The author of this 1989 novel, Greg Erickson, is a fellow congregant of mine at St. Cloud Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (http://www.uufstcloud.org/). I’m looking forward to talking to him about it, but this blog post is being written with no input from him. I’m hoping he’ll leave a comment, so my readers can see what he thinks of my reading of his book.
One thing I want to ask him is how he got the idea for the book. He takes the religious idea of reincarnation and the romantic idea of a “soul mate,” combines them, literalizes them, and puts them into a realistic setting. What if you could identify someone who shared your soul in a past life? What if you could identify the person who, in this life, shares the soul of your previous identity’s soul mate? That is what happens in Memory’s Gate. It is almost enough to make you believe in reincarnation. Well, maybe not, but it will definitely make you believe in imagination. And Greg Erickson has plenty of that!
He also has the skill to construct a narrative that moves back and forth in time from the the life of Paul Weeres in the present day to his past life in the form of Michael McSwain in the 19th century, not to mention the flashbacks during Weeres’ life. The flashback is certainly an appropriate device to use for an exploration of past lives; however, all this time travel requires readers’ full attention lest they mix up, not only the time sequence in Weeres’ life, but also what happens to whom in both lives, especially since the two lives have several parallels.
Weeres goes along with a hypnotist at a dinner party, who, apparently by accident, regresses him to his past life as Michael McSwain. Later, automatic writing appears on one of Weeres’ antique typewriters, eventually leading him to the elaborate scheme concocted by McSwain to contact, not only his soul in the next life, but also that of his first wife and soul mate. The whole narrative is quite ingenious.
In addition to McSwain’s quest to contact the future and Weeres’ journey to understand reincarnation and contact the past, there is Weeres’ romantic quest for his soul mate, which is mostly a waiting game as he cycles through a wife and several lovers, both real and potential.
Erickson’s genius is to make all this reasonably credible. According to reincarnation theory, nothing is a coincidence. Even so, it was a bit of a stretch for me that the soul of McSwain’s second wife ends up in the body of his great-granddaughter, who becomes Weeres’ lover. There’s also a pretty bizarre episode in which McSwain’s former housekeeper goes off the deep end and tries to murder his second wife in a knife attack. For the most part, though, Erickson keeps the narrative on a pretty realistic and believable plane.
Nevertheless, there’s a gothic quality as the supernatural (and the violence) intersect with everyday reality. Yet, the style evokes more curiosity and suspense than fear, and the protagonists emerge, not only relatively unscathed, but fulfilled. However gothic, the narrative does not play out in terms of mere escape from the irrational, but in terms of domestication of the irrational. The seemingly irrational notion of reincarnation is tamed and incorporated into the realm of ordinary reality.
Similarly, if you accept the rational reality of reincarnation, then the romantic idea of a soul mate is perfectly sensible. The only question is whether the two souls will find each other. A lot depends on the suspension of disbelief.
What I found most fascinating, though, is the way reincarnation can stand in for the somewhat unorthodox religion that Erickson and I share, Unitarian Universalism. I have no idea if it was intentional, but, knowing Greg, when I read of the suspicion, especially in the 19th century setting, with which reincarnation was viewed, I could not help but think of how Unitarian Universalism today is often viewed as a questionable, fringy, if not cultish, belief system.
Weeres, to some extent, but especially McSwain, must keep his belief in reincarnation secret, McSwain from 19th century conservative Christians and Weeres from 20th century rational skeptics. Similarly, Unitarian Universalism is often viewed, at best, as a weird religion, and, at worst, as a form of devil worship. When one considers that reincarnation would be viewed, at best, with skepticism, and, at worst, with contempt by most Unitarian Universalists today, the historical parallels and ironies compound.
One way to read this novel is simply as imaginative play. And that’s enough right there. It’s a fun read. But you could also find, if you are so inclined, a message about enduring truths of human experience, truths about the quest for identity and lasting love, for example. But there’s also a message about how social conformity and environmental pressures control our belief systems, and the tremendous effort it requires to resist those forces and pursue our own truth.
I can’t wait to ask Greg what he thought he was doing in this novel!