Author Leland Pitts-Gonzalez reflects on Alzheimer’s disease and memory, and reviews Stefan Merrill Block’s novel: “The Story of Forgetting.”
Stefan Merrill Block’s novel, “The Story of Forgetting,” focuses on two characters connected by the ravages of disease, the power of memory, and, ultimately, a hidden family bond. Read the following analysis and review of Block’s novel, written by Leland Pitts-Gonzalez, then pick your very own copy to share your perspective in the comments below.
Abel Haggard, an old hunch-backed man, spends his days living in the past while remembering almost everything — where the sound of footsteps or the wind remind him of his brother’s wife and lost love, Mae. His is a loneliness of regret, where his inability to forget is his “disease.” Hundreds of miles away, Seth — a teenager who fashions himself a “Master of Nothingness” — becomes obsessed with constructing a “genetic history” of his mother’s onset of Alzheimer’s disease. His journey is a meticulous trace in-reverse: beginning with his mother’s illness, to the alleged first Alzheimer’s patient who lived 250 years previous.
Mr. Block fragments the novel with jumps between Abel and Seth’s narrations, as well as descriptions of an imaginary land, Isidora, where memory doesn’t exist. His use of language, cadence, and pacing is effective and even beautiful, but I couldn’t help feeling an immense void in the book. In the author’s notes, Mr. Block recounts many readers telling him that the novel was a moving portrayal of the horrors of Alzheimer’s. However, as the husband of a caregiver, I felt that the novel was more a portrayal of avoidance — where the afflicted were defined simply by their loss of memory and scattered selves. Ultimately, I didn’t find that it was a fault in the writing, but a fault in observation.
Seth’s mother, Jamie, seems to appear in the book as an example of the disjointed identities of Alzheimer’s sufferers. However, as I witnessed my wife caring for her mother who had dementia, I discovered that my wife’s engagement with her mom helped to uncover a personality that was still partially intact. The forms of speech were jumbled and, at times, nonsensical, but that was not her mom’s whole story. I knew my mother-in-law for two years (before dying less than a month ago), and realized that she did know me. The content of her memory had mostly disappeared — in addition to “forgetting” motor skills and the utility of simple objects. My wife described it like this: “A person with Alzheimer’s doesn’t forget where they put their keys. They forget what keys are used for.” Yet, she had retained some of her ability to learn, trust, and emote. She showed that she remembered desire: she wanted to communicate, but struggled to do so. She remembered our intonation of speech: as we asked her about things, she was able to recognize the sound and changes in pitch as questions. And, some of the time, she answered us appropriately. While watching her sleep, it was evident that she still dreamed: she smiled, called out to her husband, etc. Most affecting was that she remembered me from day to day — with a wink, a smile, and the occasional “Ciao”— even though she didn’t know who I was. I recognized that she had learned to trust me.
“The Story of Forgetting” is ultimately a novel about two characters’ isolation, where forgetting is a metaphor for a more existential Nothingness. In the case of Seth and his father, it’s a representation of how loved ones often avoid family members with dementia — whether out of fear or weakness. Mr. Block attempts to add gravitas by crafting an imaginary land, Isidora, where memories don’t exist. After a while, the Isidoran sections were more distracting than illuminating. The stylized descriptions of Isidora were interesting, but interrupted the more affecting story of Abel. I was drawn to him because there was something powerful about his inability to give up on the memories of — and desire for — his loved ones. He lived in his life-long home up until the end of the novel — fighting the nouveau riche as they crowded him out of his community. In the end, he demonstrates passion. On the other hand, Seth and his father come off as avoidant and in denial of Jamie’s illness. This in itself isn’t bad writing, but I cringed since I felt that Seth’s story was meant to be more moving than it was. I became less interested in his constructed genetic history than Abel’s pangs for his long-lost love and child — whose identity is revealed at the end of the book. The most illuminating aspect of the novel isn’t about Alzheimer’s at all.
“The Story of Forgetting”is, at times, beautifully written, but misses an opportunity to uncover the hidden identities of people living with Alzheimer’s. Unlike Faulkner’s ability to give life to Addie Bundren in “As I Lay Dying,”Mr. Block never attempts to portray Jamie as a full-fledged, living human being. To portray the subjectivity of a person with dementia requires the skill of a good participant-observer — and the bravery of a better artist.
Leland Pitts-Gonzalez earned an MFA in Writing from Columbia University on a merit fellowship, and published his first novel, The Blood Poetry, in 2012. His fiction has appeared in Open City, Fence, Drunken Boat, and Monkey Bicycle, among other literary journals. He is also a fiscally-sponsored artist of the New York Foundation for the Arts. He lives in Queens, NY.
Have you read “The Story of Forgetting?” Please share your thoughts in the comments below.