I chose to read Man Walks Into A Room by Nicole Krauss because History of Love had stirred me to writerly adoration and because the blurb I read promised a good story. A thirty-something college professor disappears and is discovered wandering the dessert. Turns out he has a tumor pressing on his brain that causes total amnesia. When the tumor is removed, he doesn’t regain his complete memory. Though he is thirty-six, he can’t remember anything past sometime during his twelfth year. I was not disappointed by the intellectual quandaries posed regarding memory and identity in this novel, and though the ending disappointed my romantic ideals, I understood it and it led to a way into discussing a relevant element of craft in this novel: the minor character and how time spent there can simultaneously develop the main character.
You see, as I’ve been writing the second draft of my novel, I’ve felt some guilt about not paying enough attention to some minor characters, particularly Eve’s mother, Eve’s friends Dani and Cindy, her Aunt Linda, and her son. It was in thinking about how in the end of Krauss’ novel the story seems to be as much about Samson’s wife Anna that I began to take notes about how to round out my own minor characters.
When Man Walks Into A Room opens, Anna is the loyal, loving wife who, though her husband can’t even remember meeting her anymore, still wants him. For much of the novel, Anna is present only as an image of desire that crosses Samson’s mind and that he doesn’t even know what to do with. Those moments, what he sees when he thinks of her and what she says when he calls her (or doesn’t say) connect the moments at the beginning and end of the story where she is present in the narrative, make up a character arc that parallels and deepens Samson’s own development.
The first time he calls Anna, after leaving her, from the research facility where he is a willing guineau pig, he calls her Annie instinctively.
“Where did I get that? Did I ever call you that?”
“You don’t like it.”
“No, I do. It’s what my brother used to call me.” Samson couldn’t remember a brother, man who shared her eyes or mouth. That Anna had never mentioned her brother made Samson jealous, as if he were an old lover whose photograph she’d kept.” (Krauss 109)
At this point in the novel, Samson has left Anna. She is trying to move on with her life after being rejected by Samson, who doesn’t seem to want to know the people and events he forgot. It is ironic that it is Samson who, in a fear panic, reaches out to Anna. We don’t know exactly what is going through Anna’s mind in that “Silence” because the story is told from Samson’s point of view, but we empathize with her, we can imagine how difficult it must be to not be remembered by your own husband, to still have the memories in your head that he has lost.
Right before Samson gets the memory implanted, he reaches out to her yet again. In fact, every time he doubts or is afraid or alone, he thinks of Anna. This time, Anna speaks “clear and steady” (140) and after he’s told her that he missed her, asked if she missed him, then apologizes, she says, “It’s not a question of sorry. It happened and now we need to move on” (140). In this moment, he wants to remember her for the first time, wants to know if “he was the sort of person who took [her] elbow when cars passed on the street” (140), but he doesn’t ask and she says quietly that she has to go, then there is a long pause, after which she says, “Frank misses you” (140). Anna is present in the beginning of the novel and there is a three page epilogue at the end of the novel that is written in her perspective. For most of the story, though, she is an idea that Samson keeps returning to, trying to understand. This different but parallel suffering is just as important to make the theme of isolation meaningful as is the characterization of Samson, the main character.
Anna, Ray, Donald: they have intact memories and we only know the details about them Samson sees, and what do we find in? They are facing the same struggle Samson is. They are all trying to find ways to connect with others so as to ease their own isolation. Ray wants to transcend the limits of the mind and develop a way to transfer memories from one person to another in order to achieve true empathy. Ironically, Ray is a man deeply concerned with his own self-care. He maintains a diligent exercise schedule, eats the purest foods, and is vigilant about sleep. These seemingly meaningless details demonstrate his desperation. Is this multi-billion dollar science project fueled because he can’t reconcile himself to his own feelings of loneliness? It seems so, the way he lives like a robot, in a sterile, empty home.
So how can I use my acknowledgement of how the characters surrounding Samson make his struggle human, universal, more real to answer the discontent I’m feeling with how I’ve developed my own minor characters? As my book is a first person narrative, their heads are off limits (as in Krauss’ novel), so like in the case of Samson, it is through Eve’s eyes that we will see them. The answers to how to develop each minor character will vary and form was I write and revise. I have at least identified that in order to render Eve with more depth, she needs to consider a few people more closely, I (writer) need to give them a bit more space to speak, and in at least one case (Dani’s) the relationship needs to be reconciled..Minor characters will be a revision goal all its own, I think.