When Memory Doesn't Speak

THE STORY OF FORGETTING
By Stefan Merrill Block
Random House, 313 pages, $25

Stefan Merrill Block’s debut novel, The Story of Forgetting, takes place during the course of one summer in Texas in the late 1990’s, but it also manages to cover decades, looking far back into one family’s history, tracing the Alzheimer’s gene that passed from parent to offspring in a pattern nearly as regular as houndstooth check. It deals with scientific inquiry, putting one humble family under the microscope, but 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.

The New York Times dared to call Mr. Block’s book uplifting. More like bittersweet—or, really, just plain sad. Yet the novel’s bleakness has less to do with Alzheimer’s itself than with a larger question: What does it mean to lose one’s memory? In Mr. Block’s formulation, forgetting will free you. At the end of our lives, he seems to suggest, we would all be lucky to lose our minds, to erase our wrongs and sins and return to a state of unsullied innocence. Some might find that reassuring. I find it depressing.

 

HOWEVER YOU TAKE the message, the art of Mr. Block’s novel will be its most important and lasting quality. Here, for once, is a debut that doesn’t derail three-quarters of the way through, or irritate you with its precociousness. It’s serious, but not self-serious. It’s a book about love.

The story involves two men, Seth and Abel, whose lives are lived far apart but are also intertwined. Seth is a teenager on summer break from school; his mother, who had been falling apart for a while, has been relegated to a place Seth calls “The Waiting Room”: a nursing home where she slips further away. In one wrenching flashback, Seth is with his parents at a Mongolian buffet when his mom forgets to have her stir-fry meat actually cooked. “My mom gaped down at her bowl, instantly repulsed,” writes Mr. Block. “She looked at my dad, then at me, with all the terror and wonder of a child separated from her parents at the zoo, glimpsing her future under the care of a family of caged bonobos. … ‘God,’ she said. ‘What am I doing?’” Seth sets about on a mission to understand the disease that’s robbing him of his mother—and her of herself.

Abel is a hunchbacked old man living about six hours away, whose brother suffered from the same strain of early-onset Alzheimer’s as Seth’s mom. It’s no surprise when the tie between Seth and Abel turns out to be tight, but along the path to that revelation, Mr. Block tosses in some true surprises that deepen our understanding of his characters. The author isn’t trying to throw the reader off the scent. On the contrary, Stefan Merrill Block wants you to stay with him every step of the way, to take it slow, to listen, so that you won’t forget a thing. And you won’t.

Hillary Frey edits the culture pages of The Observer. She can be reached at hfrey@observer.com.

When Memory Doesn't Speak