Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Story of Forgetting

When my Grandma Irene lay dying in 1993 at the age of 82, she was surrounded by her seven living children but she knew none of them. Diagnosed with Alzheimers in her early 70's, she slowly slipped away, changing from a woman who learned to drive late in life to a woman who couldn't perform the most basic of functions.

While reading Stefan Merrill Block's novel The Story of Forgetting, I found myself grateful that she was able to live at least 70 of those years with her abilities intact. How much worse for those with familial early-onset Alzheimers, not to mention their families, who begin to show symptoms in their mid-thirties.

Block's novel intertwines three stories: Abel, an old man in Texas hanging onto a family homestead even though his entire family is gone; Seth, a teenager in another part of Texas whose mother has been diagnosed with familial early onset Alzheimers; and Lord Alban Mapplethorpe (and his descendents), the man in whom (according to this novel) the first genetic mutation occurred that created familial early onset Alzheimers.

These three fictional stories are bound together by another fictional story that each family group knows - the story of the mythical kingdom of Isodora, a land without memory, where every need is met and every sadness is forgotten.

This could be a sad and depressing novel (and don't get me wrong, there were difficult moments) but Block also manages to make it a surprisingly optimistic story. And even the difficult times are interspersed with humor. I particularly enjoyed Seth's observations that the doctors spoke to my dad in medical language, which sounded like English but wasn't anything I recognized.

I also liked Block's effort to show that each sufferer of the disease is unique. He puts Seth, in an effort to understand the disease, on a quest to meet other sufferers and Seth encounters a variety of Alzheimers patients: Mr. Hamner, an artist who tells him that Willem de Kooning created his best work after falling victim to Alzheimers; the three Llewellyn sisters who exhibit three different stages of Alzheimers - mild forgetfullness, anger and happiness; and Mr and Mrs. Bennington who met each other at an Alzheimers support group and married each other.

I didn't think the novel was successful in all ways - the intertwining of four stories was sometimes disorienting. She spent quite a bit of time on Abel's current circumstances and it didn't become apparent until the end why she did that. He is the last member of the family living on a ranch in Texas and he slowly sells off the land to survive and the owners of the McMansions that begin to crop up on his former land do not appreciate the dilapidated old ranch house in their midst. It was an interesting commentary on how newcomers can change land-use in a way that drives out the oldsters, but I found myself wondering why she was going into this side story.

I've never liked fairy tales and I found myself skimming the story of Isodora but others might not feel the same way. The novel is also full of a lot of scientific information about Alzheimers that I wasn't sure I could completely trust (this was a novel after all, not a medical textbook). But, despite the flaws, I found myself caught up in Seth and Abel's emotional worlds and that carried me on to the end.