Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • The Story of Forgetting
  • Written by Stefan Merrill Block
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780812979824
  • Our Price: $15.00
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - The Story of Forgetting

Buy now from Random House

  • The Story of Forgetting
  • Written by Stefan Merrill Block
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9781588366856
  • Our Price: $11.99
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - The Story of Forgetting

The Story of Forgetting

    Select a Format:
  • Book
  • eBook

A Novel

Written by Stefan Merrill BlockAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Stefan Merrill Block

eBook

List Price: $11.99

eBook

On Sale: April 01, 2008
Pages: | ISBN: 978-1-58836-685-6
Published by : Random House Random House Group
The Story of Forgetting Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - The Story of Forgetting
  • Email this page - The Story of Forgetting
  • Print this page - The Story of Forgetting
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
PRAISE PRAISE
READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
Tags for this book (powered by Library Thing)
fiction (73) alzheimer's (22) texas (15) family (15) memory (9) novel (7)
» see more tags
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Abel Haggard is an elderly hunchback who haunts the remnants of his family’s farm in the encroaching shadow of the Dallas suburbs, adrift in recollections of those he loved and lost long ago. Hundreds of miles to the south, in Austin, Seth Waller is a teenage “Master of Nothingness”—a prime specimen of that gangly breed of adolescent that vanishes in a puff of sarcasm at the slightest threat of human contact. When his mother is diagnosed with a rare disease, Seth sets out on a quest to find her lost relatives and uncover the truth of her genetic history. Though neither knows of the other’s existence, Abel and Seth are linked by a dual legacy: the disease that destroys the memories of those they love, and the story of Isidora—a land without memory where nothing is ever possessed, so nothing can be lost.

Blending myth, science, and dazzling storytelling, Stefan Merrill Block’s extraordinary first novel illuminates the hard-learned truth that only through the loss of what we consider precious can we understand the value of what remains.

Excerpt

Chapter One


Abel

once, i fell in love with everything

I never found a way to fill all the silence. In the months that followed the great tragedy of my life, I sprang from my bed every morning, donned my five-pound, cork-soled boots and did a high-step from room to room, colliding with whatever I could. The silence meant absence and absence meant remembering, and so I made a racket. The rotting floorboards crying out when roused, the upholstered chairs thudding when upended, the plaster walls cracking when pummeled: small comforts when everywhere, always, the silence waited.

Over time, I learned to divide it into pieces. If, after breakfast, I found myself straining to hear my daughter’s voice in the yard, or my brother’s hobbled gait scraping down the hall, or Mae fiddling with the radio, I blamed it on the silence that had just collected before me, in my freshly emptied bowl of porridge, and then I chased it away, rattling the bowl’s innards with my spoon. Sometimes, from the room that once belonged to my brother and Mae, a particular kind of silence, more profound than the rest, began to seep out under the door, and I had to charge in, fists and feet swinging, to beat it into submission.

I may never have made peace with it, but over the years I began to recognize the possibilities that the silence afforded me. It was absolute. That was its horror but also its blessing. Into itself, the silence promised to absorb whatever I gave it: my delusions, my regrets, even the truth.

But still. Even if the words go straight from my mouth to oblivion, the fundamental truth of my life is so simple, the saying of it makes me feel so foolish I can hardly bear to say it at all:

I was in love with my brother’s wife.

But that is far from the story in its entirety. More accurately, I will say:

I once believed I cared more about my brother than any person still living, but I was wrong. I cared even more about the woman he married, the woman that my brother, at times, seemed hardly to care about at all.

Look at me. Still jealous, after all these years. Why should I have to compare who cared the most? Life isn’t a competition, is it, with the one who cares the most getting the most? The lethargic and the cynical can live in mansions. And here I’ve remained, left to silence in this place with walls that barely stand.

Did my brother love Mae? Perhaps, in his way, he loved her; I can’t say. She was his wife, and for him that was a simple enough answer. But did I love her? Yes. 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.

And not just that. I also fell in love with the sounds her feet made when they walked. Separately, I fell in love with the sound of her walking on dirt, and on wood, and in mud. These days, there is a young mailman who must have the same leg span as Mae. I know when my monthly issue of National Geographic or the latest offering of the Book-of-the-Month Club is about to drop through the slot because I suddenly find myself deeply, completely in love.

The time came when I knew I had to make a decision, or else I might do something severe. I devoted myself to watching Mae do the things that I thought would be the most repugnant to me. I asked myself, What makes a person most fall out of love? I decided the answer was obviously to see the person you love making love to someone else.

My brother’s room, which was once Mama’s room, was on the second floor. Outside is still the massive willow tree with long, leafy fingers that creep in and tickle your face if you sleep with the window open. And so, because that night I had fallen in love with something hypothetically impossible, the sound Mae’s stomach made when it moaned from too much food, I decided I had to climb that tree and watch the one thing that could make me instantly fall out of love.

Up in that willow, behind the leaves, I sat like a dirty old man, like the man I have perhaps become, waiting for something terrible. But instead, my brother and Mae did not even look at each other. They only crawled into their bed, each as far to either side as possible, and fell asleep. The next night, after I had fallen in love with the way Mae shucks corn, I climbed the tree again. Again, nothing came but sleep. For the next five days I fell in love with so much that I prayed they would finally make love, or else I didn’t know what. When Mae would pour my brother’s coffee after breakfast, her pouring a thing I had fallen in love with long before, I might suddenly stand from my chair and scream, “I’m in love with the way you pour!”

I had sworn to Mama long ago that I would never lose my mind when it came to love. But losing my mind was precisely what I was doing.

Five days passed, and still my brother and Mae had yet to use the bed for anything but its dullest purpose. On the sixth, I did something I knew to be unforgivable. But I thought that I could accomplish the act stealthily, that the shame of the thing would be mine alone. Or maybe I wasn’t really thinking at all. As I watched Mae sleep, her face to the window, me falling in love with the way the arch of her nose pressed into her pillow, I began to rub myself in that tree.

The next day, I walked the three miles into town, through some excuse, and when I came back I brought a dirty magazine, filled with detailed images of men and women wrapped up in each other, for my brother to look at. For inspiration. I claimed it was for me, which seemed natural since it had been so long since anyone had seen me with a woman. I left it in obvious places where I knew he would see it. For a time the fish didn’t bite; I knew that I would soon have no choice but to take drastic action. Just before dinner one night, after fifteen nights straight on which they had not made love, I saw that the magazine had disappeared from the little shelf near the door of the barn, which made me hopeful. But then, minutes later, I saw my brother sneak it back when he thought no one was watching. He had taken it with him to the outhouse, and so I knew my plan had backfired.

What else of Mae’s could I possibly find repulsive? But I had already tried everything. Once, when she had gone to the outhouse, I had peeked through a knot in the wood, watching her do her business, hoping that the most base things her body could produce would repel me. Instead, I only fell in love with the sounds she made and the way her tiny, elegant hands wiped. I was hopeless. I imagined awful things. I imagined ways to kill my brother that would look like accidents but would not be. I imagined kidnapping Mae in the middle of the night and then explaining why I had to do what I did. I imagined simply asking her if she had also fallen in love with anything of mine, and if so, maybe we could escape together.

But, then I would remember, it was hopeless. Who did I think I was? I wasn’t about to become the kind of person who can commit fratricide. And I certainly was no kidnapper. Then I thought, What do I really know Mae thinks of me?

Sitting one afternoon in the expansive stretch of our wheat field, where it seemed possible to convince yourself that all human problems were imaginary, that the whole of the earth was nothing more than a shaggy, endless khaki, I nevertheless found myself attempting to conjure potential evidence of Mae’s true feelings.

Years before, Paul had traveled to Dallas for great spans, sometimes entire weeks. Eventually, these trips came to an end when he returned, one evening, with Mae. That first night she sat next to me at supper. Trying to flatter Paul, every time she took a mouthful she would say “Mmmm,” her breath rushing from her nose and breezing the hairs of my arm. Three times, our knees touched. Once, for minutes.

I chided myself: What does that even mean? Sure. Perhaps, sometimes, as she rests a plate of food at the table, she leans heavily against my back, lingering. Perhaps, sometimes, she smiles at me in the conspiratorial way of a shared secret. Perhaps, sometimes, when we’re reading in the evening, she lies on the couch just so, kneading her toes into my thigh. But, no. To her I am just the pathetic, lonely brother. I am the lonesome, clinging third in what would otherwise be a normal marriage of two. I am the one person too many. And if I simply didn’t exist, everything would be easier. I am the person she perhaps has seen rubbing himself while watching her sleep. And, of course, my body still remains as it always has been. Still, I am the deformed hunchback, the way my right shoulder and my spine lock bones. Still, I am only cause for disgust.

Maybe I was exaggerating. Exaggerating in the way that a single, frustrated need can compress a life’s complexities and convolutions into a wildly simplified story, written in self-pity, of one’s own insufficiencies in a world populated by the sufficient. But I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help but trace the history of my sad lot back to its origin. I began to think of when Paul and I were still boys. We were twins. For a time there was no distinction between that which was the both of us and that which was uniquely me: the purest form of love either of us would perhaps ever know, a form to which my brother would one day return.

Sometime near our fifth birthday, my brother and I stepped together into a bath Mama had drawn. Suddenly, the earth rumbled, a great fissure cracked open, and my brother was separated from me for the rest of time. I had gazed at his body. And as I had done so, I had also begun to scrutinize my own. I had, for the first time, begun to take note of that which marked us as different. Most notably, of course, my hump. At some point, as my brother’s scapulae had parted with admirable, unfailing symmetry, mine had grown askew, a bony snarl, snaring my right arm like the dead limb of a trapped wolf, to be chewed away for the sake of freedom. My hump. A part of me was in unfortunate excess, perched there upon my shoulder, an excess that telegraphed my future paucity, the women and jobs and love and family that would be forever withheld from me. It wasn’t that I ever resented Paul. In ways, it was just the opposite. As the girls of High Plains flocked to Paul at the end of each school day, as Paul’s talents for baseball and sprinting grew into legend, as Paul’s sturdy, superior frame accomplished work on the farm with startling efficiency (tilling vast fields in a matter of days, bucking chicken feed by the ton, bearing fifteen gallons of milk, from the barn to the house, all at once), Paul was proof of what I would have been, if not for my shoulder blade’s poor sense of direction. A notion both heartening and tragic: all that stood between the seemingly boundless possibilities available to my brother and my own lonely lot was a two- pound obstruction of sinew and bone. A part of me was in excess; I tried to accept it, but secretly never stopped believing it a harbinger of a hidden talent to be revealed to me in the future, of a secret capability to possess at last something Paul could not, something that would be mine alone. Is the truth as dark and covetous as that? Is that why the only love of my life had to be my brother’s wife? Is it possible that my love for Mae was, in part, something other than love? Perhaps. But at the time, it was enough to say, I was in love.

I decided I had only two choices. The first was that I would kill myself, but I quickly understood that I couldn’t do it. As it turned out, I still wanted to live. I couldn’t even come up with a reasonable plan for suicide. The second, which was really the only choice I had, was to leave. To leave for any place but there.

It was the night before I would go. I had packed the things I would take and had explained to my brother and the woman I couldn’t bear to love as much as I did that I had to make my own life and stop being an intruder on theirs. This was as good a reason as any because it was also the truth. That night, with my last bit of hope, I climbed the willow one more time and watched my brother and Mae go about their sad, silent routine. Climbing into bed, turning their backs to each other, then falling asleep. As I unbuckled my pants and watched Mae’s face, I tried to imagine riding away in trains and buses and cars, being in big cities that looked nothing like where I was then. But instead what I imagined was that the thing that was in my hand was instead inside of Mae.

Eventually, I sighed and let go of myself. The thing slouched away like a miserable, malnourished creature all its own. I closed my eyes. I opened my eyes. I looked into the window. And then. Everything changed.

Mae stood from her bed, my brother still sleeping behind her. She came to the window, and at first I prayed that if I remained incredibly still she would not see me behind all those leaves. But she stared right at me. Would I have done something different if I hadn’t been leaving the next day? Perhaps. But I did what I did. I stared back.

Then, through the window, I watched her turn and leave, falling in love with the way she walked on her tiptoes. She crept out to the tree. I scrambled to buckle my pants back together. Then she was climbing, and I was falling in love with the way she climbed. I did not move. I was as still as the branches. And then. She was in front of me. There were so many words to say to her then, about all the things of hers that I loved. I couldn’t say anything. But Mae could.

“Abel,” Mae said. “Don’t leave.”

And then. She touched me, and I thought, Maybe I am not the one person too many after all.
Stefan Merrill Block|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Stefan Merrill Block

Stefan Merrill Block - The Story of Forgetting

Photo © Christina Pabst

Stefan Merrill Block was born in 1982 and grew up in Plano, Texas. He graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 2004. The Story of Forgetting is his first novel. He lives in Brooklyn.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Stefan Merrill Block and David Ebershoff 
David Ebershoff is an editor-at-large at Random House and the author of The 19th Wife 


 
David Ebershoff: You are a natural storyteller, gifted with an innate understanding of how to construct a good tale. How old were you when you first started writing stories? What were they about? 

Stefan Merrill Block: There have been times when I haven’t written much, but I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t arranging some story in my head. Before high school, almost everything I wrote featured a normal kid transformed in some fantastical way. These stories were almost always extensions of daydreams, and the hero, of course, was always a version of me. In one, I became highly magnetized. It was a problem because whenever I stepped too close to the road all traffic veered toward me, but it ended up saving the day when the engines of an airplane carrying my dad suddenly gave out and I was able to direct the plane safely to earth with my powers. 

DE: I’ve always been fascinated by homeschooling. How old were you when you started studying with your mom? What was an average day like? How do you think this experience affected you as a writer? 

SMB: I left public school when I was nine, and homeschooled for five years. At first, my mom set a fairly regimented curriculum, but after a while our days naturally evolved into what we would later learn is called “unschooling,” an education led by the student’s interests. Usually, we would get up in the morning and chat about whatever subject interested me. It could have been anything, really, from French Impressionism to the creation of Walt Disney World. Then we would head to the library, where I would borrow whatever books I could find related to the topic. Then I’d write about the topic in whatever way I wanted. I would make a display board about the history of China, or I’d write a short story, imagining Vincent van Gogh as a child. I returned to public school in ninth grade, to a vastly different kind of education, one that felt much more like a job than like learning. But I finished high school and went to college. Since graduating, though, I sort of feel like I’ve created an adult version of homeschooling for myself. Essentially, how I spend my days now is nearly identical to how I spent them as a kid, reading and writing about whatever interests me. For good or bad, it seems like I’m a homeschooler for life. 

DE:What did you like to read as a child? Because of the fablelike quality of the Isidora sections in The Story of Forgetting, I’ve always imagined that you read fantasy and science fiction as a boy. Is that correct? 

SMB: Oh, David, if you only knew the breadth of my knowledge of Piers Anthony’s land of Xanth, or the extensiveness of my Magic: The Gathering card collection you would know what a miracle it is that I’m not in some dark room right now, spending my twenties eating sugary cereal and playing World of WarCraft. Yes. I was particularly obsessed with Xanth, with Brian Jacques’ Redwall books, and with the universes of Star Wars and Marvel Comics. These obsessions provided, as they do for lonely, nerdy boys everywhere, a wonderful escape. But, really, the books that were my absolute favorites as a kid, and the only childhood books I return to as an adult, were not full departures into imagined lands, but half departures into magically altered realities, like the children’s books of Roald Dahl, or Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. My love of these books was an early expression of my ongoing predilection for stories that transform reality in some slightly elevated, slightly fantastic way. Actually, the name Isidora comes from an adult book I would consider to be of this spirit, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. 

DE: Other than reading, what were your childhood obsessions? 

SMB: I was an avid collector. Spelunking the closet of my childhood bedroom, you’d find a vast collection of collections: rocks, fossils, shells, comic books, baseball cards, Magic: The Gathering cards. Apparently, not long after I learned to crawl, my mom would find collections of objects, bearing no obvious similarities, in small piles around the house. I was also a great builder of forts. 

DE: Place plays such an important role in the novel. Tell me about where you grew up. 

SMB: I grew up mostly in Plano, Texas, a place nearly identical to the towns in which both Seth and Abel live in the novel. To me, Plano is an apotheosis of an ancient American dream, the dream of the Mayflower pilgrims really: to leave one’s history behind and create a new society, unburdened by the past. When I was younger, our part of Plano was still mostly prairie, but around when I was ten, the subdivisions of McMansions colonized the area with astonishing speed. The few remaining old farmhouses, the kind in which Abel lives in the novel, were razed to make way for this ultra-modern city. And so now there is this complete, spotless suburb, which looks just like a hundred other suburbs, with a transient population of families transferred there by big corporations. I often like to identify myself as a Texan, but the truth is saying I’m from Texas feels like like saying that I’ve been to Kuala Lumpur, because I once spent four hours in its airport, which looks just like any other airport. It sometimes feels the truth is that I didn’t grow up in Texas at all. I grew up in an airport. 

DE:
I know you wrote the Isidora story first. Tell us about where you were in your life at that time. 

SMB: I wrote the first draft of the Isidora stories when I was nineteen. At that time, I was working in an aging and memory cognitive psychology lab at Washington University in St. Louis. Studying related topics scientifically, I was thinking a lot about my family’s history with the disease and the experience of watching it take my grandmother. Thinking of my grandmother also made me think about the storytelling traditions in my family, the stories my grandmother and my mom used to tell me. At the time, I was also reading a lot of Calvino, Singer, and Kafka. Through some confluence of all of that, the idea for the Isidora stories came, and writing them was a nice escape from the rest of my college life. I didn’t plan ever to do anything with them. I put them away and didn’t think about resurrecting them until years later, halfway through the writing of The Story of Forgetting. 

DE:
How did you construct the novel’s structure? When did you know it was right? 

SMB: Devising the book’s structure was a dizzying, often torturous combination of obsessive scrutiny and blind faith. In ways, I 324 a reader’s guide think that the structure of the book as it now exists displays my process of creating it: my impulse always to look for different ways to describe a central dilemma, my recognition that there will always be truth to our experience that evades any kind of description, my hope that a final understanding of the story and its subjects will come through the parallels, contradictions, and fissures between different kinds of storytelling. For me, the great difficulty is to write as I’m compelled to write, shifting between time periods, characters, and genres while still producing a book that I feel transports me and propels me forward, a book in which every page feels necessary. Reconciling and satisfying these two needs was the hardest part of the writing of this book, as I’m sure it will be of many books to come. 

DE:
Who do you identify with more, Seth or Abel? 

SMB: Abel. This was a real revelation to me, as I’ve almost always put a character nearly identical to myself at the center of everything I’ve written. And yet, in this book, the voice that felt truer to my own, more expressive of me, belongs to a character so different from me. I don’t know why this is, exactly, but I think it’s related to my impulse to write fiction instead of memoir in the first place, my understanding that my writing feels truer to me when I make things up. But, whatever the reason, I feel like my identification with Abel is a discovery that has opened up vast possibilities for me as a fiction writer. 

DE: The Story of Forgetting has a lot of science in it. Yet of course it’s a novel. What obligation did you feel to getting the science right? 

SMB:
Other than looking up a few facts, I never really did research for the book. Whatever science made it into the book was just the science I had, at some point, felt compelled to read and remember. I’ve read a lot about Alzheimer’s because of my family’s experiences with it, and because science is a very important part of how I try to make sense of things. But in writing this book I feel like I gave no special attention or priority to science over other ways of understanding my characters’ predicaments. Whenever I stated something as fact in the book, I double-checked it to make sure my basic information wasn’t incorrect, but I also sometimes let myself alter things just a bit to fit my needs as a storyteller. 

DE: Some people have praised The Story of Forgetting as improbably upbeat. Is that a correct assessment? Do you see the novel that way? 

SMB:
It’s nearly impossible for me to judge what the tone of the book might feel like to other people. I wrote the book for the same reason I write everything, for the same reason I read books and watch films obsessively: to escape for a while into a constructed space where things can make sense in a way they rarely can in reality. It always surprises me, when I look back on anything I’ve written and I think about how I generally felt in my life while writing it, how much of what I create is an effort to hold or transmit what I’m feeling at that time. I wrote this book at a hopeful time in my life, when I was just out of college and very much in love. I think that, in addressing one of the darkest aspects of my family’s history, I wanted to transform it in order to allow, at least in this fictional world I created, some of the hope I was feeling at the time to enter. 

DE: Since the book’s publication, have people contacted you with their own stories about Alzheimer’s? Are there any you can share? 

SMB: Yeah, it’s been a wonderful, unexpected part of the process. The early-onset form of the disease I describe in the book is inspired in part by the Noonan family, featured in the PBS documentary The Forgetting. I’ve heard from several of the Noonans, which has been an exciting and moving correspondence, almost as if my characters materialized into the real world to let me know that I haven’t mangled their story too badly. One story that I remember and love was told to me by a woman at a reading. Years earlier, the woman’s mother was in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, almost beyond language, and she was dying of a secondary illness. The daughter was caring for her, even though the mother could no longer remember who her daughter was. On the night before the mother died, the daughter climbed into bed with her, to be close for the final hours. At some point, the mother awoke in a moment of clarity to find a body lying next to her in bed. When the daughter turned to her, the old woman’s face fell. “Goddamnit,” the mother said. “I thought you were a man!” 

DE:
Other than your family and friends, who is the one person in the world you hope you will read your book? 

SMB:
I don’t know, but probably someone a lot like me! I try to write the stories that I most want and need. I’m my own ideal reader, but the sad truth is that I’ll never be able to read my stories as anything but their writer. In The Story of Forgetting, Conrad Hamner tells the story of how the artist Willem de Kooning, as he descended into Alzheimer’s, forgot he had painted the canvases that lined his walls. He could come to them completely fresh every day, and he was their ideal viewer. Sometimes I think it’s too bad that I write instead of making more sensorial art, like painting or music. When I get Alzheimer’s, I’ll lose my memory of writing my stories but also the ability to experience them! 

DE:
What are you reading now? 

SMB: Michael Chabon calls himself a promiscuous reader. I love that. I cheat on the books that I’m reading with other books all the time. I’ve been reading a lot of Paul Auster recently, currently The Invention of Solitude. I’d never gotten around to Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, so now I’m correcting that. What else? I’ve been reading a lot of Herman Melville ’s short stories, and also some wonderful contemporary fiction, including an astonishing novel, The 19th Wife, by one David Ebershoff. 

DE:
When you’re not writing or reading or doing anything related to books, what do you like to do? 

SMB:
For me, as I think it is for a lot of people, the great appeal of writing creatively is the feeling that essentially nothing is entirely distinct from writing. Joan Didion says that “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” that we need to create stories to seek arrangement for the shifting phantasmagoria of our actual experiences. Maybe writers are people for whom that need is particularly strong. So I jog a lot, see friends, travel, but some part of my mind never allows me entirely to separate any experience from the writing process. Whenever I’m not actively writing, I’m very often looking for potential fodder and insight, or I’m trying to work through whatever problems have come up in whatever I’m working on. That’s a great blessing but also a great curse of writing as a job–that it has no boundaries. 

DE:
If you weren’t a writer, what would you be? 

SMB:
I don’t know. I used to think I could be a scientist, but my hands are too shaky for pipettes, my math isn’t so strong, and my patience is far too thin. I tried to be a cameraman for awhile, filmed some documentaries, weddings, and bar mitzvahs. Camera work is satisfying in a certain respect, the way you get to intimately enter people’s lives as an observer rather than as an actor. But I found the lack of control over the creative process really frustrating. Life happens in front of the camera and you have to adjust. Really, other than jobs I’ve done simply for money, any work I’ve done other than writing has felt like a waste of time. 

DE:
What’s next? 

SMB: Of course it could and probably will change, but I’m working on a semifictional book about time that my grandfather spent in a mental hospital in the 1960s. To my surprise, it’s turning out to be a love story.  

Author Q&A

On the Origins of The Story of Forgetting  
Stefan Merrill Block  


When I was a small child, my grandmother was diagnosed with probable Alzheimer’s disease. At that time, I hardly knew what the disease was (I thought the word was “old-timer’s”). For the first year or two of her decline, her symptoms were subtle and I was too young to notice anything unusual. By the time my mom invited my grandmother to come stay with us, however, the disease was in its middle stages, and I was old enough to understand that something was deeply wrong. Just before my grandmother arrived, my mom explained to me what I should expect: Cognitively, I was now more advanced than she. Difficult as it was to comprehend, I would now have to think of myself as more mature than my grandmother. I would have to watch out for her, like a brother would for his little sister. During this conversation, my mom also made me aware, for the first time, of our genetic inheritance: When my mom made a list of her mother’s ancestors, nearly everyone, on both her father’s side and her mother’s side, had developed Alzheimer’s disease. 

Years later, while struggling to begin my first book, I often thought about my grandmother and our family’s disease. Days before I took a trip home to Texas for the holidays, I read David Shenk’s The Forgetting: Alzheimer’s: Portrait of an Epidemic. Reading Shenk’s detailed account of the epic pathology of Alzheimer’s disease, I continually compared his descriptions with my family’s experiences. And my first night back in Texas, having dinner with my family, a sickening thought: In the disease ’s persistent march through the generations of our family, was it already starting to come for my mom? How could I know whether it was an early effect of the disease or simply my mom’s lifelong touch of flightiness that gave her difficulty in instantly conjuring my name, or remembering stories I had told her over the phone just days before? I began to think about the terrible and inevitable role reversal that has taken place in every generation of my mom’s family, the time when the child must become the parent’s caretaker. I was terrified, of course, but I also felt something else: something overwhelming in the absolute power of history as expressed in our genetic material. It seemed to me that our inextinguishable, undeniable genetic inheritance touches upon something essential about what it means to be a part of a family.  In the months of writing that preceded this trip to Texas, I had experimented with a lot of narrative voices, but I hadn’t yet been able to master a voice that I felt I could fully embody and enjoy. I had, in fact, written over fifteen hundred pages. Essentially nothing of what I wrote in the first nine or ten months now remains. In those early months, I often wrote myself into corners; desperate for ways out, I grasped at new plot lines that quickly disintegrated under the strain. It was often torturous. In hindsight it feels like that early work was dictated by some homunculus residing in my subconscious–some invisible foreman who knew better than I what I was doing, who knew what I really wanted to write, who directed me, through failure after failure, toward the writing of what became a very personal novel, steeped in my actual experiences. Just days after my trip home to Dallas, through some confluence of my thoughts about Texas, my family, and Alzheimer’s disease, I opened my word processor and the voice of Abel Haggard simply came. The remarkable difference from everything else I had written up to that point was that with Abel I didn’t need to plan what I would write in advance; I just wrote and the details and stories materialized, until eventually the writing felt more like remembering than imagining. 

 After writing for a month or two in the shaggy voice of this old and regretful man, the voice of young Seth Waller also began to emerge. At first, I didn’t understand the relationship between these two voices; the story just felt like it needed a young, precocious foil to aged, world-weary Abel. But as I kept writing, I started to feel that Abel’s story required Seth’s story (and vice versa) because the solace and understanding that both Abel and Seth sought required that they find each other. Their union began to feel inevitable.

 Now looking back on The Story of Forgetting, I see the book as only the most recent manifestation of an unceasing need to comprehend and to make some kind of peace with my family’s disease. When I was in college, I took a more scientific approach, working for a time in an aging and memory cognitive psychology lab. Around that time, I also started to think of the disease allegorically, producing the first draft of the Isidora fables that now appear in the book. More recently, I’ve written nonfiction, autobiographical accounts of my family’s experience with Alzheimer’s. Just as I have reached into science, fantasy, and personal history in the attempt to understand and transcend the pain at the center of my family’s life, the characters I conjured in The Story of Forgetting seemed to want the same. Coming from me, they shared my compulsion to summon a range of voices and myriad forms of storytelling in the unending effort to find the best way to comprehend. And, at the end of the book, they also share the awareness I came closer to in writing it: that a disease of such ineffable loss may forever elude our attempts to contain it in language, but that we must keep trying.     

Praise

Praise

''A novel about Alzheimer's that makes me desperate to know what Block will do next.''—Jodi Picoult, author of My Sister’s Keeper

“A fresh, beguiling novel . . . as true to the anguish of [its] questions as it is ablaze with love and vitality.”—New York Times

The Story of Forgetting manages to feel big and small in perfect proportion, at once intimate and universal. Mr. Block has made something very beautiful out of something very ugly: a disease that steals people’s lives from them . . . It’s a book about love. ”—New York Observer

“Blisteringly good . . . The redemptive qualities of storytelling are gloriously displayed in this astonishing first novel.”—Financial Times, UK

“[An] astounding debut . . . compulsive and transporting.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Magical and scientific . . . [Block] is a talent to celebrate and remember.”—USA Today

“Savor the moment because this is a debut worth remembering.”—Alan Cheuse, contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered

“A deeply felt novel . . . The Story of Forgetting offers us both solace and illumination. Stefan Merrill Block possesses a singular mix of imagination, compassion, and scientific understanding; he is equally gifted at spinning fantastic tales as he is at bringing genetic histories to vivid life.”—Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of Madeleine Is Sleeping

“An exhilarating novel of formidable vision…At its center, an adolescent boy’s quest to solve the riddle of his family’s curse and an old man’s extraordinary tale of wrong love careen headlong toward each other with urgency and wonder. A magnificent debut.”–Akhil Sharma, PEN/Hemingway Award-winning author of An Obedient Father

“Block weaves together his disparate narrative strands with a deft hand, tingeing his tale with a lovely touch of the fantastic.”—Entertainment Weekly

“Fast-moving and raw . . . [a] tale with honesty and charm.”—Slate

“Beautiful and uplifting . . . an engrossing, well-written exploration of what it means to remember–and forget.”—Wichita Eagle
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. The last words of The Story of Forgetting are “whatever she needed she had only to imagine.” Why do you think the author chose to end the book this way? In what ways is imagination essential
for the book’s main characters?

2. What is the relationship between the fables of Isidora and the rest of the book? How are situations, characters, and feelings from the lives of the Haggard family transformed in these fables? What
is the importance of this storytelling tradition to the Haggard family?

3. What traditions do you keep that help maintain your own family’s identity? How do your traditions relate to your family’s history?

4. In one of the Isidora fables, a group of elders wonders, “To remember nothing . . . what more could one possibly ask of eternity?” (p. 201) Despite the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease, are there ways in which its most well-known symptom, memory loss, is liberating for some of the characters in this book? In certain instances, might it be better to forget?

5. By the end of The Story of Forgetting, Jamie appears desperate to return to her childhood home. Do you think she would have still felt this need if she hadn’t developed Alzheimer’s disease? Was it
only after she had forgotten the reasons she had left, and her guilt over abandoning Abel, that she could return? Or do you think that she would have tried to return eventually, even if her memory had
not failed?

6. n the section titled “Genetic History, Part 4,” the author, describing Paul’s unceasing love for Jamie Whitman, asks if love is “strong enough to gird Memory, at least for a time, against Chance’s inevitable progression” (p. 243). How is love stronger than memory loss in this book? How is it not?

7. Have you ever known anyone with Alzheimer’s disease? If so, how does the characterization of the disease in this book relate to your own experiences? How does this characterization relate to depictions you’ve come across in other books or films?

8. Before Seth and Abel know of each other’s existence, they are already linked by their family’s two legacies: the stories of Isidora and the devastation that the EOA-23 gene has wrought upon their loved ones. What else do Seth and Abel have in common?

9. The Story of Forgetting is written in a number of voices, genres, and time periods. Why do you think that the author chose to tell the story this way? How does this style of writing relate to the themes of memory, storytelling, family, and the quest for understanding?

10. Reflecting upon his decision to tell his daughter the truth about his affair with Mae, Abel understands that “out of the possibility of my wrongness in that single moment, I would serve a lifetime of penitence, loneliness, and regret” (p. 264). Do you think that it is strictly guilt that compels Abel to spend twenty years as a recluse? Do you think he really believed, twenty years after the fact, that his daughter would ever come back to him?

11. If you were in Jamie’s position, would you tell your child the truth of his family’s genetic legacy, of the 50 percent chance that he has also inherited a devastating terminal disease? Might it be better for the child not to know the truth? If you were in Seth’s position, aware of the possibility that you had inherited the gene, would you get tested for it?

12. How does the genetic history of the EOA-23 variant illuminate the story that takes place in the present tense? How do the scientific details in these genetic-history chapters change your understanding of the book’s characters and their conditions?

13. Near the end of Seth’s “empirical investigation,” Taylor Shafer asks Seth what it is that he is “hoping to find out” (p. 252). Seth realizes then that his delusions have kept him from “understanding the ridiculously simple answer to this ridiculously simple question” (p. 253). What is the “ridiculously simple answer”? Does Seth find what he is looking for?

14. Describing his mother’s death by Alzheimer’s disease, Abel says, “Her old soul had not so much vanished as eroded, worn away by a million rubs. I stopped praying” (p. 182). How does Alzheimer’s disease complicate or obscure the concepts of death and selfhood?


  • The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block
  • April 07, 2009
  • Fiction - Literary; Fiction - Family Saga
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $15.00
  • 9780812979824

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: