Called into Question: A Review of Samantha Giles’ 'Total Recall'

Called into Question: A Review of Samantha Giles’ 'Total Recall'

By Angelo Colavita

The world of Samantha Giles’ Total Recall (Krupskaya 2019) is this world — populated by humans and movies and trauma. I want to say exactly what this book is about but this desire is thwarted by the text which continues to ask: what exactly is an exact story, anyway? Total Recall builds a structure of clouded memories, spells, and artifacts, strung together in a masterful sequence of alternating certainty and doubt. Throughout this book, Giles carries us through a reconstruction of events (which are not always linear), in an attempt to reclaim a self which has been misremembered and redefined by family, by police, and by time.

I moved through this book carefully, light-footed, as though convinced that any sudden movement would wake a sleeping monster, and as I did so I realized the genius behind Giles’ writing: she writes as though she does not have to convince us of anything. Instead, through her prose and deliberate, gradual revelations (and sometimes redactions) of information, she creates within the reader the same self-doubt the narrator experiences. We are convinced of the narrative’s actuality by mode of our own empathy. We experience the same silencing fear running astride a craving for justice. We are at once the helpless victim, the horrified voyeur, and, what’s more unsettling, the violator.

To lose yourself in this book is to bear witness, firsthand, to the victim’s struggle with truth and with self. When what the mind is capable of recalling is called into question by even the speaker herself, we feel violated. This is not a game the author plays, but a necessary deception. After all, our memory, as a function of the mind, defines our identity, composes our history. What are we at all if not products of our minds?


So to begin reading this book with its clear boundaries between the reprehensible truth of a given chain of traumas, the founding of the False Memory Syndrome Foundation, and a summarization of the film Total Recall, all of which sit within the larger frame as if in the center of a nesting doll, only to watch helplessly as those boundaries dissolve, not only for ourselves, but for the speaker, is an especially hard pill to swallow — as it must be. If not for our intrinsic human capacity for empathy, we are but scattered individuals, destined to collide with one another repeatedly, often, and violently. Giles understands this and exploits it to our benefit. And it is by that exploitation we connect with the speaker and navigate these catacombs of memory.

We are given respite to breathe a bit with two sections of poetry which seem to float outside of the frame of the narrative, much like the “self” of the speaker floats outside of her physical body, at times. The poems in all share but four titles: “Instructions,” “Spells for Forgetting,” “Spells for Remembering,” and “Charms.” Braided together, however, they are a continuous strand of this book’s DNA, and as such, give the reader a glimpse into its chemical composition: the spontaneous processes of certainty beyond distinct evidence, the conflation of hope and hopelessness, forfeit and perseverance, and the immovable, unquestionable fact of existence and experience. The author’s use of textual space is dynamic, yet subtle and somehow, sometimes, even jarring in its subtlety. Lines tend to drift softly away from the margins — the desire to be seen; a strive toward self.

We assume the worst, the truth, despite our doubt, and Giles knows this is to happen. She controls the narrative from beginning to end. I read this book wanting to protect the speaker from the world around her. I wanted to assure her that monsters are not real. But I have seen these monsters with my own eyes and my own memories have clouded in an attempt to preserve what was left of my own identity. And whether or not you, too, have seen the monsters is neither relevant nor necessary. This brilliant work Samantha Giles has produced will suffer the monsters for you. You are safe. You are you. You can know that and never once believe otherwise.

But many are those who have borne the weight of trauma and worn the grim robe of forgetting. Sometimes, to survive, a small piece of oneself must be severed. A phantom limb remains, left as a reminder that the horrors of a personal history of trauma may define who someone once was in the past, but cannot now erase who they are, entirely. To survive to tell your story is to flower in an insufferable desert of simply being alive. Total Recall is one of those flowers, and one of which content and craft bloom beautifully together in an arid clime. It is a catalogue, a catharsis, and a conscious act of reclamation.

Samantha Giles’ Total Recall is available now from Krupskaya Books through Small Press Distribution here.

Angelo Colavita lives and writes in Philadelphia, where he serves as Founding Editor of Empty Set Press and Associate Editor at Occulum Journal. He is the author of two chapbooks of poetry, Flowersonnets (ESP 2018) and Heroines (ESP 2017), with work appearing or forthcoming in Pigeon: A Radical Animal Reader vol. 2, Dream Pop Journal, Prolit Magazine, South Broadway Ghost Society, Luna Luna Magazine, Yes Poetry, and elsewhere online and in print. Follow him on twitter @angeloremipsum and on instagram at @angelocolavita