In the Dark Room: a journey in memory
Brian Dillon Penguin Ireland, 246pp, £17.99
''Misfortune," Brian Dillon writes, "finds new and inventive forms." In In the Dark Room, the literary critic and academic turns semi-Proustian, reforming his unhappy childhood into a gripping catalogue of the ways in which we remember our past. Much of this is painful. Both Dillon's parents died before he was 18, his mother after suffering from scleroderma, a debilitating skin condition. The memoir opens with him recalling packing his bags, trying to come to terms with the "glum inheritance" of the Dublin stucco semi that was his family home, and all that came with it.
The scope of the memoir soon broadens. Dillon's personal history of growing up in 1980s Dublin becomes a record of expansive and eclectic readings in remembrance. Focusing on the practical ways in which we manage memory, the book considers the evocative qualities of buildings, photographs, and the "horrifying implacability of physical objects". The result is a sort of cultural history of memory, ranging from discussions of monuments to dream analyses. Extracts from Barthes, Borges and Bergson jostle against pages from his mother's diary. De Quincey and Nabokov shed light on the significance of objects lost and time recovered.
Dillon doesn't have a madeleine to speak of, and is prone to losing things, but he thinks carefully about the few artefacts that remain in his possession. His writing on the dog-eared family photographs is particularly haunting, as are the grainy reproductions of the images themselves, set among the text. Like the author's voice, each seems startlingly intimate and also distant, "manifestly present, but just out of reach".
Though there are many moments of intense sadness, Dillon avoids navel- gazing. Harsh about his own histrionics, he analyses the ways in which we inflate our own pain. "I'm starring," he confesses, "in my own secret performance of a loss which feels unreal and unbearable at the same time."
As the title might suggest, much of this memoir is about exposure, and the most interesting sections focus on the body, describing the long-standing legacy of the author's childhood - a struggle with hypochondria. Dillon offers a fascinating tragicomic analysis of his repeated imagined conditions, ranging, in all their "baroque inventiveness", from malignant melanoma to rheumatoid arthritis. "In two cities, a handful of hospitals, and several medical practices, there still survive, I suppose, plump folders which attest to my prodigious medical imagination." Hypochondria, he convincingly argues, is "an addiction", "a way of structuring time" and of relieving boredom. "By a devious logic, the hypochondriac turns his or her feeling of not getting enough from life into an extravagant demand, simply, for more . . . Nothing of the everyday can match the exhilaration of rebirth that seizes one when the imagined disorder fails to become real."
In many ways, Dillon's work is reminiscent of Hilary Mantel's accomplished 2003 memoir about illness, Giving Up the Ghost. But while Dillon's account of illness recollected is unfalteringly intelligent, it is also, in the author's own words, "missing something". Despite the neatly titled sections, and carefully chosen quotations, there is no tranquillity here. Loose ends are the inevitable condition of any autobiography, but In the Dark Room feels like peculiarly unfinished business. This is partly because the biggest thing that Dillon is composing is his fury. He admits to hearing himself talking to his parents' ghosts. "Forced to imagine what it is like to be an adult whose parents are living", he is compelled to "rehearse arguments", "admonishing, complaining, settling tiny scores". This rage is, perhaps, the darkest thing about the book. It also provides its candour and its strength.