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The Story of Forgetting
A Novel
Written by Stefan Merrill Block

The Story of Forgetting
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Category: Fiction - Literary; Fiction - Family Saga
Imprint: Random House Trade Paperbacks
Format: Trade Paperback
Pub Date: April 2009
Price: $15.00
Can. Price: $17.00
ISBN: 978-0-8129-7982-4 (0-8129-7982-6)
Pages: 352
Also available as an eBook.


BEHIND THE BOOK

 
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.     





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