Three summers ago, The New Yorker published an essay, “A Place Beyond Words: The Literature of Alzheimer’s.” At that time, just the headline would have made me uncomfortable. Late in 2013 I was informed that I was at an elevated risk for dementia. Dementia? In my early fifties? At that time, the last thing I wanted to read about was dementia.
Now, of course, I am immersed in the topic. And recently I came across a useful survey of fiction about Alzheimer’s. The article, written by Stefan Merril Block, states that “Because the full experience of Alzheimer’s is an account that fiction alone can deliver, it’s no surprise that the go-to book for caregivers and early-stage sufferers is a novel…. Nearly every novel I’ve read that attempts to depict the internal experience of Alzheimer’s also attempts to fit the disease’s retrogenic symptoms to one sort of sentimental trope: a reckoning with a repressed or unacknowledged truth that must come before acceptance is possible. (Retrogenesis, loosely speaking, is the theory that in Alzheimer’s and similar diseases, symptoms appear in the reverse order of the normal aging process, putting some people in jeopardy of developing Alzheimer’s or similar diseases.)
One novel about Alzheimer’s that Merril Block commented on was Debra Dean’s prize-winning The Madonnas of Leningrad. The book involves a survivor of the siege of Leningrad, which lasted for more than two horrific years. A novel that I read a few months ago—Not Me, by Michael Lavigne—provides some superficial parallels, with a key character who survived one of the Nazi death camps. But Lavigne is essentially a satirist, writing in an era—Not Me was published in 2005—when novelists are free to write about history’s most hideous atrocities in a comic vein.
Among other novels Merril Block cited are Barbara Kingsolver’s 1990 Animal Dreams and Samantha Harvey’s In the Wilderness. In Kingsolver’s novel, Alzheimer’s forces to the surface the memories of a lost grandchild. Samantha Harvey’s In The Wilderness is described as reminiscent of the writing of Virginia Woolf. And I was pleased to see that Merril Block included in his survey Jonathan Franzen, the best living writer of my generation, in my opinion.
Franzen’s break-out novel, in 2001, The Corrections, featured an elderly father who attempted to commit suicide by plunging off the deck of a cruise ship. It’s a striking moment, one that has stayed with me. In the novel, the father is described as being deeply depressed, and the disease in question is Parkinson’s. But Franzen’s father actually succumbed to Alzheimer’s. Franzen put some distance between his father and his fictional creation.
Next week I’ll discuss Franzen’s nonfiction account of his father’s decline and death.