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Inventing Memory
ISBN: 0312865392
By Anne Harris
Review by: Kim Wells


I was intrigued by the idea of a novel that, as one of the reviews in the front matter described, "takes us from ancient Sumer to the cyber frontier." There is an epigraph from Monique Wittig's Les Guerilleres which invokes feminist literary experiments of power and made me hopeful for a strong, interesting feminist experience in reading this fictional story. The cover art shows a winged goddess-figure with a green snake and a tree; combined with skimming the novel's first section's story of Shula, a slave-girl who lives in ancient Sumer and meets the Goddess in her incarnation as Innana, made me ready to enjoy a novel that promised to help us "find the lost path to the cosmic feminine".

For the most part, the novel was enjoyable, and my intrigued hopes were not completely demolished. The historical "sections" that lead us from the past and Shula's narrative to the present and Wendy's narrative and back again to Sumeria work pretty well. I cringed with pain and memory of my own adolescence when Wendy found herself struggling with peer-bullying and her world of middle-school suddenly more complicated and herself on the bottom of the pecking order. I found her budding relationship with an abused artist boy who moves into town interesting. But here's where my misgivings come in.

When the boyfriend falls almost too easily into criminal activity but Wendy ignores the way he makes the money that supports them, as well as accepting his growing tendencies to abuse, the novel began to lose my complete endorsement. Wendy's experience later with her PhD committee and her research into Goddess mythology was poorly sketched, and frankly, the attitudes of the stock character "nasty-good-old-boys" who are biased against anything that reeks of feminist agenda on the committee was completely unbelievable in the modern University system. (Even coming from a conservative Southern university, I just can't see it happening). As well unbelievable was her lack of any attempt to formally protest their rejection of her work. Her blind acceptance of the committee's stance, the way it actually takes place, and her aimless falling into the world of computers instead of academia just didn't read at all true to me-- perhaps because as someone on the path of PhD work myself, I can't imagine accepting the failure that Wendy accepts. And the way she falls into the computer experiments as a way to "prove" her research is shaky, at best. The idea of her doctoral work fleshing out in this way also read to me like someone who didn't do much research into the way the PhD review system works and took stories from the early 1970s about women's feminist research being blatantly rejected (merely because of its feminist bias rather than for poor research) into the present without taking into consideration any of the changes of the past 30 years. The PhD that Wendy writes would most likely not be rejected nowadays, (at least not for the reasons the novel gives) and as a plot twist, I just couldn't accept it the way the author presents it. In fact, I found 21 dissertations in the database of published doctoral work that sound a lot like Wendy's. So this plot weakness, while probably still fairly minor for most folks, just was a bit too much for me. It read like bad urban myth, and fear-mongering "look what can happen if you're an academic feminist". Where there are still plenty of threats to feminist equality, this one just seemed like pulling "The (boogey)MAN" out of the patriarchal closet and waving it in front of people who don't know any better. It almost seemed like it wanted to discourage this kind of writing, telling us as readers it's clearly hopeless since the misogynistic patriarchs are still in charge.

Still, even though they dish out fairly devastating consequences, all of the novel's "baddies" are somewhat flat-- they seem put there merely as nasty little obstacles in Wendy's path, and I wasn't really compelled to feel sorry for her in confronting them because it seemed so weak of Wendy to buckle in these situations. When Wendy is ultimately rescued by her former "bad-boy" boyfriend, who happens to show up with a desire to rekindle their devastatingly broken-up relationship years and years after the fact, I have to admit I was more than a little annoyed. In light of the novel's seeming aim of uncovering feminist experience and the "cosmic feminine", to have a ne'er do well abusive ex boyfriend show up as a knight in shining armor isn't exactly what I had in mind. I would have liked to see Wendy save herself. Or at least get more help from the women characters around her, who are supposed to inspire in us a feeling of female solidarity and help us see how strong women can be. But they also seem to fall into flat stereotypes of "women's studies types" and the "lesbian butch/femme" feminist just put there to be unthinking roadblocks to the "you just don't know him like I do" hero-boyfriend. In some ways, the novel discredits feminism and goddess studies much more significantly than it "brings the goddess back to life" as one reviewer gushes on the back cover. The science of the "cyber" part of the novel seems a bit sketchy, as well, and the virtual reality world in which we eventually find ourselves, and the way it merges with the mythology of ancient stories are somewhat on shaky ground.

In spite of these criticisms, I have to say the work would undoubtedly be hugely compelling to someone who is interested in Goddess mythology, and/or someone just uncovering her own spiritual quest for the sacred feminine. I find myself sad that my review turns out as negative as it does, because in all, I did like the book. I would like to ringingly endorse the novel since I am still madly in love with the idea of fiction that explores this kind of territory. To imagine Lilith and Innana and other goddess mythology as resurfacing in modern technology is exciting, just not fully fleshed out in this novel.

It does tell some interesting stories about the way patriarchy and remnant matriarchal mythos clash, introducing fragments of goddess myths and matriarchal remnants within patriarchal stories in a way that would most likely leave most young women "looking it up" and learning about their feminist religious possibilities, and would have probably drawn rave reviews from me, and a place on my shelf of favorites, if I didn't know so much about both goddess mythology and cyber-technology already myself.

As it is, Inventing Memory is a worthwhile read; it just falls short of the expectations I had from the framing/marketing of the novel's premise. I would recommend people interested in exploring feminist mythologies and Goddess religions. Perhaps it is just my own personal call to write such novels myself, and get off my critical couch to put this stuff into fiction, to bring women's myth and stories into the mainstream literary world of sci-fi/fantasy. This is not at all a bad start, it just doesn't do the job I wanted it to do.

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