Writing to Destroy Memory
by Claudia Casper
There were times I crossed over the line of sanity during the writing of this novel. Perhaps that’s true to some degree writing any novel, but it was particularly true with this one; both because my main character, Allen Levy Quincy, was my first person narrator and he was an ex-soldier with PTSD in the year 2047. Embedding my deepest self with him every day was like travelling through a portal to another reality, the intensity of which often made it more real than my own day-to-day existence.
The first spark for Allen Quincy came when, years ago, I read a newspaper article about General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian general who headed up the UN Peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the genocide, being found drunk and suicidal on a park bench in Hull, Quebec. Apparently this wasn’t the first such incident and his friends and family were distraught at the self-destructive change in the pragmatic, principled man they had known. I had read Philip Gourevitch's excellent book about the genocide in Rwanda, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families and Dallaire’s coming so completely undone seemed like a profoundly human response to what he had witnessed. It moved me.
I put together a proposal to write a biography of General Dallaire, only to discover when I pitched it that he was already writing a book himself, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Still I couldn’t get his story out of my mind. I flew to Ottawa to meet him, and attended several of his talks about the future of peacekeeping.
My father was fourteen when WWII ended. His father, my grandfather, was a general in the German army. His mother, who separated from his father during the war and abandoned my father to his paternal grandmother, told my father several years after the war that she was Jewish. I am sure this family story drives my desire to understand genocide and murder, and to reflect on what might prevent such behaviour in the future. I read Samantha Power’s book, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide, and her work was foundational in my thinking.
A novel began to take shape in my mind. An ex-soldier with PTSD and a genocide. I did not want the genocide in my story to be one that had already happened, so I decided to write about one in the future. I wanted the genocide in this story to take place in North America, because I wanted to sidestep the thinking that genocides are only committed by ‘other people,’ other cultures, other ethnicities. I wanted my character to have served in Afghanistan and to be in his late fifties during the telling of the story. That took me to the year 2047.
In 2003 a report from the Pentagon concluded that climate change would lead to a future where “once again warfare would define human life.” For me, the future meant gaming out where climate change might take our civilization. I compressed events that would more likely happen over one or two centuries into a few decades for the sake of the story, and began to imagine a post-climate change society in which the cultural matrix had necessarily shifted from one of growth to one of conservation. I imagined that electricity, and anything that generated carbon or heat, would be severely rationed, and began creating my world out of that.
Understanding PTSD required understanding how memory works, and while researching memory I came across a quote from Plato, “writing destroys memory.” I knew, like love at first sight, that I had found my narrative structure. Allen Quincy would write to destroy the memories that were destroying him; he would write journals, and those journals would be my novel. Thus began an eight year wrestling match with the epistolary form and a discovery of its seductive gifts and punishing strictures.
One of the biggest challenges of the form was finding a way to inform the reader about what had happened to create this future post-climate change world. Allen Quincy is writing his journals for a reader in the future, a reader who would already know what had happened. I tried sewing the necessary exposition into dialogue, with horribly clunky results. I tried a prologue, and an epilogue, but both seemed gimmicky. In the end I simply laid it out in a page and a half at the beginning, the way someone might rev their mental engine when they’re getting down to writing, and had Quincy acknowledge that he is telling his future reader what they already know. My editor assures me it works.
Writing a male character and a soldier, I took on as a kind of sacred challenge. I reread the journals over and over, holding a tuning fork up to check that the language was consistent with a male character. A habit I have of hedging an emotion or a statement by inserting “a little” or “a bit” or “kind of” had to be expunged in every instance. Adjectives were cut back by at least a third. Starting sentences with “I feel, I think”—each occurrence had to be challenged, and often lopped off for the more declarative sentence—a good practice in any case.
During the writing of this novel, the internet was changing both the amount and the way I read and I came to believe that the novel as a form was going to have to relitigate its value in our culture. I asked myself—what does a novel offer that cannot be found in any other medium, and will that be of any value?
Novels take us deeper inside another person than any other art form; they experientially expand our solitary worlds and our single lifespans into more than just our own. The value of this empathic experience is being measured and confirmed by neuroscientists. Novels take the founding myths and sacred stories of our civilization and reinterpret them for each era, each generation, in a way that integrates the layers of past meaning. Novels help us redefine anew who we are, what it means to be human, and where we are heading, besides that one known place—the grave.
For a long time this novel was called The Last Murder. It is, in part, a reworking of Cain and Abel—a last murder as opposed to a first murder. Even in a post-apocalyptic reality I realized I could not posit an actual last murder for our species without seeming hopelessly naïve. I returned to the original story in Genesis and the commentary on it to find in the language, in the bones of that story, the solution to my own. When you read The Mercy Journals, you will see what I did.
The number of times in my life when I could say I left nothing on the field and gave everything I had to an endeavour are few and mostly involve playing squash. Writing this novel was one of those rare experiences. I left my reality to enter Allen Quincy’s.
Claudia Casper is the author of the novels The Reconstruction and The Continuation of Love by Other Means, which was short-listed for the Ethel Wilson BC Book Prize, and most recently, The Mercy Journals. Her writing has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Vancouver Sun, Geist, Event, Best Canadian Short Stories (Oberon), and the anthology Dropped Threads: What We Aren’t Told (Vintage), edited by Carol Shields and Marjorie Anderson and Canadian Content. She is writing the screenplay for a 3D feature film France/Canada co-production of The Reconstruction. Her work has been published in Canada, the US, the UK, and Germany. She has taught writing for the Vancouver Manuscript Intensive and Kwantlen Polytechnic University. She lives in Vancouver, BC.
About The Mercy Journals
This unsettling yet far from hopeless post-apocalyptic novel is set thirty years in the future, in the wake of a third world war waged as a result of a water crisis that ends in catastrophic destruction. One of the survivors, Allen Quincy is a former soldier nicknamed Mercy. He suffers from PTSD and is haunted by lingering memories of his family. His pain is eased when he meets a singer named Ruby, who briefly breathes new life into his existence before disappearing.
When his long-lost brother Leo arrives with news that his children have been spotted, the two brothers travel deep into the wilderness to look for them. But in the conflicts that follow, the line between truth and lies becomes indistinguishable, challenging Allen’s own moral code about the things that matter amid the wreckage of war and tragedy.
Set against a sparse yet fantastical landscape, The Mercy Journals explores the parameters of personal morality and forgiveness.