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.

Cover: May 2008

May 2008

From the front page

Image of Scott Morrison

Isolation nation

The PM is looking like the odd man out

Caravaggio's Saint Jerome, the patron saint of scholars. Wikimedia Commons

The life not lived

Reflections on scholarship

Image of ‘Hamnet’

What dreams may come: ‘Hamnet’

Shakespeare’s son succumbs to plague as Maggie O’Farrell conjures Elizabethan England


A month of plague

Voices from the coronavirus outbreak

In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Sir Henry Parkes & Henry Lawson

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Lies, damned lies

‘Miracles of Life’ by JG Ballard

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Organic matter

More in Arts & Letters

Image of Stormzy

Grime boss: Stormzy

The rapper and MC’s second album ‘Heavy Is the Head’ is another triumphant step bringing black British culture forward

Photo of Tennant Creek Brio artists

Desert bloom: The Tennant Creek Brio

The brazen art movement born out of the troubled legacies of substance abuse and dispossession

Cover of jenny Offill's ‘Weather’

Twilight knowing: Jenny Offill’s ‘Weather’

The American novelist brings literary fiction’s focus on the interior life to climate-change cataclysm

Image from ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Properly British: Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

A multicultural vision underscores the acclaimed British satirist’s endearing Dickensian romp

More in Noted

Image of Eimear McBride's ‘Strange Hotel’

‘Strange Hotel’ by Eimear McBride

A woman unceasingly travels to contend with the inertia of grief, in the latest novel from the author of ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’

‘Actress’ by Anne Enright

In a theatre setting, the masterly Irish writer considers the melting, capricious line between the truth and the fake

Image from ‘Stateless’

‘Stateless’: ABC

A probing drama about Australia’s mandatory detention regime focuses on the dehumanisation experienced on both sides of the razor wire

Image of ‘The Bass Rock’

‘The Bass Rock’ by Evie Wyld

The Miles Franklin–winning author’s latest novel expands on her interest in the submission and consequential fury of women amid the impersonal natural world

Read on

Image of ‘Hamnet’

What dreams may come: ‘Hamnet’

Shakespeare’s son succumbs to plague as Maggie O’Farrell conjures Elizabethan England

AFL names of the decade

Games may be cancelled, but the names play on

Language is a virus

With information on COVID-19 changing constantly, the government needs to fine-tune its delivery

Coronavirus: cancelling culture

How the COVID-19 crisis could be catastrophic for Australia’s already vulnerable arts sector