The Story of Forgetting
By Stefan Merrill Block
Published by Random House (2008)
Previously in this space I have described how great writers and novels either inspire me or make me feel like a complete schlep (FYI, I just looked that word up and it means “a person of no importance” which sort of has a nice ring to it). Stefan Merrill Block’s debut novel, The Story of Forgetting, has brought much more radical feelings to the fore though: envy, jealousy, an overwhelming desire to see Block brought down in a highly publicized plagiarism scandal, etc. For you see, this is a strikingly good debut novel. But that alone isn’t enough to provoke such passion on my part. No, I think the topper in that regard is that Block is only twenty-six freaking years old. And when you start to do the math that means he probably wrote the dang thing when he was, oh, twenty-four or twenty-five. Now I know Hemingway was around twenty-five when he wrote The Sun Also Rises and Orson Welles was twenty-six when he made Citizen Kane but those happened a long time ago so even though they were the same age they just seemed older back then (or something like that). Anyway, I guess the problem is that when I hear about a guy doing this sort of work at so young an age I start to think about what I was doing at the same age (vacuuming rental cars while wearing a button down and tie) and that really depresses me. So thanks a lot, Stefan Merrill Block.
In a word The Story of Forgetting is about Alzheimer’s. Or more specifically, early-onset Alzheimer’s. But to say that’s all it’s about would be the Hollywood pitch version (it’s pretty apparent that Hollywood executives can only green-light pitches that have less than a half dozen words such as, “The A-Team, but as a movie!” or “The Incredible Hulk, again!”). No, like any great work The Story of Forgetting, through the focused eyes of two separate narrators, illuminates the universal – love, loss, life and death.
There are two, actually three I guess, narratives weaving their way through this story: Abel Haggard, a hunchback in his seventies who bares the scars and the burden of being the lone survivor of his immediate clan; Seth Waller, a struggling adolescent whose mother has just been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s; and the fantasy world of Isidora, a story that both Abel and Seth unknowingly share. Abel haunts a world that has passed him by and he spends most of his days lamenting the past and those he’s lost. Seth thinks himself a “master of nothingness” but believes he may have found his calling by researching his family’s genetic history to find the genesis and truth about his mother’s disease.
It’s the criss-crossing narratives of Abel and Seth that impressed me so much about this debut novel. Block deftly switches voices and you never doubt the authenticity of either. How a guy in his mid-twenties can channel the life experiences of a seventy-odd year old man so genuinely is beyond me. In addition to these voices Block also fills in the story with third person renditions of a few scientific matters (his fictionalized account of the original carrier of his mother’s Alzheimer’s strain is darkly hilarious) and the aforementioned fantasy story of Isidora – both to dazzling effect.
I was planning on ending this review with a clever take on the title – you know, something like, “The Story of Forgetting is one debut novel you won’t forget!” but then I remembered I wasn’t one of those film critics from Danville, KY or some such place trying to get my name on the promotional materials. So, I’ll just end by saying this is the best novel I’ve read in quite a while and it’s made all the more remarkable because it’s a debut work.