In unexpectedly postmodern moments throughout Alice Mattison’s new novel, Nothing is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn, the author addresses the reader. Mattison tells you, firstly, that despite what the title may suggest this is not a story about memory, and that though it may seem odd she has good reason for the structure she has chosen. This is a novel about living alongside the person who gave you life and, when the time comes, without her; so it’s fitting for the story to acknowledge its own origin. Mothers, their death, the tragedy and sadness of living beyond one’s source, is the sad stuff out of which this charming, unlikely novel is made.
Mattison seems to have known her heroine long before beginning this tale, and she wants to be open about what compels her to tell it. Quite simply, there’s something that “interests” her about the story’s main character, Constance Tepper, who, “when she discovered, in middle age, that more than fourteen years earlier she’d failed to pay attention, she tried to find out what she needed to know, even though she didn’t want to.”
The first section of the narrative moves in small buoyant arcs, like a beach ball across a crowd. Keeping the plot in the air is a series of telephone conversations and emails. Constance makes a call, waits for a call, writes and receives an email, then barely misses a call. The small wheels of the answering machine’s tapes begin to get the plot rolling. Constance is alone in her mother’s Brooklyn apartment, and so it makes sense for this portion of the novel to depend so heavily on telecommunication. The phone connects her to Jerry, the soon–to–be ex-husband, to Joanna, the teenage daughter who isn’t answering, to her mother, and to Marlene, who is more than just her mother’s old friend.
Another aspect of what this novel targets is the communication that occurs, or doesn’t, between time periods and generations, the voice of one person in one moment reaching someone else in another. So letters too play their role, and in this story it is the letters that reach farther across time than any other kind of message, and with more to say. The last time I wrote a letter I was in the fifth grade addressing a penpal assigned to me in school. I’m sure I have his responses in a box somewhere, just as Constance’s mother keeps all of hers. Letters are hard to throw out, somehow, and the incriminating ones, like those that turn up in this novel, are the hardest.
Mattison tells us that she has chosen to set the story in two periods of Constance’s life, a week in 1989 and another in 2003. The story moves between these two times with such ease that past and present meld into a single narrative. The technique dazzles even as it disorients. It’s as though Mattison has shattered the timeline of Constance’s life, picked the two most interesting pieces off the floor, and held them up for us to compare. But what of the fourteen intervening years? What we know about them we know only through a mixture of projection and remembrance. But the novel is as much about these “missing” years as it is about the ones depicted—by considering the placement of the bookends we learn the width of the book.
We know that fiction likes to concern itself with life–altering events. But what if at the end of your favorite novel, there was a leap forward of fourteen years, only to discover the heroine living as though the events had not occurred? Constance is like this—and one has to wonder what the point of the story has been. But then the people who occupied her heart and mind during that important week years ago finally, one by one, reappear at the apartment—all except for her mother, whose absence is thrown into stark contrast. While anxiously doing the busy work of worrying about these loved ones, the past returns to her. Constance needs lots of time to realize what she’s lost, and what she hasn’t, but it’s a startling moment in her life when she finally does, and a powerful one in the novel—one that makes all the telephoning well worth it.
Mac Barrett is an MFA student at The New School and a Brooklyn native.