Friday, December 17, 2010

Writing Alzheimer's: More on Form(lessness)

My 11 year old son, Sangha, who is dyslexic and so not a great reader, has suddenly discovered Calvin & Hobbes; he follows my husband and me around the house, holding onto whichever volume of C&H he is reading, and performs the book out loud. No dreary droning here; he reads with expression, and then he belly laughs at the child-logic that the comic strip gets at so well. I've never been a reader of the comics, nor have I have read much by the way of graphic novels, of which C&H now seems an antique forerunner. But, on the recommendation of a facebook friend, I purchased Joyce Farmer's new graphic memoir, Special Exits, a formidable hardcover, 200 pages long, 13 years in the making, chronicle of the last years and deaths of her parents. (The video interview I've linked to there is well worth watching.) There is a cat, Ching, who plays the part of the stuffed tiger, Hobbes; Ching even has her own thoughts on occasion. But the book is decidedly not built for laughs. It's a stark rendition of what it means to be lower middle class and poor in this society, but also to have a loving family that throws itself into caregiving. A daughter cares for her parents during the last four years of their lives, as her mother gets Alzheimer's and dies after a fall in a nursing home, and her father dies later of cancer at home.

I know no graphic novel theory, although I assume there's a body of work on the form by now, in or outside the world of drawing. But I'm taken by the word "graphic." Not only does it refer to the

[and how appropriate that I lost what was here to the vagaries of blogger's forgetting so that what follows will be, in part, a reconstruction of missing pieces of last hour's thinking]

pictorial, the vivid, the distinctive, the lineated, but also to what hits the reader as disturbing, unforgettable. What is graphic cannot be easily forgotten. It seems an apt form for writing about old age, self-loss, Alzheimer's. The story works inside a form where moments are caught in boxes, panels, discrete pages with beginnings and endings. For the witness of Alzheimer's, the victim's forgetting is memorable, hence the outflux of memoirs about the subject in recent years.

I've been thinking about writing Alzheimer's in recent blog posts, and especially about formal questions. How do we convey this subject matter in form? How can we use form to evoke the illness's affects and effects? So I sent a link to my recent post to Goro Takano, whose With One More Step Ahead is a novel whose narrator is demented, and asked him to share his thinking with me. He has kindly given me permission to quote from his responses to my questions. (Because I do facebook in French, the temporal markers may appear odd.)


Goro Takano
13 d├ęcembre, 04:21 Signaler
Hello again --- To be honest, there doesn't seem to be much left for me to add to your thoughtful post, Susan. All I can think of here is as follows: If I were you, I would strongly argue that a narrative about Alzheimer's should be the one saturated all over with a memory loser's worldview and, therefore, should dare to be vague about everything. It must be a matter of course that the past and the present are mingled with each other in it. Likewise, happiness and sadness should be rather indistinguishable in it ("mixed," in your words). What's more, a caregiver's point of view should be as deeply blended as possible with that of the cared. Even the meaning of a "home" for the cared should be more or less described vaguely --- So, it should seem sometimes heaveny and sometimes hellish. Every relationship among, say, Characters A and B and C should be protean and interchangeable --- "He" has to become "I," "you," "we," "she" and "they" in an instant and without any reasonable prelude. What do you think? Is this suggestion okay with you?
Goro Takano 13 d├ęcembre, 04:26 Signaler
In my above comment, I said that "a caregiver's point of view should be as deeply blended as possible with that of the cared," which means that every character in the narrative, whether originally Alzheimer's or not, should be rather seen as a dementia holder.

[And here Goro describes his new work:]

My new story is about a Japanese aged male novelist who realizes that he is gradually falling into a heavy case of senile dementia. He decides to write his "last" novel, and my whole story is actually what he is writing now.

Once he finishes writing the first chapter, he forgets what he has written. And he starts writing another first chapter (which is totally different from the one he has written before), and he repeats this first-chapter writing almost endlessly, assuming that his story is somehow in progress. In other words, every chapter in my novel will be titled "The First Chapter." And each chapter is confusingly self-reflective and linked quite awkwardly with one another. In the early chapters, the relationships among the main characters --- the protagonist (who is an aged Japanese novelist named Goro Takano --- Is this me? Is this the author who is writing this "last" novel? Or, is this the protagonist of the "last" novel?), his "double" (whose name is Fumio Takano, which is also Goro's penname), his wife (Yoko Takano), his editor and others --- seem to be pretty much fixed, but as the story progresses(?), they begin to be weirdly overlapped and the reader wil begin to be awfully confused about who's who. That is partly why what I'm writing now seems to be even beyond me. But this awkwardness may be the story's primary quality. I'm now writing it in Japanese --- Hope its English translation will be someday published and reach you in US...


Where Joyce Farmer's memoir is graphic, Goro Takano's work is anti-graphic. Where Farmer draws unforgettable lines and characters, Takano deliberately makes his forgettable, because his characters are distinguished by their forgetting. Farmer's memoir is very material; she writes about the duties of caregiving, the laundry, the bathing, the taking to the hospital, the anger at authorities, the health system, and so on. Takano's take is immaterial. The contents of the mind in the process of dissolution is something that happens not simply to his characters but also to his readers. The point is to blur the lines, dissolve the squares, unbox the text.

Both these strategies are incredibly effective. I find myself drawn to both in nearly equal measure, as if to a wavering between Reznikoff and Stevens, Rukeyser and Dickinson. In my Dementia Blog I think I attempted both the objective path of the witness and the subjective blurring of story by way of the blog's backwardness. In any case, as Goro writes, we who experience the illness from any perspective are all "dementia holders." How we release our knowledge, whether graphically or anti-graphically, matters less than that we share it with the lucky (and increasingly few) who do not yet have it to hold.


Some good poetry news. My poem, "World Cup," about the slow fall of an Alzheimer's patient to the floor, will be choreographed and danced by the Bellingham Repertory Dance Theater in April, 2011. The poem comes from Old Women Look Like This, a free e-book. The Bellingham Reportory Dance Company can be found here.


Jean Vengua said...

Poet, deejay, artist, and and comix theorist Ernesto Priego (from Mexico, now residing in London) is a great source for news, ideas and projects on comix and graphic novels:

Twitter feed ernestopriego

a.k.a. "Joe" said...

O my gosh! I read that poem and "Anne of Manor Care Gables" the other day at the Lawrence session of the "Indie Lit Roadshow" (the theme was "community").