Living in the Memory Palace


How far can you push the format and still call something a book?

Perhaps by turning it into what Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian slightly glibly, but reasonably accurately, described as a “walk-in graphic novel”, though I suspect the curators would have preferred his other description, an “immersive environment”. We are talking about Memory Palace, a novella by Hari Kunzru, and “Memory Palace”, an installation at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in London. The one is a piece of printed matter, in hard cover, words and black and white illustrations, the other is a “physically immersive illustrated story”, which meant in practice a mixture of two-dimensional and three-dimensional art spread over several rooms.

Unlike reading a printed book, visiting an exhibition is not usually a linear experience

I wonder if that word “linear” means what you think it means. Insofar as one walks around an exhibition, from room to room, starting at one end and emerging at the other, well, yes, actually, it is linear. Even more so if it is arranged chronologically, to give an account of an artist’s working life, or to trace a theme historically.

Most people move round an exhibition in the same direction, pausing in front of each painting. Often, they have no choice, simply because the need to keep the flow of people moving dictates that everyone goes the same way. It’s rare to be able to wander randomly through an exhibition, dotting from painting to painting as the fancy takes one.

Visiting an art gallery or a museum is a different, much more random matter – did I mention the need to be careful with words?

However, I was expecting the installation to be non-linear, given that reading itself is such a linear activity. One may experiment with cutting up words and letters and throwing them down in a random arrangement, or produce a novel in endlessly reshufflable sections, but the two-dimensionality of the book encourages the mind to search for a story, prompts it to rearrange what it’s given into something that makes a kind of chronological sense, reinforces an idea of linearity. I was expecting “Memory Palace” to be something that one could physically enter and move around in at random, constructing a story of one’s own as one went, rather than holding the read elements of a written text in the mind, reconstructing someone else’s story.

And Hari Kunzru was a good choice for such a project. I’m a great admirer of his fiction, and the way in which it plays with time frames and narrative voices. Gods Without Men, his most recent novel, is an intricate dance back and forth through time, centred on a rock formation in New Mexico, the people who are drawn to it, and the significance it holds for them. Clues, explanations, miraculous moments are woven into it, their significance elusive yet pervasive. The text, the story, despite being tied to the page, is incredibly labile, and requires several readings and a lot of post-it notes to tie together the various strands … which is not to say that this process provides a full explanation of what happens. Much is left to surmise, as it should be. The reader’s imagination is brought to bear, and so much depends on how much you’re willing to imagine.

Instead, I was surprised to realise just how structured the installation actually was, on a number of different levels. Never mind the immersive book experience, the installation as event was constructed in the same way as almost every other exhibition I’ve ever been to, a series of rooms, carefully arranged to ensure a particular flow of traffic, from entry to exit, and with several pinch points which meant that one experienced the installation in a very particular way (a point I’ll come back to shortly). At the end of my first passage through the “book” I wanted to “reread” it, and had to struggle back against the flow of people to do so.

Reading, be it by book, newspaper, e-reader or tablet, remains a fairly static, contemplative process, and I was struck by the fact that there was no provision for the viewer to sit and consider the larger artefacts in the installation. For that matter, while about half the display was composed of three-dimensional work, it was notable how little of it one could truly walk around, or through, or immerse oneself in. Most objects were pushed against the walls, to be looked at as though one were in a museum (oh, wait) while much of the material was actually made to be displayed on the walls, or as I now found myself thinking of them, “pages”. The installation was in fact extraordinarily linear, walking the viewer, the “reader” through an evocation of Kunzru’s novella, from beginning to end, telling the one story.

print is losing its dominance as a deliverer of the written word

Here, “print” means “paper”; “printed matter” might perhaps lend a little more clarity to the discussion as, for me, “print” can as easily mean “type”, while for “written word” I might read “text”. For that matter, even if we look at words on-screen more often than we do on paper, so much of that screen presentation is still about mimicking the page. There might be hyperlinks to provide connections to other texts, or interpolated audio or video clips, or glossy illustrations to explore, but my Kindle, your tablet, their mobile phones still offer a page-shaped perception of the world.

Given the title of the installation and the novella, what really surprised me was just how text-driven the installation turned out to be. I’d deliberately refrained from reading the novella before I went, to experience the installation as openly as possible but the first thing I encountered inside the installation was a row of copies of Memory Palace each screwed to its own miniature lectern. I wondered if this was some kind of statement about the way we value, or over-value, books, harking back to the chained libraries of the medieval period. Or was it an invitation to eschew the tyranny of print; perhaps the books would be blank (I was reminded of a series of tiny blank books in the bookcase in a dolls house I once owned). But no, these were actual reading copies and I assume they were there to be read or perhaps “experienced” prior to entering the installation. More than that, in the accompanying brochure is a plot synopsis and a glossary. Once again the word is privileged and rather than being jolted out of my comfortable and familiar nest of text, the image is led by the text — the chosen artists were each assigned a portion of text with which to work, in whatever way moved them. How far they wandered from the text becomes a point of interest.

Though even if one didn’t pause to read, once through the doors, extracts from the text were lettered onto the walls to help visitors keep track of the narrative.

Thus the written word is still privileged throughout, even in the valiant attempts to deconstruct its presence. Indeed, its very deconstruction underlines its persistence. And at the heart of this exercise there is a huge problem. It’s contained within the very title of both novella and installation.


Ars Memoria, or Mnemonics, is a memory technique that involves visualising a building in intense detail and then placing memory-objects within it. In Memory Palace, Hari Kunzru imagines a future in which an electro-magnetic pulse has knocked out most of the world’s data storage systems, leading to a economic and social breakdown, which in turn eventually leads to the rise of a society whose leaders pursue a rigorous paleo-policy, according to which the cultivation of crops weakens society, and hunting is the only proper manly activity. To hold knowledge of any sort is forbidden: a life without knowledge is a better life because it was knowledge that got us into trouble in the first place. At the same time, inevitably, after the Withering as it is called, there are those determined to preserve what knowledge they could and in a move familiar to anyone who has read Fahrenheit 451, groups of people – they’re called internets – attempt to preserve knowledge as best they can, which is where the memory palaces come into play.

Unlike Ray Bradbury, Kunzru is less concerned with the immediate need to remember. Instead, he looks at the long-term aftermath, as the collective memory of the internets garbles knowledge and in the process creates a new mythology, composed of half-remembered facts, and words that have become scrambled in transmission, like a huge game of Chinese whispers. If this sounds a lot like Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, then yes, there are similarities but Memory Palace has its own concerns.

For now, let us consider the plight of the first-person narrator, captured by the new aristocracy of this post-knowledge world, members of the Thing (and one of the greatest mysteries to all must surely be how a name like that, indicative of the medieval Icelandic “parliament” has persisted into the new modern-day other than that someone preserved its memory), brutally interrogated and likely to be executed.

The installation, like the novella, tells two stories, and tells them in two ways, through the presence of images and objects relating to the story, but also through edited extracts of the story, lettered onto the walls of the installation, as though the images couldn’t quite be trusted to do the job on their own. Which, in a way, I suppose they couldn’t, in that they could not convey the nuanced questioning of the interrogator nor, for that matter, give us the narrator’s internal monologue. These quickly, inevitably become the installation’s guiding thread, overriding personal story-telling, privileging or imposing an already-sanctioned narrative on the installation. Whether or not that was the intention, I’m not sure, although it does in a way fit neatly with the story’s content. On the other hand, we’re partaking in a thing which deals with the collapse of a story, and the partial preservation of its remnants, fragments which are reshuffled in order to retain some kind of sense who keep it, no matter how garbled it seems to us, the people who were part of the original.

And yes, there is also that dimension to the story-telling: we as observers can smile at the mistakes our descendants will make in their interpretation of “our time”, and perhaps feel just a little superior about it all. Or maybe we shouldn’t.

Then you place the things you need to remember around the building, in the form of pictures.

Some things I remember more clearly than others. In fact, I don’t need to remember at all for I have a map that does the remembering for me. Sort of.

In the first actual room of the installation, most of the imagery was on the wall: a series of illustrations exploring the working of memory (Francesco Franchi, pondering the mechanics of memory), a set of prints that portrayed the growth, collapse and re-emergence of networks, like dandelion clocks (Stefanie Posavec drawing maps of the processes of Booming, Withering and Wilding – you’ll need to scroll down slightly; I liked these not least because they reminded me of a certain style of Penguin cover); something involving a television and a magnet that remains curiously elusive in my memory (Mario Wagner), and a narrative panel by Isabel Greenberg. The three works that remain most clearly in my mind are Nemo Tral’s evocations of a slowly drowning East End, prints positioned on light boxes, to look like stained glass; Frank Laws’ realisation of the narrator’s prison cell (five walls in a loose pentagon, with gaps between them that only a very thin person might slip between, and someone had for there were dusty footprints inside), and a museum display case stripped of the objects, with only the display supports left, by Abake. This alludes to the time after the Withering, when, it seems, knowledge is being stripped from the world. It was the most compelling of the works simply because it was initially so incomprehensible. Indeed, it reminded me of H.G., an installation I saw years ago, in a ratty warehouse somewhere on the South Bank. In both cases, one simply encountered and tried to fathom out something.

And this, I suppose, is the thing I have trouble with here. It was as though I could not be trusted to fathom it out for myself but had to have the story presented to me as well. This was, it seems, a conscious choice on the part of the curators. Memory Palace contains an essay by the curators, in which they make it explicit that the choice of artists deliberately included several who work as graphic novelists, comics artists, call them what you will, and it was the panels of their work that provided another version of the narrative thread, alongside the words on the wall. I was very taken with what all of them were doing but a certain … sameness of style settled in after a while. Perhaps it was the black and whiteness of it all. This was in many respects a very black and white installation. Black ink on white paper. Occasional shocking bursts of colour. But graphic novels are hardly a new thing and our world is at least as visual as it is text-driven as any set of instructions to assemble flatpack furniture will demonstrate.

And yet, I can also see why the curators might feel a need to provide that narrative strand, like a thread leading us through the labyrinth, back to the safety of our own time. There is a sense of ‘just in case’ at work here, whereas I was hoping to become terribly, terribly lost.

Into the next room, or rather into a corridor, narrow, confining, more things on walls. What I remember most from this are Sam Winston’s letter press plate engravings, exploring our engagement with the Periodic Table and charting the chemical components of modern allegedly iconic objects. These really did need the captions to explain them, but the captions were low to the ground, shadowed and hard to read at a distance if one wears progressive lenses. Also, to compound the problem I find it rather hard to kneel. Annoying in one way but I choose to interpret it more as a commentary on the hard-won and also occluded nature of knowledge. The other stand-out exhibit here was Jim Kay’s extraordinary artwork, part cabinet of curiosities, part reliquary for science, presenting a tree of life enclosed in a wooden shrine, The Law of Milord Darwing. There were objects not dissimilar elsewhere in the V&A. The association was clear, though pushed against a wall as it was, much of the shrine was inaccessible. This should have been placed where it could be walked around and contemplated. The narrative thread was provided in this instance by Luke Pearson and Alexis Deacon.

Turning the corner into what would be, I suppose, the main room of the installation, the eye is greeted with an explosion of colour, the most striking being, ironically, the huge black and white model by Le Gun representing the ‘hospital’, or at any rate, a garbled version of it. This involves an old-style medicine show wagon, filled with objects representing different layers of knowledge of the human body and the treatment of its ailments, hospitality having become mixed up with medicine. Quite why it was drawn by four foxes, one with a cigarette hanging out of its mouth, is anyone’s guess but it was a welcome injection of humour into something that had become extremely serious.

Much of the work in this room was abstract; in the end I found myself drawn more to the abstract material, the more abstract the better in fact, perhaps in an attempt to divest myself of story. It was not an entirely successful exercise but worth doing if only to see how I struggled with it. The abstract works fell into two camps – those that dealt with the business of words themselves and those that brought a concept from the story into three dimensions. Thus, Erik Kessels constructed a temple to recycling, which was apparently a religion before the Withering, and built his temple out of bales of paper destined for recycling. Oded Ezer, a typographer, showed looped films in which people ate their words or physically engaged with the written word in other ways. Henning Wagenbreth created a Museum out of wooden word blocks, mixed in with models that reminded me most strongly of Central American art, all of it expressing a colourful confusion over the role of the museum, a place to muse, a place for amusement, or something else. A good question, particularly within the precincts of the Victoria and Albert Museum itself. Religious imagery surfaced a lot throughout the installation, perhaps reflecting the tensions of our own times between fact and belief. Stuart Kolakovic’s altarpiece was a particularly gorgeous thing, done in the style of icons and Byzantine mosaics. More enigmatic was a display of ceramic tiles from Hansji van Halen, addressing the narrator’s memory of tube station names.

But always, we return to the words, to the extent that while I remember the words written up by Na Kim’s installation, I have absolutely no recollection of the installation itself. Words have at this point overwritten the image in my memory. Even a photograph of the installation does not jog my memory, though Paul Kincaid remembers it, primarily, he says, because it seemed to have no connection to the rest of the installation. On the other hand, I do remember Peter Bil’ak’s piece, in part because it seemed to participate in, echo even, the rest of the lettering on the walls.

Finally, as part of Johnny Kelly’s project, we were invited to write our own memories on touch screens, the results to be printed out and displayed. We went at the end of the exhibition and though I’ve scanned the poster and the continuous version online I can’t find our contributions in either. The process of remembering remains thus imperfect.

I  gave each spot a meaning

Another way of remembering is also unavailable. There is no catalogue to this installation. Memory Palace is illustrated but with working sketches rather than records of the final objects. However, it does contain an original graphic work depicting the development of the project, possibly the most adventurous element of the installation. (Even then, the introductory paragraph makes a point of saying that it is “a wordless graphic story” presumably just in case the reader wasn’t sure.) As an act of memory I’ve assembled my own catalogue in the body of this commentary.

Insofar as I had expectations of this installation, I suspect they were not fulfilled, perhaps because I went with a very specific (and possibly unreasonable) set of assumptions: that the installation would break out of the framework of “the book”. For the most part it didn’t. What I did come away with was a sense of confusion about terms. And actually, that’s no bad thing. Not the confusion itself but the articulation of that confusion’s existence. Most days when I go online someone is yet again announcing the death of the printed book (usually along with the death of the traditional publishing model, and usually in favour of a new, shiny model of self-publishing, one which in fact pre-dates the “traditional” model).

It seems to me that at present it is the tools of production and consumption that are changing rather than the book as concept. We may lose sight of the book as object (and Fahrenheit 451 has already been there with the idea of people becoming books in a sustained act of memory) but I don’t think it will be a sudden phenomenon the way some of my more iconoclastic acquaintances like to imagine (and indeed, if Kunzru’s story is anything to go by, I am currently in more danger of losing my e-books than my printed books).

Was the installation more successful as a transformation of the story into objects? In some instances, yes. In particular, the pieces by Abake, Le Gun, Jim Key, Henning Wagenbreth and Frank Laws stick in my mind, as they were intended to, and so I carry around my own tiny fragment of a memory palace. But I suspect they stick so effectively because a story is already attached to them. What I will now never know is what kind of story I might have attached to them had I encountered them in isolation, stripped of their surrounding text. For that matter, had each of the four graphic artists told Kunzru’s entire story, without words – could they even have done so? They could have told the story of the Withering itself, alongside the narrator’s interrogation, but without words, could they have told the story of the distortion and disintegration of language?

In all this, the one thing I have not yet discussed is Hari Kunzru’s novella, Memory Palace. I read it after I’d visited the installation, the end point of the process, but the place of beginning too, because without it there would be no installation. Perhaps it doesn’t matter where in the process it comes, but if one takes a linear approach, and despite everything, linearity still holds sway here, it is the culmination of a gathering of details, be they edited extracts inscribed on a wall, narrative panels, memorial objects.

What is this terrible enthusiasm you have for ideas?

This is the question put to the narrator when he is brought before his interrogator, a thane of the London Thing. Thanes and Things – we are in an unfamiliar world, the post-Withering world, in which cities lie in ruins, much of our painfully gathered knowledge has been lost, and the world, in its various ways anticipates the end, the Wilding, the return of the earth to its pre-civilised condition. The presence of the thanes and the Thing indicate a collapse into the historic past but even now, in 2013, they are hardly common words, so where have they come from? It’s not a question that the novella answers, except in the most oblique way, but the casual presence of those words suggests that while Memory Palace might, at first glance, look like yet another post-apocalypse survival story something else is at work.

First, we can’t be sure of anything. The narrator, unnamed, is our voice of authority and authenticity, our guarantee of accuracy in this strange world in which we find ourselves. Except we know that much of the knowledge he has been charged with remembering is … inaccurate? It is certainly transformed.

“Once there were great palaces called hospitals. The tradition of hospitality was revered across the land. It meant helping customers, healing them and seeing to their needs. […] It was a time of great wonders.”

It was indeed, but not in the way the narrator thinks. In 2013 we know this is simply wrong, and probably wasn’t ever truly accurate, but yet we also know that this is how many genuinely see and have seen the NHS, and what in our heart of hearts, we wish it could be. The future narrator has memorialised not the reality of the early twenty-first century but its nostalgia and its aspirations.

At other times, fact has been transformed into myth:

“At the winter festival we burn effigies of the great Lawlords, in their white coats. Most people don’t know their names any more, just that they were terrible villains […] I know the names of all seventy-two Lawlords, along with their attributes and their colours and their primary Laws. […] Among the greatest was Milord Rayleigh, who knew why the sky was blue.”

Milord Rayleigh is joined by Milords Ferryday and Pastor, Lady Mary of the Cure, and Milord and Lady Ayn Stein. We recognise the fragments of knowledge contained with those stories while recognising that they are grossly distorted. Yet Newton’s Laws of Motion have been passed down intact.

Yet, as the narrator tells us, all of this is now forbidden knowledge: “The Thing have made it a capital crime to speak aloud the words of Newton and the other Lawlords”. The Lawlords are seen as one of the causes of the Withering, hence knowledge is a dangerous thing. And the narrator, himself a Memorialist, is a dangerous subversive because he chooses to remember.

In this post-Withering world, it seems to be the mere presence of knowledge and the act of remembrance that is so dangerous. Once, the Ars Memoria itself was considered to be a dangerous, magical thing but the fear has shifted to the content. And yet, what can anyone do with content, particularly when, to us as readers, it is clear that so much of it is garbled. Nonetheless, the Memorialists are persecuted, perhaps because they are seen as contaminants in this new wild utopia, perhaps because they represent hope of a sort, perhaps because, as the narrator puts it, “the Lords of the Thing know they are small men, compared to the sign-wielders”.

Except, as the narrator’s encounters with his interrogator suggests, there are clever minds at work behind the mediocrity of the thanes, minds that know ideas are dangerous but who can also say “They are just words. They cannot touch me”. When the narrator challenges the Inquisitor as he recites a section of what we recognise as Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species, the man laughs, and the narrator finds himself wondering “What would it mean if he understood what we had lost, and didn’t care to save it?” What it means is that the clever minds believe that humanity had too much power, that the only way to survive is to forget.

This could be a story about hope or a story of loss. Instead, it’s a story of a downloading of memories. The narrator tells his story as another act of memorialising. These are the memories he cannot pass on to the next Memorialist – there is a protocol by which he passes on the memories entrusted to him, and one memory of his own. Instead, the combination of narrative, book and reader constructs a memory palace of another sort, a personal one in which the narrator’s individual consciousness is preserved, a memorial for all the people who can’t be remembered in any other way.

It is a short work but powerful, densely layered as is typical of Kunzru’s writing, and a piece which reveals more every time I read it. Indeed, the brevity, the conciseness seems to make it bigger. When the narrator built the memory palace in his cell, “It was like pushing the walls outwards with my hands. Now it has expanded to the horizon.” Which, to me, seems to be the description of a really good story.

“memories change in the mouths of those who tell them”


Another review of The Memory Palace by Lila Garrott at Strange Horizons.