I Asked My Dad, Who Has Dementia, to Annotate Jonathan Franzen’s ‘How to Be Alone’
Oct 18 2012
When my father lost his memory to dementia, everything in the house around him became new. He often can’t remember how sitting in a chair traditionally works, but turning the chair upside down makes total sense. The rugs aren’t floor coverings any more, but mazes that he can trace by tiptoeing along the edge. The appropriate response to a ringing phone is shouting.
Many things now must be destroyed. I had to help my mother move all the books she kept for years in the kitchen because Dad would pick them from the shelf and tear the pages out one by one, often counting aloud in numbers that he somehow remembered in the correct order. It’s interesting to watch what information his brain has completely erased (my name and relation, why the locked door won’t come open) and what still remains (how to shoot pool). Some objects, like the model car of the Corvette he had when he could still drive, or the photo of him and all his seven brothers and sisters, are spared, suggesting there’s a method to his work. Without the paper to tear up or something to move from where it belongs he often paces from one end of the house to the other, as if each time he’s somewhere different.
About four months ago, after the other books were taken away, I found a first edition hardback copy of Jonathan Franzen’s collection of essays, How to be Alone , in a box of my old stuff. I mostly can’t remember the part of me that would have paid money for a book by Franzen. To me, he has become the moniker of “safe” fiction. That is, suburban, proud of itself, relationship-based, linear, of traditional canonical aspiration, blah blah blah, etc.
I took the book into the kitchen where my dad was sitting with his head down in his hands (a way he often sits now). It’s hard to entertain him for very long; he always seems to want to move on to something else. Objects only hold their newness for a fraction of time, though in a different way than that of an infant. A child seems to get bored with what it sees when it learns the item is not magical—that it is a thing there in the world. With my dad, whatever’s going on inside his head is constantly more alive and mesmerizing than any physical object. I can’t imagine what he sees. I don’t know what the words he speaks to no one mean to him or to whatever. It is both incredible and hard to watch; a perimeter of experience perfectly seamed between the real and the unreal.
Anyway, I gave my dad the book and a pen and told him to do with it what he would. I kind of thought I’d never see it again, though recently I came into my parent’s kitchen to find it left out on the counter, next to a small pile of soil and leaves Dad had ripped out of a houseplant.
By the end of the first hour, my dad had ripped the cover off the book. There above the gold embossed author’s initials, “JF” (which I have never seen done on a book before), is what appears to be the word STOP with the characters all crammed around a triangular black smudge. Some other damage in the upper-right corner and on the book’s back suggest the book had been thrown around and may have gotten wet.
The first 46 pages have been torn out. I hadn’t thought about what part of the book this missing chunk was until my mom approached me later that same day with a page from the opening essay, “My Father’s Brain,” which is about Franzen’s own experience with his father’s Alzheimer’s. The rest of the essay has disappeared: either thrown out at some point or otherwise demolished, maybe even eaten. (One of the few things that seems to hold up consistently in his mind is food, though sometimes he can’t tell the difference between what is meant to be eaten and what’s not.) “It’s funny what he gets into,” Mom says, holding the “Father’s Brain” page, too tired now from the range of days to register surprise as something more than common breath. “Sometimes I think he knows exactly what he’s doing.” I left the page out on the counter there again. The next time I came into the room the page was gone.
The majority of the remaining pages in the book have not been altered. Maybe 12 out of the 278. I don’t know what made him turn to any one particular page and write there. Realism might suggest it was wholly by whim. On page 52, Dad struck through every line of Franzen excerpting Denis Johnson’s description of a man in a rest home who, having been physically destroyed and with no visitors, splays his pain out on the world in groans. A remarkably straight downward-pointing arrow and a fragment of another equally straight line are all that appear on the page beside it.
Perhaps the most famous essay in the book is “Why Bother?” in which Franzen argues against experimentation and difficulty in literature, in favor of telling stories mired in “social realism,” suggesting there’s only one way of being in the world, one where imagination is “amateurish” and without value. Dad's eleven rather deeply rendered repeating lines of thin black ink make the book look as if it's been swiped at as with claws, or maybe instead it's a portrait of a forest without leaves.
The number “445” appears to have been written over the phrase “portents that lit.”
My dad never really read. The one book I can remember him buying was Bill Clinton’s My Life. He kept it out on his desk. I don’t think he read it. Before he became unable to leave the house alone he was always the kind of man who made what he wanted in the world, a workaholic and a firm believer that if you want something done right you do it yourself. It’s complicated to see that kind of person placed in a world where reality is obscure, where the function of objects you have known your whole life are suddenly changed, and always changing. There is an opening gap between the world as he understood it before his brain changed and what it is now every day. He often speaks facing the wall, sometimes to objects or to people in the air there. There are many different kinds of space all in one space.
In some ways I think how he sees things now is more honest, more real, than many others—at once beyond definition and without fear. He moves toward things without the pause or want of why. I watched him write on the page with the pen first, his eyes suddenly alight. I know the stories of where he grew up, where he went and with whom, and who he loved are inside his body, whether he can let them out or not. They are there inside his moving hand. He doesn’t have to bare them.
Sometimes he will just come up to my mother and do his best to hold her and he will say thank you or I love you. Then he will go back to knocking his fists against the door’s glass.
Somewhere near the book’s end I found this page Dad apparently ripped out of the index of a cookbook and stuffed into How to be Alone. It’s between two pages where Franzen is going on about The Corrections having been an Oprah Book Club selection and having been invited and then uninvited to her show, due to his having told the press he was afraid men wouldn’t want to read an Oprah-OK’d book. “I see this as my book,” he said, “my creation”; his creation, in a world where only reality is real. I can’t help but imagine Franzen calling himself the book’s Dad. Among all these other words now there is the Lamb Stew and Macaroni. There is the Mom’s Tater Patties and the Our Lady of Perpetual Misery Corn Chowder. Suddenly here are some real words that make sense, words without posture that cause something in my body. It’s a different kind of feel. I turn the page as if it was always in there, as if this page had always been part of the book, but when I’m being honest I know it was placed there by an outside force.
My dad, of course, does not remember he did any of these things at all.
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