With McMansions galore, a concrete-chic urban planning model and seemingly never-ending sprawl, Plano is many outsiders' vision of hell.
But to Stefan Merrill Block, it's home, not to mention the inspiration for his debut novel, The Story of Forgetting, recently released to critical acclaim and high commercial expectations by Random House. The book concerns the travails of two characters, Seth Waller, a precocious 15-year-old in search of answers about his mother's familial early-onset Alzheimer's disease, and Abel Haggard, an aging humpback waiting for the return of his illegitimate daughter.
In the tradition of James Joyce, who abandoned his native Ireland at a young age but could never stop writing about it, Block is a 26-year-old wunderkind who got to the brink of fame in his new residence of Brooklyn, New York, by ruminating on his Texas roots. An unpublished author without industry connections, he came out of nowhere and is receiving media attention everywhere from People and NPR and The New York Times.
Though Seth lives near Austin and Abel lives in a fictional Dallas suburb called High Plains, both towns stand in largely for Plano. Some details will be immediately recognizable to locals, like Abel's last name, Haggard, which comes from the ubiquitous Plano real estate group. Near the end of the book, Seth's mother escapes from her assisted care facility and makes a frenzied run through the future site of an office park, which is patterned after the field at the corner of Windhaven Parkway and the Dallas North Tollway.
"Mom! Mom!" I yelled, running.
The field's soil, which had been used for a massive crop of soybeans the spring before, was a muddy, clumpy mess. Three times I landed, palms and chin, in the muck.
She kept on but for a moment swung her head toward me and paused, as if trying to remember whether I were her rescuer or the person she had been fleeing from the start.
Back home for a visit in mid-March, Block relaxes before U.S. and European book tours in the coming months. He visits old haunts and conducts e-mail interviews from his parents' comfortable house in West Plano, where he lived until he left for college and which boasts a pool, but doesn't rival some of its ostentatious neighbors. Bounding around the facilities is Isidora, Block's parents' new labradoodle.
One afternoon Block leads a tour of the town's wealthy, gaudy western environs in his parents' Lexus, bypassing the guarded entrance of a subdivision called King's Gate in favor of one called King's Ridge. "Don't they want a front yard?" he asks, mocking the hastily crafted faux-Mediterraneans crowded in next to ersatz Southern monstrosities. He continues past more former farm land and future cul-de-sacs. "It's so crazy to me, because this area wasn't here the last time I was in town. Not very long ago, there was nothing here, and now all this."
Further out, functioning farms butt up to luxury homes and office parks, creating the surreal scene of heifers and horses roaming amidst bustling blocks.
Similarly, Abel lives on a family farm boxed in by dream houses. Having been abandoned by the love of his life (who just happens to be his twin brother's wife) and their daughter, he sells off most of his acreage and is left with only a small bit of land and his beloved horse, Iona.
The ever-encroaching development serves as a metaphor for Alzheimer's disease, which overtakes both Abel's brother and Seth's mother, Jamie. This element of the story has a basis in reality as well; Block's mother's side of the family has been afflicted by an early-striking form of Alzheimer's for generations. In the novel, Jamie falls from a balcony into the family's living room. In reality, Block's grandmother died from falling down a set of stairs.
Block says Jamie's character is based partly on his grandmother, and partly his mother, who home-schooled Block from fourth to eighth grade and with whom he talks on the phone almost every day. Sharp, vivacious and witty, she doesn't show signs of the disease, which tends to afflict members of her family in their early 60s. She is 58.
"Each time my mom confuses my name with my brother's, or forgets a portion of conversation we had just days earlier, or temporarily loses the name of an old friend, I scurry to explanations unrelated to the span of our family's history: She's just tired, or just a little stressed, or just feeling a bit put on the spot," Block writes in the original draft of an essay called "Uncle Ralph's Rapture," recently published in London's Guardian newspaper.
He adds that he's preparing for "the possibility that I will have to watch her die as we once watched my grandmother die, not slowly exactly but in a hundred tiny pieces every day; the possibility that there will come a time when I look at her living body and debate whether she is still she; the possibility that I will one day witness my mom returned to the same oblivion to which I too will likely one day return, the same oblivion in which all the members of each generation of our family, with few exceptions, begin and end our lives."
Block has lived something of a charmed life. Besides boasting a supportive family, he was an international science fair champion in high school and received his lucrative book contract when he was only 24. But his current success is wrapped up in tragedy. Like Seth, Block's bird's-eye view of his family's descent into earthly oblivion is a constant reminder of what one day will likely befall him as well.
And yet in his book Block's attitude toward the disease is upbeat. This was noted in Janet Maslin's otherwise positive review in The New York Times. "Nothing about Mr. Block's narrative is predictable or even suitably bleak, given the nature of the illness he addresses," she writes.
Even more surprising, he handles his real-life genetic misfortune with equal aplomb.
Block's father says he was tipped off to his son's intelligence when he and wife Debbie brought him in for a preschool IQ test.
"The thing kept going on and on," remembers Andy, a clinical psychologist, "and so finally Debbie went downstairs and asked the tester why it was taking so long. He said, 'The kid hasn't gotten anything wrong yet, so I can't stop the test.'"
Yet Block looks back on his school years with embarrassment. Take the still-standing bedroom mural he painted with a girlfriend just after high school graduation, which features an amateurish portrait of Walt Whitman surrounded by pearls of wisdom from folks like Keats, Robert Frost and Paul McCartney. "It was going to be great literary figures in the tradition of Starbucks cafés," he deadpans. "Basically it's a collection of the most overly quoted poems of all time."
Block boasts pretty, multicolored eyes and a confidence-inspiring smile. His gravity-defying, unkempt brown hair adds a couple inches to his tall, solid frame. Nonetheless, he prefers to dwell on his own physical awkwardness, noting that he was once told he had "the map of Israel in my face."
Favorite topics are his failures with girls and longtime struggle with acne.
"This girl I had a crush on told me, 'I've been learning Photoshop,'" he remembers of a particularly scarring high school English class encounter. "'It's amazing what you can do with that airbrush tool.' And then she looked at all of my acne, and she was like, 'I wish I could just use that airbrush tool on your face.'"
Such experiences helped him identify with both the aging, humpbacked character of Abel and the high school nerd, Seth. But though Block still considers himself an outsider, nowadays he dresses fashionably and talks to women with wit and self-confidence.
And he's financially established as well, having won a six-figure contract with Random House, the result of a bidding war for Forgetting. Though he prefers not to disclose the exact amount, he imparts that the figure was bolstered by the sale of publishing rights in a wide swath of countries, including the U.K., France, Finland, Israel, Australia and New Zealand. (The book's Los Angeles-based film agent may add to the total as well.) Reviews have been favorable, with Publishers Weekly offering a starred rating, calling it "a story that's compulsive and transporting" and an "astounding debut." Maslin called it a "fresh, beguiling novel." Glowing reviews from Entertainment Weekly and NPR followed soon after.
Block was an unknown author before he sent agent Bill Clegg a rough draft of his novel in the summer of 2006, out of the blue. Block was shooting bar mitzvah and wedding videos to pay the bills at the time, having moved to New York two years earlier after graduating with a film major from Washington University (where he wrote early bits of the novel). After quitting his own agency the previous year, Clegg had joined the prestigious William Morris agency and just happened to be looking for new clients. He loved the book immediately.
"I think his instincts for storytelling are so natural, and the way he sets up that book is so effective and gripping," says Clegg. "Stefan comes out of nowhere. He doesn't come from a writing program; he doesn't have some famous mentor; he doesn't come off of publication in The New Yorker; he doesn't come off of winning a prize. Stefan had nothing but a great book, period."
Clegg was convinced it could be a hit, and so after reading the manuscript over the weekend he called Block into his office the following Monday.
"I was drenched in sweat," Block remembers. "I didn't know what he expected of me. William Morris Agency is like 'God Inc.,' with long banks of silent rooms full of secretaries. I was trying to charm him. But he wanted me to sit there for five and a half hours and go through the book with him, and he told me everything he thought I needed to do to make it salable. We went page by page through the book. And I was so exhausted from trying to impress him that, after three hours, I was dizzy."
Over the next two months they polished the book together, and after Clegg put it up for auction a handful of top publishing houses bid. Block chose Random House for its storied history, the chance to work with editor David Ebershoff (author of The Rose City and Pasadena) and its good vibes. Seemingly everyone from the company showed up to meet him, from the president to the marketing people. "It was just such a positive, exciting meeting," Block remembers. "Everyone seemed so behind the book and ready to support me."
In the months before its April 1 release, Block was already being subjected to some of the pitfalls of being a public figure. One particularly nefarious blogger met him at a party and pretended to be a booking agent for a network morning show. She proceeded to give him a fake phone number and slag him on her blog the next day.
In any case, it's clear that Random House sees him as a commodity whose appeal lies not just in his writing chops but in his youth and good looks as well. Soon after he was signed, the firm's PR department discussed making a play on his behalf for People's "Most Beautiful People" issue. Apparently that didn't work out, so they settled instead for a book review in the magazine.
"One day in the middle of class, Stefan asked, 'Ms. Shepherd, do you and Mr. Shepherd have a good sex life?'" recalls Karen Shepherd, Block's 11th-grade AP biology teacher and science fair advisor.
Block has dropped in to Plano Senior High School's research lab to visit an influential mentor, and Shepherd is expounding on his tendency to push the limits in her classroom. "He tried to back it up, saying, 'Well, I was reading last night about how we are much healthier if we had a better sex life,' and that he was concerned about me. I just laughed and ignored the question."
"She threw a three-hole punch at my head!" insists Block.
Shepherd—a recent recipient of Texas' secondary teacher of the year award—notes that Block's humor and literary talents were complemented by his prodigious scientific abilities. Indeed, The Story of Forgetting is informed by a complex genetic back story, tracing Seth and Abel's ancestors to late 18th-century England. There, an early-onset Alzheimer's-afflicted duke named Alban Mapplethorpe IV impregnates scores of his town's women, thus ensuring his dubious genetic legacy would spread far and wide. (The townswomen line up as willing adulterers once they realize his ability to keep a secret.)
Though the strain described in the book, EOA-23, is fictional, familial early-onset Alzheimer's is real. The rare disease can affect its inheritors as early as their third decade and often is traceable to a single gene. (A patient can tell if he or she has it from a genetic test.) "Regular" Alzheimer's typically doesn't affect people until they are 65 or older and is not as strongly linked to genetics. Block says his family's variation lies somewhere in between, often occurring early and showing a strong inherited component, but is not the result of a specific gene mutation.
His understanding of the disease's biology comes from years of study, beginning during his years at Plano Senior High. There, he was a standout science student and won top prizes at international science fairs and the Intel (formerly Westinghouse) Science Talent Search, which helped him secure a scholarship to Washington University.
"Especially in ninth grade, I was so miserable, afloat in a sea of West Plano jocks," he says, though the science fair enabled him to "see that there were other people equally freakish."
That year he and Shepherd traveled to Louisville, Kentucky, for Block's first international science fair, where Block convinced the other attendees to take silly pictures mimicking animals and between judging made out with a girl for the first time on the banks of the Ohio River.
"Stefan always thinks he didn't fit in, and I always think Stefan fit in just as well as any other ninth-grade nerd," Shepherd says. "He was very creative and would always talk his groups into doing whatever it was he wanted to do, whether it crossed the line or not."
Of particularly questionable taste was a group project titled Tay-Sachs: The Musical, featuring 10 original songs on the crippling genetic disorder, including "'Don't Cry For Me, I Have Tay-Sachs" and "Tay-Sachs, Tay-Sachs," which was sung to the tune of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York."
"A line was, 'If I make it till 3, I'll be brain-cell free,'" he remembers. "'I'll be retarded and loud!'"
Attempting to uncover his mother's genetic history, Seth Waller hacks into the database of a doctor running an Alzheimer's study. He proceeds to visit the study's patients at their homes, hoping they will provide insight into his mother's worsening condition.
"I feel like I've known you my whole life," his mother tells him on one of his visits to the assisted-care facility where she lives, which he calls "The Waiting Room" and she calls a hotel.
"This hotel can be so drab when I'm alone."
"I keep telling the woman that if we leave it out in the rain, everything might be lost."
"They don't listen to a word I say, naturally, because you have to believe."
"I know, I know it."
"Right, well, at any rate. It's too late now. That's for sure. I only hope Mama isn't worried."
"Mama?" I asked.
The people from her childhood, who I knew next to nothing about, would often reappear this way, as unexplained characters from the pieces of a past life that increasingly made up the whole of her present. Soon after she was put in The Waiting Room, I had a perversely optimistic thought: that maybe if my mom forgot all the ways she had tried to make herself forget, she would be left with no choice but to remember.
"Part of the reason for writing the book was to make peace with the whole role-reversal of taking care of your parents," Block says. "It's perverse—and sickening in a way. I can't think of anything more horrifying than to watch a self you've loved your whole life disintegrate. Everything you see as a soul is stripped away, neurological component by neurological component."
Alzheimer's runs deep in the Block family, although it's hard to say exactly how deep, since it didn't even exist as a diagnosis until early in the 20th century. (The idea that dementia was a natural part of aging prevailed long after that.) But passed-down stories indicate that the disease has been in the family for generations, perhaps tattooed onto its members' genetic codes for good by the marriage of his mother's grandmother and grandfather, who were both carriers.
With bemusement and shock, his mother, Debbie, recalls being left alone to care for her grandmother when she was 13. "She was, like, wearing three dresses, and would put her purse down and make the bed up over it and then spend the rest of the day looking for her purse," she says. "Looking back, she was clearly experiencing symptoms, deep in it. We just weren't that aware of stuff back then."
Debbie's father died mysteriously when she was 18, having fallen into a monsoon drain in Singapore, where the family was living. A brilliant yet bipolar executive for Brown Paper Co., he brought untold suffering upon Debbie's mother via alcoholism and considerable time spent at a Boston psychiatric hospital. But her mother's long bout with grief largely ended when she got Alzheimer's.
"My father had given her a lot of trouble in his life, and she had forgotten about it," says Debbie of her mother's last years. "She wasn't angry about it anymore, and I was really happy to have my non-angry mother back. I hadn't seen her without that little bit of a chip [on her shoulders] in a lot of years. It was nice to see her spirit back, the spirit she probably had as a child."
She recounts their time at the family's lake cabin in 1993, a year or so before her mother's death. Driving around the area in an attempt to drop some garbage off at the dump, they got lost.
"I have a terrible sense of direction, and she couldn't find [the dump] either. We kept ending up at this place called Spiderwood Gardens where you can buy flowers. And so we said, 'Hey, as long as we're here, let's buy some flowers!' So we'd buy some flowers, get back in the car, and then we'd go off again. 'Did you say to turn right, or am I supposed to turn left?' We were just hysterical, and we'd end up back at Spiderwood Gardens again. Finally we got back to the house with all these flowers and garbage! Everyone thought we were such a hoot."
Block believes that some Alzheimer's sufferers find comfort in their condition—bliss, even. Though he is careful to note that each Alzheimer's case is different, he believes that for many sufferers it is a relief to forget.
"In the face of tragedy, what we want is a redo," he says. "In the case of Alzheimer's, because your brain is your reality, you get to undo the sadness of your life."
Some Forgetting readers take issue with this idea, which they believe plays out through a fantasy parallel world in the book called Isidora, a golden land "without memory, where every need is met and every sadness is forgotten." Residents of Isidora may fall in love with the same person a thousand different times, and when hungry, they feast, "briefly living only for the pleasure of eating." The legend of Isidora is described to Seth and Abel by their mothers, who learned about it from their parents.
And so the history of Isidora was passed along: sometimes to offer the younger generation comfort, sometimes for the sake of tradition, and sometimes to express what would otherwise be inexpressible in the finite worlds and spaces of simple reality... The past and the future were the same place, an impossible but inevitable destiny, to which they all, together, were bound.
On his Web site WordSmith, amateur book critic Sam F. Smith, who says he has a close family member with Alzheimer's, calls the description of Isidora "particularly inappropriate for the subject matter. It's hard to believe that people under threat of developing [Alzheimer's] would envision such a place as a relief from their disease—it seems more like a nightmare. It is memory that makes us human—without it, we are little more than animals."
Jonathan Franzen echoed similar sentiments when describing his father's dark, last years with Alzheimer's in a 2001 New Yorker article called "My Father's Brain." "I wish he'd had a heart attack instead," Franzen wrote. (Block nonetheless cites the essay as influential in the creation of his book.)
But another way to understand Isidora is not as an imagined respite for the afflicted, but as a source of comfort for unafflicted loved ones. Says Clegg: "If you're watching somebody fade away and not remember you—while you remember every single heartbreak and triumph that you've had with that person—it seems natural to me to then imagine a place where memory doesn't exist. If you're the one left, memory is a burden, so I think it's natural to imagine a place where one would be unencumbered by that."
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Block's opinion on this subject was informed by a visit to Tilton, New Hampshire, to see his great-uncle Ralph, a former Navy fighter pilot who killed a comrade during a World War II-era training exercise because of circumstances unclear. Ralph was quickly cleared by the Navy and soon crashed again, killing two more men. Ralph now lives in the Alzheimer's unit of a veteran's home.
"While there is something poignantly, almost unbearably sad about an 84-year-old man begging for his parents, to think of Ralph as neurologically returned to his mental life as a 3-year-old is to realize the potential blessing of Alzheimer's disease," Block writes in the original version of "Uncle Ralph's Rapture." "Alzheimer's has accomplished for Ralph what many of us dream of in the slow, rippling wake of tragedy: it has bent the rules of time and space and returned him to innocence. Ralph has killed three men, failed in every serious career attempt, lost his family, and spent the majority of his life as a hermit, and yet if happiness and contentment are the point, then—at the present—it would be difficult for me to think of anyone succeeding more thoroughly than Ralph."
Block himself seems to harbor little worry about his own potential descent into the clutches of the disease. The idea of "retrogenesis"—essentially, returning to a childhood state—actually brings him an unlikely bit of comfort.
"My childhood was pretty happy, so..." he says with a laugh. "But I'm sure I'll feel differently when I'm 60 and I have a family; I'll be upset for them. But I don't fear it any more than I fear dying. I think Alzheimer's is both a blessing and a curse. Not that I want to develop the disease, but if I do, I believe there is a blessing to it."