in several ways,” and then changes subjects and talks about Fish’s groceries. However, he deliberately turns the conversation back to Fish: in response to her question of what it was like for Reptile to live among other Reptiles like himself, he says, “The silence, the indifference, was spectacular.” It is not hard to divine what he means on the surface, although it probably also means that the cast of characters in this unusual dream-world are on different levels, giving way to miscommunication and misgivings, and ultimately, on the surface, impressions of inequality. Language is a Mask of Meaning -- where language is lacking, meaning drags, and a character loses weight. It is not unreasonable to consider the animals as symbols of Language ( -- the reader struggles to attune to what they are trying to convey), leading the reader to question the very function of language, and its role and significance in -- in the broadest sense of the term-- communication.
Not much can be said about continuity among the fractured scenes, but there are nonetheless strings of events that comprise the text and lead from one incident to another. The Miltonic Humiliator (a machine of words) commits suicide. Reptile regularly interjects with intelligent commentary. Fish sheds her bowl. The play ends with Fish and Child, in the epilogue, and is as equally perplexing as the whole of the play itself. There is no feeling of resolution, but what exactly is there -- in this dreamy dialogue-- to be resolved anyway? The ending, like the rest of the play, relies on the considerations of the reader to fill in the blanks and achieve a unique awareness of, and appreciation for, this play, and ultimately, of language and the challenge of conveying meaning.

Winter 2007