Portrait

Author Chris Flynn on the struggle to remember. By Ceridwen Dovey.

Forgotten but not gone: the inner world of Chris Flynn

Who knew there could be so many ways to remember, ways of remembering? Or that the memory of how to hold a pen is stored in a completely different part of the brain to the memory of a favourite childhood teacher’s name? 

Chris Flynn knows, for one. He knows semantic memory from implicit memory. The difference between autobiographical memory and emotional memory and working memory. He knows in part because he has recently become aware that he is losing his episodic memory, the ability to remember and later retrieve specific events in time. 

He strolled through the Sydney Botanic Gardens on one of the freakishly warm evenings this May, knowing he must have walked those same paths years previously as a backpacker fresh out of Northern Ireland, but with zero recollection of it. Had there been bats hanging like giant black seed pods from the tree branches that time, too? He struggles more than the rest of us to remember a person’s name, if he’s met someone before, and where such a meeting may have taken place. 

Flynn is not elderly, nor suffering from an age-related illness of the brain. He’s just over 40, a writer in his prime. He seems surprised at the strength of my feelings on learning about his slowly failing episodic memory. I sense it’s not something he feels defines him, not yet. As long as his semantic memory for the meaning of words is intact, and he can continue to wordsmith, he’s content. He doesn’t much care for curating personal memories, putting them in a glass box under lock and key. 

Flynn doesn’t write what he knows, he writes in order to know. Like the character Voltan in his new novel The Glass Kingdom, Flynn knows the freedom of being forever effortlessly trapped in the present, staring once more into the azure waters that fill the huge volcanic crater overlooking Mount Gambier, thrilled to see it again as if for the first time. What better tense could there be in which to exist as a writer if not the perpetual present? 

His emotional memory is alive and kicking, however, tucked away in another fold of his brain. We are in the green room together for the writers’ festival, sitting on bright orange chairs in front of one of those dressing-room mirrors framed by light bulbs, joking about washing his non-existent hair in the nearby washbasin. Someone else asks about an event we did together where we read passages from each other’s books, and his eyes fill suddenly with tears. He takes a moment to recover. 

“I can pretend all I want to be tough but I’m a big softie when it comes to books and the huge impact they have on me,” he says. He tells me about roaming the stacks of his local library back in Belfast as a teenager desperate to escape his own reality. Books got him through the ravages of high school. They still get him through, day by day. When he was finally old enough to have escaped, living in France in his early 20s, longing to be a writer, he was brave enough to listen to the wisdom of a Frenchman who said, “Go off and live for another 15 years. Then worry about being a writer.” 

Another event, a panel this time, and Flynn is cajoled into finishing it off by rapping some of the lines from his character Mikey, a young wannabe street poet. He stands up and smooths his shirt, explaining that the lines are meant to be a bit awkward, that Mikey isn’t as good as he thinks he is, and also that it is strange for him to read them aloud in his Northern Irish accent since Mikey is an ocker. Halfway through, aware that the room is filled mostly with middle-aged women in pretty scarves, he apologises for the dirty language. 

    Gots me the stamina of a dromedary,

    Fightin’ claws of a crested cassowary,

    A vocabulary so extraordinary 

    They call me the human dictionary.

    My flow is so revolutionary

    Sometimes I just speak in binary,

    One zero one zero one zero one,

    That’s certainly out of the ordinary.

    I’m so hot my nickname is January,

    My lap is where bitches seek sanctuary.

    My position ain’t doggy, it’s missionary,

    Wanna bust a nut not a capillary.

    Won’t see me readin’ books in no library,

    Ain’t no fun when you’re on your solitary. 

Part of me hopes that the next time I see him he will look at me blankly. “Have we met before?” he will ask. “No,” I will say, taking a deep breath, preparing to perform afresh the same old version of myself. But he’ll be pulling my leg, reminding me not to take the job of remembering so seriously. 

He will channel his own fictional character Voltan: “Don’t we reinvent who we are all the time? Aren’t our memories little more than a series of misremembered anecdotes, exaggerations and wishful thinking?” And I’ll channel back a bit of Mikey: “What do you know for sure, dawg? Nothin’.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "Forgotten but not gone". Subscribe here.

Ceridwen Dovey
is the author of Blood Kin and Only the Animals.