The Story of Forgetting

“In the practical use of our intellect, forgetting is as important a function as recollecting,” the psychologist and philosopher William James has written. James meant that we need to be able to select out important detail from irrelevant, lest our minds be cluttered with useless information. In a more general sense, we consider a certain amount of amnesia a necessary and productive thing. Who can move forward if they are mired in the past, nursing old wounds and focusing on their failures? In his brilliantly audacious debut novel, Stefan Merrill Block imagines characters on opposite ends of this spectrum — some crippled by their inability to forget, others entering into the childlike bliss of unknowing, because they suffer from a rare disease known as early-onset Alzheimer?s.

This unique illness, given a fictional genetic variant called EOA-23 in Block?s telling, causes men and women as young as 30 to begin losing their memory. The decline is part of a more general disintegration, which comes to affect the entire body. As the 15-year-old Seth reads in a medical book, after learning that his mother, Jamie, has been diagnosed, “it?s not just memories that people with my mom?s disease forget but, increasingly basic things. How to write, how to speak, how to walk, how to sit up, how to swallow, how to breathe, and — eventually, after five to seven years — how to stay alive.” Seth, a bright but socially inept boy who always believed he would grow up to be a scientist, decides that he must learn everything he can about the disease and which of his ancestors were afflicted with it, in part to determine whether he himself will succumb to it. Seth is hampered in this quest by Jamie?s long-standing refusal to divulge any information about her past, even her maiden name. “My life started when you were born,” is all she will reveal to her frustrated son.

Jamie and Seth live in a suburb of Austin, but when the novel first opens it is a different world the reader is thrust into — that of an old, humpbacked man named Abel, marooned on a farm outside Dallas. Abel eats only what he can grow on his ten-acre estate and rides a spindly horse named Iona down paved streets cluttered with McMansions. Abel is a holdout, pestered by his neighbors with letters containing phrases such as “eminent domain” and taunted by the local children, who dare each other to run up and touch his hump. In contrast to Jamie, Abel?s problem is that he remembers too much; his days are passed in a ceaseless unwinding of a history he would like to forget. There is the daughter he fathered in secret with his brother Paul’s wife and allowed to be raised as if she were Paul?s child. (Paul?s wife, Mae, was complicit in the deceit, because she was in love with Abel.) There is the fact that this daughter — who soon comes to be Abel?s only living family — abandons him when she learns the truth about Paul, who was losing his memory at the time he and Mae were killed in a car crash. Abel refuses to leave his farm because he hopes that his daughter will one day return there, and the well-built suspense in Block?s novel comes from the realization of how this yearning will intersect with Seth?s mission.

Block employs a medley of voices in his book, including clinical sections in which Seth charts the progress of his research into EOA-23 (an entire page is taken up with a sequence of letters that constitute a genetic code, “the strange lexicon of nucleic acid”) and wistful, fairy-tale interludes in which Jamie tells Seth about an imaginary place called Isidora, a land where “no one can remember anything.” The stories of Isidora have been passed down through Jamie?s family for generations, and though they initially summon a paradise of sorts, a place where “you always have whatever it is you need,” as the novel progresses they become as twisted and entangled as Jamie?s memory. Residents of the peaceful land go to war after a new arrival introduces the concept of sadness to them, a sadness that — it is suggested — occurs because of the ability to remember. The effect of putting such different voices in conjunction is that it demonstrates the contrasting ways memory can work. Block suggests that memory can be methodical and linear, as in the interviews Seth conducts with every EOA-23 sufferer he can locate in Texas, or it can function more like an associative web, whereby loosely linked themes and images recall similar ones. (Jamie?s fanciful tales put one in the mind of the White Queen?s remark to Alice, in Lewis Carroll?s Through the Looking Glass: “It?s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”) In spite of their dissimilarity Block successfully unites these stories by the novel?s end, in a reunion scene that shows how identity is both bound and freed by memory.

Block?s prose is not without a few rough spots, as might be both anticipated and excused, in a debut of such intricacy. Although various clues suggest that he was born in the 1930s, Abel often speaks in a voice that sounds overly antiquated, almost 19th-century in style. He invokes biblical language that at times seems affected: “Sometimes, it is almost as if the mythos of Original Sin was purposefully recast on our little farm…my own hunchbacked, pilose body poorly cast” and at other times corny: “Into the endless oeuvre of the sacred number three, whose work spans from the Holy Trinity through Poseidon?s trident to the three-bean salad, we added ourselves.” There is at least one moment — when Seth is able to gain online access to a confidential database, simply by clicking the word “admin” and guessing a password — where the plot feels contrived.

But these are minor lapses in a story that is otherwise filled with inventiveness and beauty. Block?s metaphors are particularly remarkable, for instance, when Abel?s decaying white farmhouse is compared to “an old man?s stubborn, final molar” and the chromosomal mutation that initiates EOA-23 is described as “a jacket?s zipper pulled up too quickly in a frigid gust, which is only one or two teeth away from its original, intended configuration.” Equally stunning is the succinct manner in which Block establishes Seth?s teenage awkwardness by noting that he calls himself as a “Master of Nothingness.” Seth then explains that “by Nothingness, I mean this: I could find a place in a classroom that was perhaps not the farthest to the back but was simply the place where I was least likely to be noticed.” Near the story?s end Seth registers the simultaneous joy and disappointment that sometimes occurs, when one finally experiences a longed-for event: “It was like watching a film version of a well-loved book, the excitement of seeing a thing that has existed only in your imagination suddenly materialized into reality, with the supplementary sadness that from that moment on you?ll never be able to imagine it any way other than how it appeared before you.”

A novelist faces a similar balancing act: seal off your book too completely, and there?s no room for the reader to bring her own experiences to it; leave things too open-ended, and there?s no sense of gratification and resolve. Block negotiates this dilemma expertly, with a story of a unique condition — the loss of memory — which manages to seem both moving and universal.