Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Perception of Prison in Samantha Harvey's The Wilderness

Samantha Harvey’s debut novel The Wilderness portrays a wayward soul looking for 

meaning in life through a warped construction of memory. Harvey’s protagonist Jake has Alzheimer's, an incurable degenerative disease of the mind where later in life symptoms such as memory loss, first short during the onset, then long and finally their ability to speak diminishes and taking care of oneself becomes impossible. Jake is a former architect and his profession is symbolically fitting for a story about a man who mumbles “Entropy is singularly the most interesting theory that exists” (39). Harvey’s background in Philosophy is thoroughly invested throughout the novel providing rational explanations to such notions Entropy explains: theory that says everything loses, rather than gains, order:

"A cup of coffee will, with enough time, get cold, but no amount of time will cause it to get hot again. A house can become a mere pile of bricks of its own accord, but a mere pile of bricks will never become a house on its own accord. Everywhere nature’s fingers unpick as if trying to leave things as they would be if humans never existed" (Harvey 39).

Throughout the story, a symbol resonates as a metaphor for memory. Jake is introduced in the opening chapter flying over a solitary object protruding from the wilderness around it. Readers come to understand Jake was the architect that designed the ominous structure of concrete and steel: “The prison in his creation; its codes and systems, its sequenced, numbered rooms, all of which act as a dam against the mess of the world. That in itself was a victory against chaos” (44). Just as one constructs memory, a prison has “codes and systems,” is “sequenced.” Prisoners become symbolic of particular memories, “housed away” to protect the mind from the “mess of the world.” There is a strong resonance of entropy in this passage as well. Had certain factions of the world (criminals) not descended into chaos, there would have been no need for Jake to design such a structure to house them. Had Jake's mind not slipped into chaos, Harvey would not have had to use a prison to illustrate the degenerative disease that was harboring his thoughts just as prisons do convicts.

Jake visits his son, Henry, an alcoholic residing in the very prison he helped build later in the novel, wondering about binary opposition he had come to understand as universal: “The world needs its irregularities: it is too perfectly spherical, too perfectly perfect without. God is too easy without the challenge” (69). The passage begins with Jake’s distaste for thieves and Harvey justifies his opinion: “thieves disrupted the oiled mechanism to give and take that he, personally, took as the most human of human traits: the ability to recognise value, fairly trade, to save for what seemed important, to spend on what seemed immediate. To give, also, and to provide” (69). A thief become symbolic of alzheimers stealing away his memory. The memory, that was able to give him memories and provide the history of his life so that he could “recognize value, fairly trade, to save what seemed important, to spend on what seemed immediate.” The give and take that Jake believed was the “most human of human traits” is an allusion to consciousness. The prison again becomes a metaphor for a place to house away memory and alzheimer's becomes apparent as necessary entropy to the human condition. Harvey offers her readers a clever binary opposition; how can one know memory without the fear that it may not be there to construct the realities of the world around us?

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