Monday, January 16, 2012

From Oedipus to Alzheimer's: the New Whodunnit: Alice LaPlante's _Turn of Mind_

The last dozen years of my life have been framed and informed by two narratives, those of adoption and Alzheimer's.  We adopted our son in 2000, our daughter in 2004.  By 2006, my mother's Alzheimer's had progressed (as it were) to the stage where she could not stay in her house, and was moved to a care home.  That passively voiced verb form, "was moved," was enabled by a third adoption; in early 2006 I went to court to become my mother's guardian so that I could oblige her to receive care.  I became my mother's mother, made her decisions, signed her checks, held onto her memories as best I could for reasons medical, familial, artistic.  Not too long ago, I found a loose page of my mother's check register from August, 2006; I had blogged on it back then.  The check is public and personal; her register was one of her primary ways of organizing the world.  That she wrote "for food!" next to a check she'd written to me (getting my name wrong as she did it) testifies to her disbelief that ordinary staples could ever cost so much.  The checkbook rendered autobiography, its register poem.

Early in this twelve year span I drafted an essay, since discarded, in which I pointed out that Oedipus-- best known as the detective-king who discovers that he was the bad guy whose victim was his biological father--had been adopted.  The Oedipus narrative, which permeates our western cultural references, depends on our ignoring his adoption and focusing almost exclusively on his genetic relation.  That family relations are hidden even from the family members makes the story more powerful, of course.  But that burst secret depends on maintaining the adoption's secrets.  Yes, he was left on a hill as a baby, and yes, someone found him, and yes he grew up in Corinth.  The secret was kept from him, and the significance of his upbringing kept secret from the reader.  The second secret does not bother us, unless perhaps we are literary critics who are also adoptive mothers.  That history is elided for the history that depends on blood genealogy.  (I have found this focus typical in mainstream American culture, despite all conscious emphasis on the individual or hockum about the wonders of adoption.) "Oedipus" became a plot device that generated many of western literature's best stories; this is now what is called "adoption literature," and includes novels by George Eliot and Charles Dickens, plays by Edward Albee, a host of memoirs, a ton of movies (Harry Potter, anyone?), and many a facebook status line.

If adoption narratives depend on a search for the self in relation to a missing blood parent, then Alzheimer's narratives depend on a search for the self within a decaying brain.  (The brain is our birth parent, the mind our adopted one, perhaps.)  These are narratives folded in on themselves, especially when the narrator suffers the disease.  My recent post on Walter Mosley's The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey argued that Mosley uses Grey's search for his own past to unravel a larger history.  But Mosley's book depends on a miraculous, if deadly, cure for forgetting, one that takes the novel out of the poetry of Alzheimer's and into the dream-realism of remembered stories, then back into dream-forgetting.  There is also an adoption in the book, but not one that carries secrets with it.  Turn of Mind, by Alice LaPlante, does not allow its author or reader that luxury of artificial memory.  Instead, this book, also a literary detective novel, uses Alzheimer's to get at family relationships (which include a case of hidden parentage), and drives a murder mystery in which the demented narrator may or may not have been the perpetrator.  But I'm more interested, in both cases, not in whodunnit, but in how the author writes Alzheimer's.

If the genre of discovery, of self-knowledge, is prose narrative, then the genre of Alzheimer's is prose poetry.  This is a book written in short detached paragraphs; it's as close to new sentence writing as a mainstream novel is going to get.  So the notion of "plot" is in some ways severely reduced.  Consider this paragraph, by Alice LaPlante in the voice of her demented narrator, a retired hand surgeon, Dr. Jennifer White:

When I have a clear day, when the walls of my world expand so that I can see a little ahead and a little behind me, I plot.  I am not good at it.  When watching the heist movies that James [her late husband] loves, I am impressed by the trickery the writers think up.  My plots are simple: Walk to the door.  Wait until no one is looking.  Open the door.  Leave.  Go home.  Bar the front entrance against all comers. (187)

The plot involves guarding oneself from other's plots, but it also--and this is where I'm drawn in--involves nothing so complicated as walking, opening, leaving, going, and barring.  In a straight detective novel, verbs work at the service of nouns and pronouns.  "She did it," has a subject, a verb, and an object (the done thing).  In this version of the detective novel, verbs are themselves difficult, must be plotted.  It's as if you're an American driver who has arrived at a round-about in a left-driving country; you need to think ever so carefully simply to turn your steering wheel.  During a walking meditation once on the Big Island, I watched a man in our group who had had a recent stroke.  His left leg swung forward with great difficulty; the rhythm of his walk differed from ours.  It was the ordinary, the difficult, witnessed as beauty.

LaPlante's book contains many of the plots of Alzheimer's: there is the take-the-driver's-license-away from mother plot--and her anger at that theft; there is the talk-about-mother-in-front-of-her plot, in which the talkers do not know, or especially care, if she understands what they say; there is the child-needs-money-from-mother plot; there is the sell-the-house plot; there is the "this-is-your-home-now" plot.  That these are not the centerpieces of the novel's larger plot says a lot about the anxieties of fiction, in which plots need to do their plotly things: they need crisis, climax, denouement, and not in the smaller realm (that of Alzheimer's) but in the realm where plots tie together, novels come to a clean end, and we leave happy that we paid our money to be entertained, but not damaged by our reading.

Dr. Jennifer White is an unreliable narrator, to put it mildly.  That's what makes her such a good one.  But her Alzheimer's is also, necessarily, a fiction within the fiction.  To write from inside Alzheimer's presents the writer--Mosley, LaPlante--with a challenge that leads to wonderful, poetic, writing.  It generates plots very like those in adoption fiction: something is missing, it's part of the central character's story, which she needs to figure out in order to find herself, be whole.  Mosley follows that narrative arc more reliably, as Ptolemy Grey--at least for a brief moment--recovers himself from the decay.  LaPlante lets it go to some extent, as Dr. White never does figure out the answer on her own.  But she relies on several crutches to make the Alzheimer's narrative work as a story, not as a series of discrete, confusing moments.  One of these is writing.  She keeps a journal, and her family and friends also write in this journal.  So, even when she cannot read what they have written, we can.  I'm reminded of the pathos in caregiving memoirs, like that of Rachel Hadas, when the carer finds writing by the Alzheimer's patient, from a point in the disease when there was still awareness of decay, when decay was a verb and not just a noun.

LaPlante's imagined Alzheimer's mind is confused, yes, especially about linear and historical time.  But her narrator can still write in sentences that "make sense," can still convey her feelings to the reader.  As a writer, the narrator is less ill than as a character.  LaPlante finesses this problem by using the "you" when Dr. White narrates her movements late in the book.  Take the scene when Dr. White escapes her Alzheimer's ward:

You realize that you are impeding the flow of traffic.  People are politely navigating around you, but you are inconveniencing them.  One man bumps your elbow as he passes and stops briefly to apologize.  You nod and say, not at all, and begin moving again.  (238)

The longer scene that ensues, when Dr. White eats at an Italian restaurant, her neighbors and waiter deeply suspecting her state, Dr. White suspecting that they suspect, is an amazing piece of writing.  One that is only possible inside a fiction.  A brief moment possible outside a fiction comes when Dr. White first enters the care facility:

The woman with no neck is screaming again.  A distant buzzer and then the muffled sound of soft-soled shoes on thick carpet hurrying past my door.

Other noises emerge from other rooms on the floor.  The calls of incarcerated animals when one of their own is distressed.  Some recognizable words like help and come here but mostly cries that swell and converge.  (143)

I'm not obsessed with the actual truth, per se, though I can attest that those last passages record what an Alzheimer's home sounds like during the late afternoon period of sun-downing.  And Alzheimer's is--at least early on--a literary disease.  My practice of transcribing voices, and the much more ambitious practice of the Trebus Project in the UK of recording stories told by Alzheimer's patients, proves to me that the confusions of early to middle Alzheimer's result in a genre at once poetic and narrative.  Just as depression is better literature than schizophrenia, however, early Alzheimer's makes for a better story than late.  The silences of late Alzheimer's take us from Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein to John Cage.  I'm not at all sure you could write a novel from that place, unless you're B.S. Johnson, perhaps.  What Mosley and LaPlante offer are Alzheimer's experiments that flirt with, but do not join, the avant-garde of late Alzheimer's.

Late in Turn of Mind, Dr. White remembers a conversation she'd had decades earlier with her best friend, Amanda, the woman who is now dead and whose fingers have been amputated in a last act of desecration.  This conversation turned on the question of adoption.  At 35, Dr. White is rather unhappily pregnant with a child that her husband wants more than she does.  (She will have an unexpected child when she's over 40, as well.)  Amanda tells her that she and her husband are "still trying."  Dr. White's response, which she immediately regrets, goes as follows: "What about adopting, you asked, then wished you could take back your words.  Of course she must have considered it.  How facile"  (262).

Amanda's response: "No. I need more control than that."

The two women then debate what "control" means in relation to children.  When do they need to become "yours" for you to feel you have control?  Dr. White asserts that being in the delivery room when the adopted baby is born might be enough.  "That would take care of the nurture part," Amanda responds.  "But what about the nature?  That would be unknown." (263)

Amanda eventually turns the conversation back on her friend, asking why she has so resisted having children.  Turns out that Dr. White distrusts nature as much as Amanda yearns toward it.  "Children do love the most horrible, depraved people.  They attach to warm bodies.  Familiar faces.  Sources of food.  To be valued for such base requirements doesn't interest me" (265).

Why this conversation near the end of a novel about Alzheimer's?  Aside from plot considerations, namely that Dr. White's daughter's paternity is in question and Amanda becomes something of a surrogate parent to her, Alzheimer's, like adoption, forces the big questions.  Who am I, and why am I so?  What is my history, and how do I find it?  Even, along with Oedipus, did I do it?  But nature is not always to be trusted.  We don't always resemble or love those to whom we are biologically tied.  Our natural minds sometimes decay.  We may begin not knowing our biological identities; we may also end not knowing ourselves because biology fails us, or we it.  If we are writers, we recognize these tropes as plot lines (even when the lines more resemble circles, erased geometries).  If we are writers, we have control over those plot-lines in our fictions.  That's why daily life has come to fascinate me more than fictions, because we cannot control, only record, them.  But sometimes--as in these novels by Mosley and LaPlante--fictions move us back into our ordinary lives in ways that matter.


A year ago I spent nearly a week with my mother.  It was our last visit before the last visit in June, when she was dying, died.  The blog posts of January, 2011 can be found in this thread, moving from the aftermath of that visit back into it.  I miss her and the residents and caregivers of her home more than I can say.

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