Sunday 3 August 2008

remembrance of things past

The Story of Forgetting
by Stefan Merrill Block

Brilliant début novels by writers younger than me used to really do my head in. But when I turned 30 and realised I wasn't as young as I thought I was I accepted that there are just some really talented people out there. It's easy to come onto the scene with a distinctive voice but what's really impressive is when you read work that's well structured and, crucially, not over written in a 'hey, look at me, I'm really good at writing' kind of way. Stefan Merrill Block was inspired to write this novel after reading Jonathan Franzen's essay 'My Father's Brain', as well as by personal experience of Alzheimer's in his family. With an ageing population it is interesting to read a novel which deals with a disease like this not just as a subject for fiction but for fiction of an uplifting variety. The fact that he's only in his twenties and writes with maturity and sensitivity marks him out as a writer to keep an eye on in the future.

The Story Of Forgetting is really a story of remembering. For Abel Haggard, the 70 year old recluse who narrates one of the novel's strands, the modern world has built up around his dilapidated farmhouse in the form of identikit modern housing. As the local residents use eminent domain (compulsory purchase in the UK) to force him out of his eyesore he remembers his painful past and the reason for him to have clung so tenaciously to his land, waiting. Abel and his twin brother Paul were naturally very close 'For a time there was no distinction between that which was both of us and that which was uniquely me: the purest form of love either of us would perhaps ever know'. But then he fell in love with his brother's wife, Mae. 'I loved things of hers that you would think unlovable. For example. I fell in love not only with her feet but also with her toes, misshapen from birth into two rows of adorable zigzags.' He falls in love with everything about her, forcing him to consider leaving their home. But Mae doesn't want him to leave and when war takes Paul away, leaving Abel and his hunched back at home, the two of them are able to develop their relationship.

Seth Waller is a teenager who wants to be a scientist. He finds the perfect case for study in his own mother who in a couple of memorable episodes has shown the signs of early onset Alzheimer's. In a restaurant where the chefs cook the meat you select at the buffet, Seth's mother misses that last crucial step and is caught slurping the raw meat obliviously. On another occasion when she goes missing Seth finds her wandering with a suitcase filled with spoiled meat she has been hoarding from their fridge. She is suffering from a particular variant, EOA-23, which affects a single gene and whose sufferers all descend from a single man, Duke Alban Mapplethorpe, from Iddylwahl, England ('now long since wiped from map and memory alike'). After availing himself of a report which lists these descendants Seth hopes to interview those locally, conduct his empirical research into the disease and help his mother. He is also driven to find out more about the woman whose past has always remained something of a mystery to her own family.

There is a third strand to this novel: the mythical stories told to Seth by his mother. They always begin the same. 'Alongside this world, there's another. There are places where you can cross...

This other world is called Isidora, and it's as big as ours, and in many ways it's exactly the same...But the major difference is that in Isidora no one can remember anything. Nobody has a name, or a house, or a family. Or you could say that everyone has the same name and the same house and the same family, a single word and a single place and a single name called Isidora'.

As she points out, as scary as this sounds those who remember nothing have nothing to be afraid of and the novel shows several people keen to turn a blind eye to the pain of their past or even of their present. Ignorance truly is bliss. It also shows us something of the transformative power of storytelling. There is something in the style or quality of Block's writing which reminded me of another of those frighteningly talented young Americans, Jonathan Safran Foer. It takes real confidence to link the various parts of your novel with a mythical storyline, and whilst this book has the veracity of scientific research behind it, it is interesting to note that the particular variant of Alzheimer's that Block writes about is entirely fictitious.

Seth is an unobtrusive narrator, his enthusiasm for the scientific method keeps things clean but also perhaps his enthusiasm for becoming a 'Master of Nothingness'. By learning routes between classrooms so that he can make the journey looking at his feet and knowing which seat in the classroom means he is likely not to be noticed he has become invisible to teachers and bullies alike. It is only in the latter stages that his emotions will come to the fore. And ours too, for Block brings the strands of his story together in a way which just avoids sentimentality and makes for a curiously satisfying end to this tale of degeneration.


John Self 5 August 2008 at 22:46  

Let me just say that, as someone who will in the coming months be joining you in the glorious and terrifying journey of fatherhood, I am thoroughly heartened by the number of books you have been able to read recently nonetheless. Fair gives me hope for the future.

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