As I mentioned in my previous post, the writer I most admire of my generation of novelists is Jonathan Franzen, whose sprawling novels evoke the ambition of nineteen-century writers such as George Eliot. Only recently did I learn that Franzen’s father had died from Alzheimer’s.
Writing in 2001, the same year he published his first major novel, The Corrections, he commented in a New Yorker essay that Alzheimer’s is “a disease of insidious onset.” But, he continued, “The problem was especially vexed in the case of my father, who was not only depressive and reserved and slightly deaf but also taking strong medicines for other ailments. For a long time it was possible to chalk up his non sequiturs to his hearing impairment, his forgetfulness, his depression, his hallucinations, to his medicines; and chalk them up we did.”
A meticulous observer, Franzen duly noted that his father’s brain weighed 1,225 grams. This suggests that Alzheimer’s had done its work thoroughly. A typical healthy brain is in the range of 1300 to 1400 grams. According to the research at the time, “The brain is not a photo album in which memories are stored discretely, like unchanging photographs.” Instead, a memory is “a temporary constellation of activity”—a necessary approximate excitation of neural circuits that bind a set of sensory images and semantic data into the momentary sensation of a remembered whole.” Franzen went on to comment, “The human brain is a web of a hundred billion neurons, with trillions of axons, and dendrites exchanging quadrillions of messages by at least 50 different chemical transmitters….The organ with we observe and make sense of the universe is, by a comfortable margin, the most complex object we know in the universe. And yet it’s also a lump of meat.”
And, in the central thrust of the article, Franzen stated, “I’ve come to tell, then, as I try to forgive myself for my long blindness to his condition that [his father] was bent on concealing that condition and, for a remarkably long time, retained the strength of character to pull it off.” Referring to Alzheimer’s as a classically “insidious” onset disease, Franzen commented, “Since even healthy people become more forgetful as they age, there’s no way to pinpoint the first memory to fall victim to it.” I’m not sure that’s correct. Thanks to a journal I keep, I’m certain that my short-term memory decline was in progress as early as the spring of 2012.
But back to Franzen’s father. As long as the elder Franzen was still working, the rest of the family “enjoyed autonomy in the respective fiefdoms of home and workplace.” But after the father retired in 1981, the marriage became strained. A letter from Franzen’s mother in 1990 suggests cognitive decline: “Last week one day he had to skip breakfast time medication in order to take some motor skills at Washington University where he is in the Memory & Aging study. That night I awakened to the sound of his electric razor, looked at the clock & he was in the bathroom shaving at 2:30 A.M.”
Within a matter of months, Franzen’s dad was making so many mistakes and omissions that his wife was led, correctly, that something was deeply wrong. One example: Two times in one week, he had to summon AAA because of dead car batteries. Before long, his wife noted, “I really don’t like the idea of leaving him in the house for more than a short while.” And, over the years ahead of him, his fate slowly playing out, and without any hope of a medical miracle, Franzen’s remarkable writing skills were no help in this gloomy venue, the elder Franzen left with only impotent words.