May 2008

Arts & Letters

‘The Story of Forgetting’ by Stefan Merrill Block

By Zora Simic

Abel is a hunchbacked recluse pushing 70. Basic tasks and a bottomless mourning for his lost family mark his days. A real-estate boom makes him a rich man, but the new neighbours want him out. He switches his horse for a car, but such minor concessions to contemporary living are not convincing anybody: he's stuck in the past.

Seth, a 15-year-old science nerd, appears to have more of a future, yet his mother's diagnosis with early onset Alzheimer's casts a shadow over it. He sets out to trace his mother's genetic history, and we know that his story will intersect with Abel's.

As this narrative fusion is pretty much assured from the opening pages of The Story of Forgetting, Stefan Merrill Block's debut novel, the pleasures contained within the book stem from seeing how the stories gradually unfold, rather than from flashy plot twists (though there are several of these). Block's task is ambitious. By examining an ostensibly modern disease, he wants us to consider an ancient condition: the need human beings have to tell stories. To understand his mother's illness, Seth first turns to Science for direction. Ultimately, however, Imagination (represented here by the alternative world of Isidora) is needed to fill the hole left by forgetting.

This cleverly wrought novel has spectacularly launched the literary career of Block, who is only 25, but its success is not unqualified. In places, the book is over-written, too self-conscious and rather dependent on cheap tricks. For every elegant sentence, there is another in which Seth describes, for instance, the "halves of me brewing in my dad's seminiferous tubules and my mum's ovarian follicles". In an effort to make Seth and Abel flesh-and-blood characters, Block also relies too much on their exaggerated physicality: the respective curses of teenage acne and a hunched back. At times, humour and pathos do not so much mingle as strain awkwardly to coexist.

Yet, overall, The Story of Forgetting comes together impressively. The sins of the first-time novelist are regularly counterbalanced by a thoughtful sincerity which gives weight to Block's central assertion that stories provide "something more desperate and more necessary" than other forms of knowledge.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

The uncorking

Mark Seymour’s ‘Thirteen Tonne Theory’

In the giant green cathedral

Tim Winton’s ‘Breath & surf writing’

John Button, 1933–2008

Anzac Day match, April 2010. © Gavin Anderson/Flickr

Digging

A moral equivalent to Anzac Day


More in Arts & Letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions


More in Noted

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality