This is one of those rare works of near-genius by a young writer who, until he produced this book, was utterly unknown. Its main theme is that of early-onset Alzheimer's disease, a condition that Stefan Merrill Block knows something about first-hand since his grandmother suffered from it. The story is narrated by two characters whose lives have also been touched by the disease but who have no knowledge of each other. There's the 58-year-old hunchback Abel Haggard, in Dallas, and the other, a spotty 15-year-old science nerd called Seth Waller, in Texas. Abel's brother suffers so badly that his mental faculties eventually deteriorate to the point where he mistakes Abel for a long-lost war-buddy with whom he was, it becomes clear, in love. Meanwhile, Abel waits for the return of his illegitimate daughter, while new, smart, land developments take place all around him, leaving his scruffy farm isolated in an enormous housing estate a metaphor, perhaps, for the disease.
Seth, on the other hand, watches his own mother, barely in her forties, "carry out the vagueness of her days" as she also deteriorates. Now she resides in a nursing home called, by Seth, the Waiting Room. So upset and driven is he to find out more about the disease that he sets off to find other members of the family who suffer from this rare gene-mutation. He finds they are all losing their memory and their minds.
There's a big theme in here almost too big which centres on the idea that Alzheimer's can be a blessed condition. Block explores the idea that losing one's memory is, in some way, a huge relief. "People forget... 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".
When his mother dies, "so much of her had died so long before that this death was no more than another, was simply the last. What was left of Mama finally came to rest in the fragile circle of an unborn baby, her emaciated knees drawn snugly to the chest. The only word for her then was not dead, but returned."
Running parallel to their two stories is a slightly self-conscious fantasy about a mythical land called Isidora, where no one has any memory at all, and people can fall in love 15 times a day, sometimes with the same person. "To remember nothing," say the Isidorians. "What more could one possibly ask of eternity?" And another thread is a rather contrived fictional history of the illness itself the story of the 18th-century Duke of Mapplethorpe, whose genetic mutation (and prolific breeding) doomed hundreds to early-onset Alzheimer's.
But it is the writing that really impresses, more than the theme, which can get in the way of Block's humanity, humour and sheer confident gift of storytelling. Block writes with the certainty and originality of a Nabokov or a Faulkner and it's staggering to discover that he is only 26, and that he spent most of his childhood being educated at home.
Not only does he conceive of an idea as mature as this, about a disease that "strips away your cognitive functions as quickly as a child learns them" and opens "a portal to a private universe that I can only pretend to describe", but the whole idea is presented in a story about people, which is a touching, inventive and intelligent read in its own right.Reuse content