How does a writer stir the bubbling pot of collective memory? With associations, puzzles, and snatches of the remarkable intruding on the everyday. With unexpected encounters, putting seers–the wise men and women around us who are usually overlooked–in her characters’ paths. With signs and stories ‘carried on the wind.’ Annie Q. Syed brings all of these to her new book of stories, Collection of Auguries. Reading these stories again and again gives me that “tip-of-the-tongue” sensation that some memory is about to surface. And sometimes it does! The emotional tone of these stories is unmistakable, like a just-barely-forgotten dream that still leaves a trace of feeling.
Many of the stories in the first part of the book are about miscommunication, about people sharing their stories, attempting to recover meaning, and either talking past each other or misunderstanding because of their inability to adopt another’s frame of reference. The opening piece is called simply “Stories,” and concerns two friends discussing the enigma of a man who stands dressed all in white, his face painted white too, who stands in the market square–“furnishing a silent benediction for bystanders.” One names him X.Y.Z.–the unknown variable–and they consider the implications of all the conversations he must overhear from casual passersby:
“But Franz,” Tariro spoke quietly, for the first time considering X.Y.Z as a man who could possibly hear them and not just a breathing statue for staring at, “People don’t really talk to him –they talk to each other while near him.”
So?!” Franz exclaimed.
“You know people don’t really listen to one another. They only hear half. Half what they want and half what is being said,” said Franz matter-of-factly. Then continued, “So X.Y.Z. absorbs in the half that is not heard but needs to be.”
In her stories, Annie Q. Syed tries to show us that other half, the part of the story that went unheard. “Love: Making Music” is a vignette of a couple misunderstanding what drives the other, in either love or music. “Illumination” tells about a widower and a café waitress who try to connect through grief and remembrance but fail to find the words to bring them closer. In “Memory of Silence” a father’s memory of a fishing trip with his own father spurs him to speak to his son rather than be silent. The motivations that lead someone to create art recur as a theme in “Inspiratus,” “Ferraris & Lamborghinis,” and “While Sleeping.” The last of these offers the healing thought that “art brings to light what we forget is beautiful.”
The centerpiece of the collection for me is a set of four stories under the heading “DaVinci Dreams.” Each story begins with a quote extracted from “Prophecies,” part of The Notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci, and then the story itself illustrates the intrusion of some uncanny but very real phenomenon. These are not fantasy stories, but slices of reality permeated by prophetic signs–“auguries”–that the participants must grapple with and interpret for themselves, to be able to move on with their lives. “Phantom Heart” and “Quietus” both deal with memory disorders and how a medical mystery can turn into a spiritual longing and quest. In “Phantom Heart” a man no longer recognizes his wife as his wife, believing she has been replaced by an impostor (a condition called Capgras delusion); this story is especially poignant because it considers not only the man’s affliction but the fallout for his wife and for his daughter, who is trying to be a caregiver of both parents. Merrick, the protagonist in “Quietus,” suffers from the delusion that “he” is not actually alive but “just an observer.” He and his friend Frank go in search of a neurobiologist who can save Merrick from losing his sanity by explaining to him this strange dissociation from himself. Between these two stories are two others, “Cradle of Stories” and “Time Blur,” united by their characters’ encounters with unlikely seer figures: a filling station attendant named Noor Baba (in “Cradle”), and an aged neighbor named Sarband (in “Time Blur”). Although not about explicit memory disorders, these stories still concern tricks of memory and the slipperiness of truth and self-awareness. Fog is a powerful symbol in “Cradle of Stories,” standing for unconscious memories that rise, like fog lifting, but still may be hard to make out clearly. As Noor Baba says, “All stories come from the fog. You can’t do much though, if you are afraid of what you can’t see.”
Equally compelling, and perhaps even a little more mysterious, are the set of “Thais” stories that round out this collection. These are richly suggestive with Egyptian mythology, which seems to intersect with Thais’ lives (apparently she’s had quite a few of them!), throwing her back on ancient stories if she is to recover meaning and see “the dark matter within and without.” In “The Bridge” a seer figure named Gus leads Thais to stand on the bridge and peer down into the water, which both reveals and hides what she needs to see, as the fog did in “Cradle of Stories.” In “Maat” the Thais of ancient Egypt is a 12-year-old girl with recurring dreams of a tree and the goddess Maat. When these stories appeared in earlier form on Annie Q. Syed’s website, I posted a piece comparing “Maat” to “Phantom Heart,” exploring what I felt to be a deep symbolic connection between them.
In a “Note to the Reader,” the author shares her own love of storytelling and her reverence for stories as a pervasive binding force among people: “We are all storytellers. We live our lives in and through stories as though this imaginary axis on which our planet rotates is made up of stories.” Some of the best stories seem to resurface in human consciousness again and again, appearing in a variety of forms, only to be lost again, leaving us puzzled about ourselves–a fundamental dis-ease. Therefore, she says, “Anyone who feels compelled must write because people forget!” I’m so glad she did write these fascinating stories, and I hope to read many more from her.
For more of her writings on many subjects, visit her blog “Trial of Words” at annieqsyed.com.