Nothing is Nothing: A Review of Doug Rice’s Here Lies Memory

Fifteen years ago I was a student in Professor Doug Rice’s film class. I remember being floored when he questioned the idea of memory. Its validity, its purpose. Never before had I considered that what I know, what I have experienced, might somehow be compromised by illusory perceptions for which, thereafter, I hold my personal narrative accountable.

Safe to say that since Rice’s class I’ve been considering the idea of memory. Wondering if, in fact, it’s more like a swift breeze through consciousness than something with actual staying power. Memory as a comfort-inducing novelty, a ruse that helps me make sense of my life.

Rice’s philosophy seems to go much deeper. He continues his exploration, often obsessively, in mediums beyond the classroom. In readings, lectures, blogs, haunting photography, and interactive creative collaborations, Rice presents his views (his art), to a world poised to eschew it. And the best part of all—the distracted audience doesn’t stop him. Not one bit. In fact, it seems to fuel his thirst for authenticity. For a meaningful life worth living.

In his newest novel, Here Lies Memory, consciousness is questioned and braided with an inquiry into the effects of visual consumption. Parallel stories give voice to two disparate characters who Rice tasks with delivering thoughtful insights and nuggets of goddamn good advice. Plus, there’s an undertow beneath the explicit. Elements that make it difficult for readers to look away.

The prose is written slower than people naturally speak. Lines seem to celebrate the written word, the mundane moment in time, and often explain a concept only to then reexplain it, ensuring it’s given proper witness. Plus, Rice’s banal imagery is fucking poetic. Cinematic even.

“She placed the dishrag on the kitchen counter. It fell to the floor. She looked down at it, but left it there.”

“Goats can stand still for what seems like hours, staring at you, without judgment. Not a dog. A dog jumps at you, humps your leg. Barking. Panting. Dogs have no sense of boundaries. No patience. While a dog is doing all that, the goat is standing still. Indifferent. It’s why we keep dogs as pets and not goats. Dogs distract us.”

The main characters, Elgin and Fred, are beautifully constructed but terrifying nonetheless. Elgin wills himself blind and thus sees with more clarity. Fred drinks an abundance of beer to release the pain of having lost a son, failed a marriage, questioned his sexuality, and erase a self-narrative.

Elgin says to his grandson, Johnny, “When you bite into that apple, you’re biting into sunshine, you’re biting into rain. You’re swallowing dirt and roots. Some man or woman pulled that apple off a tree. You’re eating their touch. When you bite into that apple, you remember this; you’re biting into God. And you think on that. You’re eating a little bit of God’s imagination with each bite. You got to cherish that apple. You don’t know when it’s not going to be here anymore.”

And during one of Fred and Jim’s escapist forays to Fred’s front porch, “Jim shoved both his hands into his pockets. He seemed to fear what they might do, worried they might shake Fred by his shoulders to wake him out of whatever dream he had entered, or maybe his hands would try to comfort Fred more than words could ever do, make Fred feel that everything was going to be all right, that it was just a matter of time. Jim had a sudden fear that he might do something with those hands of his that no man in Pittsburgh should ever do with another man, could ever do with another man; at least not do and and still be a man in Pittsburgh.”

Here Lies Memory provokes intuition. A reflex causing the reader to look inward. This novel is not mindless entertainment. No forbearance from reality. If anything, Rice’s novel highlights what’s real. Makes people reconsider their lives.

“It’s what I feel happening, belief erasing belief. There’s nothing there. No faith. Nothing. And hope? I want hope, wish for it, do whatever I can to keep it in me, but the nights get shorter, and the dawn comes like it never left, and the dawn forgets to bring light with it, so the morning stays dark.”

And then there’s Pittsburgh. Know it as a city or not, like its history, its sports teams, its weather, music, its geography, or not, readers are granted an access known only to locals. It’s tough to not walk away with a feel for Clemente, the Pirates, industrial/cultural misogyny, cans (not bottles) of beer, the Monongahela River (not “the Mon”), and the Birmingham Bridge connecting uptown with the South Side.

“Beer is never a choice in such heat; beer is a need. Pittsburgh heat demanded of a man that he drink beer. A man was not a man in Pittsburgh in late summer unless he held a beer in his hand. Not caressing it. Men don’t caress a beer bottle. Men drink beer.”

Sometimes Rice uses metaphor to offer a nutshell version of his tired city. And, in doing so, somehow makes outsiders nostalgic.

“They usually simply took her around the corner to Dream Alley. Sometimes up Federal Street to the top of Perry Hilltop, where the view of the Golden Triangle was “majestic.” A man once said that to her. He told her to get out of the car and “take a look at this view.” She brushed off her skirt and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, then joined the man looking down at the city.”

Rice universalizes the trivial to vibrate the web of humanity. Reminds us of our childhood crush on Marcia Brady, our deep love for White Castle coffee.

“Then he started writing long, eloquent, delirious love letters, insanely erotic letters, to Marcia Brady, the actual character, not the actress. Not that Maureen McCormick, Bob never wrote to her. Maureen McCormick was nobody; she was just a shadow of Marcia Brady, a stand-in for the real thing.”

“We’re in the White Castle on Cedar Avenue,” Fred whispered. “This is coffee. Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh. Debra is sleeping at home. Lucas is only as safe as the stories we tell.” Fred thought simple words spoken aloud becoming reality.

Coffee is coffee. Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh. Memory is memory. It’s not worth loading anything with more than it is. No sense assigning it a memory only to weigh it down.

****

Last week, as I walked into a café with Here Lies Memory under my arm, I overheard the patron in front of me, a middle aged white guy, make a comment to his wife about the title.

“It should be here lays, not here lies,” he said hushed, matter-of-factly.

She turned around, half-smiled at me, then grabbed a quick glance at the book before turning back around.

“Maybe lies has nothing to do with laying down,” she whispered to him. “Maybe someone’s telling a lie. Like memory, maybe is, you know, like not telling the truth.”

“Seriously?” he said. “Give me a break.”

They ordered two cappuccinos. Payed with a credit card. Her hair was in a bun. That’s all I remember.

Nothing is nothing.

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