Zoe Pilger's review of The Memory Palace for The Independent, dated June 18th, 2013, begins by informing its reader that "The visitor to this sensational new exhibition is greeted with the words: 'My fellow Londoners, can't you see how we are diminished?'" The Memory Palace, as an exhibition, was displayed in London's Victoria and Albert Museum between June 18 and 20 October 2013, and is available (according to certain definitions of the word available) as a book published by V&A Publishing. The line "My fellow Londoners, can't you see how we are diminished?" does not appear in the book.
The exhibition was a multimedia piece constructed around a narrative the museum commissioned from Kunzru. Many artists were involved, and the exhibit included drawings, graphic novel segments, sculpture in several forms including a reliquary and a kind of carriage, text projected onto surfaces by the computer program Skype, and a structure made of recycled print advertising. The book includes preliminary sketches and plans by many of the artists, but it is not a museum catalogue in the traditional sense, since it does not contain photos or physical descriptions or even a list of the objects in the exhibit. The book does contain the entirety of Kunzru's narrative—which the exhibit did not. The sketches and text are interwoven in the book somewhere between the way pictures usually fit into an illustrated story and the way pictures are an integral part of a graphic novel. In other words, it's not possible to get a full picture of what is really going on with The Memory Palace unless you happen to have been lucky enough to have a copy of the book and to have read it just before or just after walking through the exhibition.
But the exhibition is over, and the people who put the book together knew that it would end. They knew the book would need to be considered as a separate artistic object, which would be read by people who could not possibly have the relevant context provided by the physical objects. Under these circumstances, they could have tried to make the book complete in itself, so that the reader wouldn't feel anything missing without the exhibition, or they could have simply created a catalogue without having any additional artistic goals, so that readers would have a good idea about the exhibition and perhaps get some experience of it vicariously. Instead, they have chosen to do something very interesting, something exemplified by the line left out of the book and by Kunzru's narrative not being entirely available in the physical space.
A memory palace is the name for a certain kind of mental space used to aid in long-term, detailed retentive memory. The student of memory palaces first memorizes a space, such as the interior of an art gallery, or childhood house, or, indeed, a palace. The student then encodes events into dramatic, striking physical images, so that a person wishing to remember that a museum exhibit was held between June and October might, for instance, imagine the museum as a woman with the museum's logo on her dress tearing up the appropriate number of calendar pages while laughing and weeping at the same time. This image is placed in a specific place in the mental space, such as under the windows on the right. Even if the person who constructs the memory palace does not consciously remember the fact that has been encoded and stored in this way, the next time the architect visualizes the space the image, with all its connotations and details, will be where it has been put, and will bring the fact back. Experienced users of memory palaces can memorize the texts of entire books in this way, or even book-length strings of gibberish used to test their memories, although they may develop filing difficulties if their palaces become too full of oddities. The Renaissance philosopher and scholar Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) is the most famous practitioner of this art, and wrote extensively on it; the book The Memory Palace begins with a description of how to build a memory palace, which is followed closely in the first graphical interposition by a quote from Frances Yates, Bruno's best-known modern popularizer. There is also a bibliography of books about the arts of training one's memory, and one of the visual artists, Francesco Franchi, has then laid out the history of these mnemonic arts into an unconventional timeline, whose architectural shape is clearly intentionally memorable. The memory palace, as a place with a history, is therefore the key metaphor of The Memory Palace.
Indeed, the unnamed central character of Kunzru's narrative has built a memory palace, which they use in a post-apocalyptic and dystopian London to preserve pieces of the knowledge of the fabulous and legendary past, our present. The satirical bite comes when the reader notices that many of these pieces of knowledge are, simply, wrong. Others are shifted into one another via wordplay, misattributed, confused. Our narrator has memorized a list of Lawlords, who supposedly gave the people of the past the laws which enabled them to perform miracles and impose their wills on nature: these Lawlords include "Milord and Lady Ayn Stein, who wrote the Laws of Relativity and The Invisible Hand" (p. 20). Faraday has become Ferry-day, Marie Curie Lady Mary of the Cure. (Newton's Laws of Motion are remembered and attributed correctly.) The geography of London, its street names and history, has similarly blurred, so that the Olympic landmarks have become a slum called the Limpicks, and the old portions of the city are remembered as the City of Waste Monster, the City of Dogs, and the City Itself. Even this kind of knowledge is dangerous for Kunzru's narrator, who is imprisoned for being one of those who remember. The group in charge, the thanes and feudal lords of the All Thing, believe that the fall of the previous civilization was revenge on humans by an indignant planet Earth, and are attempting to bring about a kind of back-to-nature apotheosis called the Wilding, in which even language will be discarded as humans abandon all previous knowledge to become animals again, without any sense of time, history, or control over their surroundings. At least, that is what the lords claim to believe, although the one we encounter can certainly spout old knowledge as accurately as anyone in the remembering sect, and the lords who believe that even agriculture was a mistake are running a vast network of slave-worked farms and plantations.
The trajectory of the main character's life, from country childhood through various atrocities to sect member, heretic, trial defendant, and condemned prisoner awaiting execution, is familiar from many dystopian novels. It recalls 1984 in its protagonist's attempts to remain a human being in the face of dehumanizing opponents, and Walter M. Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz in the way that knowledge has become a secret religion to some and physical science has taken on the trappings of folklore and myth. Of course it references Fahrenheit 451 in its emphasis on the human brain as the final repository of knowledge. None of this is new, though it is reasonably well done. The point, the thing that is very well done indeed, is that the reader can look instantly at the pieces of memorized learning we are shown and know what they used to be, and how they have changed, and why. A person more familiar with London than I am could no doubt do even more of this with the geography of the city than I can, since many specific monuments and streets are referenced in ways that have obviously changed from their originals. The reader can deduce that an unexpectedly violent solar flare leading to a massive computer-destroying electromagnetic pulse wiped out our own civilization, even though we are only given brief and tangled descriptions of it.
All of these things, science, history, and descriptions of the past, were carefully stored in heads by practitioners of the art of memory. The narrator mentions that the sect has multiple people transmit important information when it is being put into a new student's palace, so that they can double-check each other to make the image as precise as possible, as well as describing some other mechanisms the sect uses to retain mnemonic accuracy. More than one character can spout large chunks of Darwin verbatim, and may well even be using the same visual images that were encoded for the memory palaces by the people who decided that these things were to be remembered in the first place. What the central character, and their sect, and their culture, lack is the context. Each rememberer must come up with memory images based on their own experiences and surroundings, after all. In the image I mentioned earlier of an encoded set of dates, of a woman wearing a dress with the museum logo, every reader will have pictured a woman with a different face than every other reader, which would be the case even if I had gone into great and specific detail about the woman's face. The only way in which everyone would picture the same image would be if they had all been shown a picture and told to use it as the referent, and Kunzru's dystopian culture explicitly does not have that sort of external referent for the use of its memorizers, because that is illegal and dangerous.
Therefore changes creep into the images no matter what, and even where the image itself does not change, its interpretation does. In one segment, the narrator remembers the names of various gates of London, each of which is associated with a jewel. In the context of the exhibit, as I discovered online, the artist Hansje van Halem made a set of pottery tiles involving images of those particular jewels. Each of her tiles also represents one of the stations of the London Underground. The memorizer has interpreted the stations as gates, which makes more sense in their context, and has remembered that the jewel names must be there and in a set order for . . . some reason. Why? Theirs not to ask, because it is just as arbitrary to them as is the archaized grammar in quotations from Darwin. Unable to tell what might be important, they must simply remember as much as they can, and mentally reconstruct what they can of the past from that.
Which is also the position the book The Memory Palace puts us in, as readers, by intentionally leaving out so much information. The sketches and drawings are referents to things which are not present in the text. The wordplay refers to things which the reader just has to know already—if you don't know who Ayn Rand is and who Einstein is and something about capitalist economics, the Ayn Stein joke falls flat. The London geography is extremely specific. The names and biographies of the artists are given at the back of the book, but in a format where I, at least, could not tell who made which piece of art. I had to check external sources to attribute the pieces I describe in this article. We are meant to be aware that we are looking at approximations and representations of things we were not and are not there to see. We are looking at a memory palace. It evokes something, certainly, and what it evokes is interesting and moving, but it cannot be the original experience; it is something of its own. That something of its own consists of the reminder that it cannot be the original experience.
The Memory Palace ends with a wordless graphic novel segment by Robert Hunter, representing the creation of the exhibit The Memory Palace, which involves committee meetings and cake and fabricating many pieces of unusual objects. This segment would be entirely indecipherable without the book which comes before it, and reads fairly comprehensibly after having read that book. But a person who was there and involved in making the exhibit would remember things so much more fully, so differently. The exhibit The Memory Palace ended with a dropbox into which visitors could drop pieces of paper on which they had written or drawn memories of their own. The book doesn't need that segment, because every reader has constructed the book out of the memories they brought to it. In my case, this included prior knowledge of Giordano Bruno and the arts of memory and Frances Yates, of other dystopias and other apocalypses, of other evoked pieces of wordplay such as Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker (probably The Memory Palace's closest relative). For another reader, the protagonist will have a different face, maybe a different gender since that is never textually specified either, and the incidents will have different associations. For both myself and other readers, there's a lot of context out there if we wish to go searching for it, including Giordano Bruno's exact dates on Wikipedia and even video of several of the art installations at the museum's official website. There's as much context as we have the time and desire to look for, as much context as the culture we are embedded in, but that still doesn't mean we have seen the exhibit.
The Memory Palace, book and exhibition, say that culture or no culture, we are humans, our memories are fallible, our senses likewise, and no one can ever have the entirety of an experience. Calmly, almost kindly, and in a beautiful and intelligent manner, it whispers: How do you know that you know what you think you know? Can't you see how we are all diminished?
Lila Garrott has blue hair and brown eyes. Her fiction, poetry, and criticism have appeared in Not One of Us, Mythic Delirium, and other venues. She recently completed a project in which she read a book and wrote a review of it every day for a year; the reviews may be found on Dreamwidth and LiveJournal.