Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

October 6, 2014 § Leave a comment

At one level?  None of this mattered.  It was hard enough surviving day to day, both navigating the hordes at Zombie High and listening to the bomb that had started ticking inside my father’s head.  A little flirting with Finn?  That wouldn’t hurt.  But I concluded that it couldn’t go any further.  When we met after school for precalc tutoring, I made sure that there was always a table between us.  And when I was in his car, I kept my backpack on my lap, my face turned to the window and my attitude set to the frost level of “Don’t Touch.”

Despite this strategy, the hordes gossiped about us.  Girls in my gym class asked me flat out what Finn was like.  That’s how I found out that his family had moved to the district only a year earlier and that he had led the swim team to the state title but decided not to swim this year, and no one could figure out why.  I also learned that those same girls were pissed off; they’d assumed he was gay, because why else wouldn’t he have tried to hook up with them before?

I dialed up my serial killer glare and eventually they walked away. (p. 149)

This year has seen several high-profile literary works that touch upon some aspect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  From Joyce Carol Oates’ Carthage and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You to Iraq veteran Phil Klay’s 2014 National Book Award-longlisted short collection Redeployment, these stories have touched upon how the violence experienced by those returning soldiers have affected them and those that they love.  In Laurie Halse Anderson 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature-longlisted The Impossible Knife of Memory, the deleterious effects of PTSD are explored through the eyes of an “Army brat,” Hayley Kincain, a high school senior who has been on the move for the past five years with her vet/trucker father, Andy, with each trying, seemingly futilely, to escape their issues.

The Impossible Knife of Memory follows mostly Hayley’s point of view, as we see through her jaded eyes her unease about being in yet another new town, with yet another school of teen fish to navigate.  Anderson does an excellent job in capturing the vulnerability behind that cynical façade, as can be seen in the passage above.  Hayley is a very introspective character, one who observes her world around her in acute detail, except when it comes to the central traumas that affect her.  She loves her father, but in lines such as this, it is clear that Andy’s struggles have become such a “normal” part of her life that it is hard for her to conceive of others being happy or free of the issues that affect her and her father:

Our living room smelled a lot like chicken wings and pizza and a little like weed when I walked in the front door.

Dad looked up from the television.  “Hey, princess,” he said with a grin.  “Have a good time?”

I hung up my jacket in the closet.

“Giants are playing,” he said.  “Philly, first quarter.  I saved you some pizza.  Double cheese.”  He frowned.  “What’s that look for?”

“You’re joking, right?”

“You love double cheese.”

“I’m not talking about the pizza.”

“Is it the wings?  You gave up being a vegetarian two years ago.”

“Are we going to play ‘pretend’?”

“Vegetarians can eat double-cheese pizza.”

“It’s not the food,” I said.

“Are you still upset about the cemetery?”

“What?”

Dad muted the television.  “I was thinking about what you said.  I’ll call the cemetery and find out how much those special vases cost.  Mom didn’t like cut flowers, but she hated being outdone by her neighbors, and that headstone looks awful.  Good idea?”  He let Spock lick the pizza grease off his fingers.  “Why are you still wearing the pissy face?”

“Did you run Friday night through the Andy-filter so instead of looking like a total ass, you can feel like you were a hero or something?” (pp. 185-186)

This scene encapsulates many of the central conflicts of The Impossible Knife of Memory:  Andy’s drug use, Hayley’s mom’s death, the willing blindness that Andy has toward his failure to cope with his war experiences, Hayley’s frustrations with him and with her inability to stick long in a place with friends.  Anderson illustrates these conflicts through short, sharp dialogues that cut to the heart of the matter with ease.  Each argument, each time Hayley withdraws from the affections of another semi-loner, Finn, each moment of solitude feeds directly into the subsequent one, until there is a clear sense that Hayley and Andy are flailing their way toward a possible bad ending.

Yet the story does not go full-tilt toward that.  Despite the sense that something ominous is inevitable, the actual conclusion is more nuanced.  Not all failures are final and not all who are lost remain lost in the void of their tortured memories.  For some readers, this might seem like a cop-out, a weakening of the events that lead up to the denouement.  Yet after some consideration, Anderson’s concluding chapters set the stage for the next part of Hayley and Andy’s lives:  recovery.  This does not mean that it is a “happy” conclusion, because for traumas and addictions, recovery is a life-long process with uncertain results.  However, having a bit of hope is more than having none, and in that sense, Hayley and Andy’s stories feel like they have reached a certain stage and that after the story concludes, there are a number of paths they could follow.  Imagining these in turn helps make those scenes already read all the more intimate, because they have established these characters as flawed, dynamic ones with whom we can relate.

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