In thirteen linked stories, Phong Nguyen’s Memory Sickness probes the shadowy creases of Providence, Rhode Island, a beta-Providence of refugees, runaways and ex-cons in which, despite occasional kindnesses, intimacy is nowhere to be found.
Nary a well-adjusted soul inhabits these pages. The title story’s protagonist, a student who’d fought for the Khmer, says, “I do not want you to know how I can be caught.” Years after fleeing, he is still at war.
Meaning is elusive in this world, ambiguity pervasive. People no longer expect, or seek, to understand; they soldier on. Recalling an atrocity, the student comments: “It was a lesson in something, but no one knew what.” Elsewhere, when a woman abandoned by her husband calls home, unexpectedly finding him there –
“Are you going to be home when we get there?”
“Yeah, I’ll be here,” he says, with either relief, or resignation.
– she doesn’t press him.
In other stories, a man facing manslaughter charges compares his lot to the dead man’s: “I… envy him, until enough time goes by and I don’t envy him any more;” a peek into suburbia reveals a mother too self-absorbed to rouse herself when her daughter’s slumber party goes awry; and glimpses of the corporate world expose a man’s life, family and psyche unraveling. The reader, too, may despair at the uniformity of the author’s vision.
Yet there are beautifully evocative moments: the girls at the slumber party are “bunched together like a bouquet,” and pointed observations: “The reason, perhaps, that families throughout the world huddle around the TV like cavemen around the fire–is that the flicker never ends.” One individual experiences “a curious consolation that has come to balance the desolations.” In this world of the dissolute, the troubled and the traumatized, few get even that much.