What would you do if your memory from adolescence to the present were wiped out? That’s the central question in Nicole Krauss’ novel Man Walks into a Room. The novel follows the events of Samson who disappears from New York and is discovered wandering the desert outside of Las Vegas, sick and incoherent. It turns out he has a tumor in his brain, which when removed causes the loss of his memories since age twelve. However, he does not suffer any other effects from the surgery. That was one part I found a little unbelievable, then again, I don’t have a lot of knowledge of the brain and how it works. I was willing to let this go, but it still seemed a stretch.
Samson returns or tries to return to his life. He is an English professor in New York, married to a caring and beautiful woman, has plenty of concerned friends. Yet all of this seems alien to him. With no memory of who he was, he doesn’t identify with this life or feel a connection with the people who care for him. He feels there is this vast expanse in his mind, this empty space where the old memories were. He’s not sure he wants them back, or that he wants to be who he was. He identifies with explorers and astronauts, because he sees his mind and lack of identity as a new frontier. He’s not the only one though.
This novel explores what makes us who we are. Are we a collection of habits and preferences? How do we recognize people in our lives? We perceive them to act a certain way, because that is how they’ve always acted and thus who they are. If the experiences which form us are swiped away, who are we, and how can we be close to the people with whom we’ve shared those experiences?
At times Samson seems callous and small. He is unable to empathize with people, partly because he feels a lack of connection, but also because he can’t remember experiencing the emotions his loved ones feel. So much is new to Samson as he navigates through his life.
Another moment in this novel which is a little unbelievable as well, is when Samson gets a phone call from a brain researcher. The man convinces Samson to come out to California for a project. This project involves implanting a memory from someone else into another person’s brain. Since Samson visualizes his memory as having a wide open void, he seems like the perfect candidate. Krauss does a decent job of supplying Samson’s reasons and motivations for the experiment, but still it’s difficult to imagine someone signing on for such a project. When the memory is implanted, things do not turn out how either Samson or the researcher thought.
The final section of the novel involves Samson dealing with this outcome and eventually finding his place in the world again.
If this doesn’t seem like a narrative that interests you, another reason to read this book is how beautifully and succinctly it’s written. Some people may complain that not enough happens, or we spend too much time in Samson’s thoughts. While that may be true, this is a novel about thoughts, about memory and identity. Reading it makes you think about your own life and what events have shaped your being. Even though the premise might be hard to believe, once you accept it the narrative is compelling.