Spilling Clarence
by Anne Ursu

Hyperion, January 2002. ISBN 0786867787.
Reviewed by Leslea Smith
Posted on 01/10/2002

Fiction: Mystery

What if you could remember everything that ever happened to you? For a writer of memoir, this might seem like a dream come true. But novelist Anne Ursu shows us why an unchecked memory can be a nightmare. Spilling Clarence is Ursu's first novel. Like many good writers, Ursu draws us into her setting—the fictional town of Clarence, Minnesota—by getting the details just right.

A chemical spill in the town's psychopharmaceutical factory begins not with an explosion or a diabolical plot, but with a fire in the breakroom. An employee attempts to make popcorn in the antique microwave oven. The appliance shorts out in a shower of sparks, and soon the civil defense sirens sound. We meet some of the book's main characters while they wait in a big-chain bookstore café for the all-clear signal.

Bennie is a widower, a professor of Personality at the university. Sophie, his precocious daughter, is a fourth-grader at Jesse Ventura Elementary. Susannah is a pretty, directionless young woman who is new to Clarence and not a bit at home there. The café denizens introduce us to the other characters including Bennie's mother, Madeline, a well-known writer living in the town's retirement community, Sunny Shadows. The prosaic details of setting and character, along with the use of first person and impeccably constructed dialog, allow us to imagine ourselves in Clarence. At the same time, the author stands apart from her narrative. Disarmingly, she comments on the story as if looking down from above—breaking the thread of narrative to address the reader directly. After the scene in the café is set, for example, we read: "You know this place. You may be there now. And we have a good place to begin our story."

As the effects of the spill reach a climax, snow begins to fall. Ursu writes, "If this were a movie set, key grips and best boys would be setting up snow machines because you can never trust Mother Nature to provide you with a good natural metaphor when you most need one." Foreshadowing? No need for it when the author tells you straight out what's going to happen next—"Today, Susannah Korbet will get two surprises."

This trick of standing inside and outside the story at the same time parallels the subject of the book—memory. When we remember, and certainly when we write memoir, we stand inside the memory. We relive it. We stand outside the memory at the same time, bringing a new perspective gained by our experiences since the incident. By first drawing us in and then pulling us outside the story again, Ursu invites us to move beyond her deft story-telling and reflect on the nature of memory.

There are actually two spills in Spilling Clarence. Driving the story is the chemical spill of a psychotropic drug called deletrium. At one point, Ursu makes deletrium a character in the book, and we are asked to inhabit the character. "Imagine for a moment you are the chemical deletrium and you have seeped into the atmosphere," she writes. "You have been unleashed. Feels good, doesn't it? You drink up your freedom, dive into water, dance through the air, do the backstroke in some chocolate pudding... The human mind is your playground, and you, frankly, want to play."

Deletrium does the opposite of what its name would imply. It releases pent-up memories in the townspeople breathing it in after the accident.

The flood of memories is the second spill, and some people drown in the flood. One retirement home resident is rendered catatonic by the unbidden memories of his wartime experiences. Bennie relives every detail of his relationship with his late and much beloved wife. Although the memory of her death almost tears him apart, the sweetness of her remembered presence threatens to draw him permanently away from the real world. The children are less directly affected by the spill since so few years of memories are not capable of causing a flood. Instead they are left to deal with the incapacity of their elders. This brings its own revelations to the children and to the adults.

Not surprisingly, Ursu is interested in how a writer would react to unlimited access to her memory. Madeline seems somehow less vulnerable to permanent damage from the ravages of deletrium. Even as she struggles with the loss of control of her thoughts—"[t]he writer's mind lures the flying creatures in, contains them, crystallizes them, and rearranges them into a narrative. Cause and effect. Beginning, middle and end. Revelatory experience. History and significance."—her subconscious is telling her that there's a book in there somewhere. Narrative becomes a lifeline, as it has for many of us.

Eventually, the effects of the deletrium wear off. The survivors return to normal life, but things are never the same. The characters' ways of viewing memory and each other, have changed for good.

Spilling Clarence exhibits uncanny timing as a means of understanding something important about the post-September 11 world. As most of us have returned to some semblance of our normal lives, we have a sense that things will never be the same. Part of what has changed is how we deal with memory. Our nation has new and horrific collective memories. Layered on top of these are our personal memories—some good, some unbearably bad—of September 11 and the days that followed. What do we do with these memories? Especially the bad ones?

As a nation, we have vowed not to forget. Ursu's lesson is that some amount of forgetting may be necessary. If we find ourselves forgetting some of the pain, let us do so with clear hearts.

For a virtual visit to Clarence, Minnesota, check out Anne Ursu's website.

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