Thursday, April 14, 2011

Springtime (in London) is for Alzheimer's

When is jet lag a lag, and when is it more a loop, like a scratched cd, or the mind when it's called upon to navigate the differences in time zones? It's from within that loop, or outside the time to which I've been assigned (8:43 a.m. Hawaiian time) that I'll write about my trip to London, April 5-12 (or 13th, if you include the flight lag on the last leg from Los Angeles). Kind of a flight log of lag. Stop me before this gets too silly. And forgive the errors, as they are induced by over 48 hours of travel in one week across a cumulative 22 time zones. Or so.

I went to London to attend the New Cultures of Ageing Conference at Brunel University on April 8 and 9. (The "e" in Ageing has a similar power to set my brain in a loop, so from now on I'll write "aging," which will ease my American mind.) The conference was smaller than most I attend, but also more interdisciplinary, incorporating oral history projects, reading group reports, histories of aging in England, demographic frenzies, discussion of organization and management, an "argument" between Will Self and Faye Weldon, and afternoon panels on literature. The focus was on narrative, but there were at least some calls for ruptured ones.

Which brings me quickly to a pivotal moment during my visit in Ealing with Giles Goodland and
his family, when Giles handed me a book by B.S. Johnson, entitled House Mother Normal, published in 1971, shortly before the author's suicide. I'd been telling Giles about my dissatisfactions with linear narratives about Alzheimer's. And suddenly I realized that this was the book I should be talking about, a book that belonged to Giles, a book I could not possibly read that evening and talk about the day after. The day after my talk, during which I mentioned my encounter with B.S. Johnson, a graduate student from Paris-Diderot, Karen Zouzouai, delivered a paper on Johnson's novel. A day after that, I bought Johnson's Omnibus from the London Review Bookshop at Russell Square. Two days thereafter I read the novel on the plane from London to Los Angeles. It's an astonishing text. While I'm still not capable of doing it justice, I want to begin to say why.

I find a paragraph by Frank Kermode that says it best, but only if you reverse its field, transposing Kermode's negatives into positives like a wide receiver running behind the quarterback and heading up the other hashmarks. Because what I find valuable about Johnson's House Mother Normal is its refusal to trump up a linear narrative about residents of an old people's home. Instead, Johnson offers us the residents themselves, each telling the same story, some in sentences, others (the ones with Alzheimer's) in words only, strewn across the page. So here is the regressive Mr. Kermode:

His [Johnson's] basic error arose from his belief that the truth of narratives was incompatible with the usual way of presenting them: that is, in books which by their very technology insisted on a spurious sequentiality. At the same time, he thought that the neglect of all manner of various typographic opportunities, long since exploited by Sterne and now shamefully ignored, was another enemy of the truth. That the material structure of books can affect their contents is of course true. The use of the codex in preference to the scroll made for a decisive difference between the Gospels and the books of the Hebrew Bible; the codex made easily available relationships between pages remote from one another, and these books, with numbered and turnable pages, may have influenced the writers and probably affected the early course of the new religion.

Johnson, it seems, was a fiction writer obsessed with "truth," one for whom the form of "realism" was not realistic enough. It was in the interest of telling the truth, getting at something authentic (a word I distrust, but seems right in this context) that he experimented, and it was his experiments that renders him a "forgotten writer," or--for this reader--simply an unknown one.

One of the moments in his book that provides access to the ways in which he enacts memory and forgetting is in the renderings of a song the nasty House Mother (hardly "normal") through the memories of each resident. Sarah Lamson, whose narrative is fairly straightforward (realism as a marker of an intact memory), records the first stanza of the song this way:

The joys of life continue strong
Throughout old age, however long:
If only we can cheerful stay
And brightly welcome every day.
Not what we've been, not what we'll be,
What matters most is that we're free:
The joys of life continue strong
Throughout old age, however long.

"She is in her happy place," a nurse once said of my mother and her colleagues at Arden Courts. The myth of happiness is one held most firmly to by those who are witnesses to their relatives' decline. At Brunel, the elders would often intervene to point out that things were not so good, that old age was not simply an era for dispensing wisdom. That old age hurts.

Two residents later, Ivy Nicholls renders the song this way:

Throughout old age, however long:
If only we can cheerful stay
And di-dum welcome every day.
Not what we've been, not what we've done,
What matters most is that we're
errrr (55)

By the time we get to George Hedbury, whose words are scattered across the open field page (ironically denoting a shutting in), we read:

No matter if the future's dim
keep right on and suffer hymn

A final resident, the aptly named Rosetta Stanton, whose tablets are least recognizable as language (in the sense of language as a communicative vehicle, in any case), repeats nothing of the song, although her author (who comes out as such near the end of the book) does put sounds like "addurno" in her mouth (13), perhaps to remind us of the problem of the lyric post-Alzheimer's.

The nefarious "House Mother" gets many of the lyrics wrong, herself, proving the emptiness of her own propaganda. She shifts Lamson's "The most important thing to do / Is stay alive and see it through" (11) with the ever more cynical and deliberate, "The most important thing to do / Is stay alive and screw and screw" (187), which is what she does with her dog while the horrified residents look on, attempt to enunciate their disgust. That the House Mother's narrative is most tidy, most linear, spoken with the most clarity, most "in control," is only one of the ironies Johnson employs. The real truths, we sense, are on the pages that remain entirely blank (as with Rosetta's) or on which a fractured language scatters in islands.

Frank Kermode, in reviewing the biography of B.S. Johnson by Jonathan Coe, can barely bring himself to summarize the argument about House Mother Normal. "Coe argues that this makes the book ‘richly polyphonic’. The House Mother has the final word: she describes herself as ‘the concoction of a writer’ – another sop to Johnson’s conscientious objection to making things up." And so the arch critic demeans an author for trying to "get it right," because getting it right is so damn difficult. Earlier in this same review, Kermode the curmudgeon wrote it thusly: "Johnson was very serious about these innovations, but they kidnap the notion of experiment or estrangement by making it appear that the violation of narrative order in the interests of what he thought of as truth must be blatant. In fact these tricks simply prompt one to ask what the point of this sort of innovation really is. They distract attention from the novel, the true interest of which is independent of them." In the interest of his own version of "truth," Kermode asserts that the novel has a form divorced from forms, that it does not contain "tricks." I'll stop before spilling more bitter beans, but you'll see where I'm going--or, more importantly--where B.S. Johnson went in his forensic investigation of the "home" and its residents.

My only problem with the novel is that Johnson moves so quickly from early or non-Alzheimer's into late-stage Alzheimer's. Missing is the stage where there is a lot of language, but little coherence; this was the stage I discovered here in my mother's home. (It might otherwise be termed the Modernist stage of Alzheimer's, as conceived by Gertrude Stein.) And his presentation of the House Mother's narrative at the end, which confirms all our suspicions about her perversity, offers perhaps too much sense to us, as if to close down the questions and to show us the awful answers, lest we not know. But these are quibbles. What is beautiful about the book is the way it illustrates the absolute necessity of the experimental in the face of Alzheimer's extremities.

Once the conference ended, I went on a two day traipse through London, finding old friends and inventing new ones (that sounded right, so I wrote it). The sun was shining and the English were getting sunburns. On the top deck of the red buses, young Sikhs were wearing traditional turbans, while negotiating cultures with American teeshirts and diamond stud earrings. The voices sounded in myriad tongues; no one spoke in a single language, but words danced in and out of Punjabi, English, African French, English, Hindi, English, Polish, English. Much as I love taking photographs, I would also want recordings of these voices, for that is the London I heard as I looked out if its bus windows.


Jacket2 is now out, published by the indefatigable Al Filreis with a staff of brilliant editors, including Sarah Dowling. It's all worth reading (and grows over time, rather than according to the usual schedules), but please check out the Pacific Poetries section, which I edited, and the introductory essay, which includes my usual Tinfishian spin (away from identities and toward conversations between them--if that sounds paradoxical, it is).

Eileen Tabios's marvelous project, Poets on Adoption has also launched, here. My offering is here. One of the many virtues of this site is how various are the perspectives offered by adoptees, adopters, and birth-parents.

Memory Cards from my latest series will appear in Eleven Eleven, among other venues. I've almost finished the Lyn Hejinian series, wondering where to go next, and thinking a lot about why nearly all the writers I've riffed off of are white (Albert Saijo being the only exception so far). Something about meditative poetry, the poetry of abstraction, as more possible (or, indeed, interesting) for white poets. To write about later, when the lag is o'er. And without assigning too much identity to their and my identities . . .

The next Tinfish Retro Chapbook is by Adam Aitken, called Tonto's Revenge. Announcement soon, here and elsewhere.

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