Wednesday, January 16, 2008

3. The Story of Forgetting


by Stefan Merrill Block

This is an ambitious first novel dealing with early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The book alternates between two narrators, 68-year-old Abel and 15-year-old Seth, interspersed with the story of a fictional land called Isadora, and partly-scientific information about a strain of early-onset Alzheimer's.

In my advance reader’s edition, the chapters on Isadora are in italics, and those with the real and pseudo-science are titled “Genetic History Part …” (1,2,3,4, or 5). Abel’s and Seth’s narratives are clearly identified by their names. I found it interesting that the subtitles for Seth’s chapters (Abstract – Background Research – Problem – Hypothesis – Procedure – Data – Results – Data Analysis – Conclusion – Future Directions) mirror the organization of a science experiment write-up or a research report.

Seth, an awkward loner, is trying to interview the sufferers of this strain of early-onset Alzheimer’s that live near his home in Austin, Texas. He hopes to learn more about his mother’s past and his own prospects with the disease. His mother has been struck by the illness, and even his father knows little about her background.

Abel is a lonely hunchback whose homestead north of Dallas is being encroached by suburbia. He reminisces about his mother and twin brother, both of whom had early-onset Alzheimer’s, as well as his brother’s wife, with whom he may have fathered a daughter he hasn’t seen for 21 years.

It’s probably predictable where this is heading, and indeed, once the reader learns the name of the mother and the daughter, it’s pretty clear. I found the first part of the book moved slowly and I was easily distracted, but the story picked up after this point.

Block does a marvelous job with the characters of Seth and Abel, the latter particularly amazing because Block was only 24 when he wrote the book. I found Seth to be a very realistic 15-year-old, reminding me of my own precocious and nerdy son at that age. Both characters elicit empathy.

I also enjoyed the book's settings. Block was spot-on with his characterization of the expansion of the Dallas area, especially into the plains of the north. And the "Westrock" outside Austin sounds suspiciously like the West Lake Hills area.

In my opinion, the sections on Isadora are the weakest part of the book. In an afterword, the author states he wrote these while in college, and they have the feel of being forced into the story. The metaphor of a land of no memory is fitting in a story on Alzheimer’s, but the passages themselves are too long and are distracting.

I particularly enjoyed the science-based “Genetic History” chapters and was impressed that Block included citations to real publications in his narratives. Block has worked in cognitive development and memory labs at various universities, and I felt I learned a lot about early-onset Alzheimer’s. It was clear to me that the genealogy he described (Mapplethorpe and his descendents) was fiction. Perhaps the mythology of that section made Isadora seem even more unnecessary.

My only other gripe with the book is the frequent use of meaningless sentence fragments outside of conversations, for example: “But.” “And then.” While his first novel isn’t flawless, Stefan Merrill Block has a gift for characterization, and I will be interested in reading his future endeavors.

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