In her short story, “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” Alice Munro pulls off a spectacular flash-forward. It begins with more than a page of details about the parents of young Fiona, as well as the house she grew up in, the boys who courted her, and her marriage proposal to Grant on a beach deafened by the sound of crashing waves. The story then leaps over several decades, to meet Fiona at age seventy. She is just experiencing the first stages of Alzheimer’s. At one point she asks her husband when had they moved into their house, if it was last year or the year before. “He said that it was twelve years ago. She said, ‘That’s shocking.'” Her impression of condensed time is echoed by the reader’s experience of the flash-forward. For us, it was just a page ago that they were about to get married. A past wiped clean by the author is now wiped away in Fiona’s memory.
Munro’s flash-forward came to mind while reading Carissa Halston’s The Mere Weight of Words, where the life of an Alzheimer’s victim is similarly truncated. It starts with the narrator, a linguist named Meredith, learning via the Internet that her estranged father, a “notable filmmaker,” has been diagnosed with the disease. She thinks, “Notable. Not. Able.” One would hope for better linguistic games from a linguist — thankfully these kinds of lightweight puns (such as: “You can’t spell estrangement without strange”) are minimal. Rather, the novella is built around Meredith’s trip to visit her father, after two decades of noncommunication. Throughout the trip, even as she sits in his driveway, too anxious to leave the car, she unpacks her memories. Taking to this task as if it were a research paper, she argues, “The main reasons behind our damaged relationship are more difficult to prove. On my way to his house, I enumerate and categorize as much as I can recall.” Childhood and adolescent memories are easy. Later, she’ll force herself to remember the few short interactions she made with him since the divorce from her mother. The novella’s best passages take place completely in Meredith’s head, reliving their tattered relationship — but the details of her father’s life are never directly recalled.
In the Alice Munro story, the story is told from the husband’s point of view. He watches his wife Fiona worsen, and sends her to a home. In time, she forgets their entire relationship. During his visits, Grant learns that she has taken a new partner. This development has a shade of karma, as Grant had affairs with his students throughout their marriage. In Halston’s novella, the arc is reversed. Meredith’s father, who had been such an oppressive influence on his daughter, who had cheated on Meredith’s mother and subsequently paid the price of exile from his daughter, is the one about to forget his own actions. Everything in the novella’s structure, then, is weighed toward Meredith’s life and memories, while her father’s character remains vague, opaque, and pitched into the background.
Meredith describes how she became disillusioned with her father’s artistic expectations of her. She recalls bits of dialogue, exchanges of heated moments. These scenes are never replayed in full, though. They are captured in the narrator’s exposition and meditation. To Hallston’s credit, Meredith explains this outright: “Our differences might have been overcome if there had been one moment. One distinct act could have been explained away.” The reader is left with too much analysis, not enough scenes. It is intentional, but not entirely effective. What’s left of this conflict — between a filmmaker father and a daughter going into linguistic studies instead of pursuing art — feels too reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch where a playwright father criticizes his son for going into coal mining.
This isn’t to say that Halston cannot manage effective descriptions or scenes. There is a beautiful detail of the New York City landscape, for example: “The altered visibility recasts skyscrapers as a slowly stumbling mob, lurching and leaning and on the precipice of collapse. . . I wished to be among the buildings, being silently erased.” The language is at times very well controlled. At one point, relating the years where her father made her follow a strict drawing regime, she writes: “but when I weighed them with my apprentice heart, gauged them by my protégé pride, and fretted over them with an almost spousal concern, I found them — and, on some days, still find them — the most important moments in my life.”
So many of the recollections are written in his high pitch, full of rhetorical devises such as the repeating pairs of alliteration. It clearly demonstrates, through the texture of the language, her father’s overpowering influence — not physical, or necessarily emotional, but linguistic. It’s an excellent achievement, though the phrases can also be awkward and overblown at times, such as “nettled me nonetheless” and “but save an act of filicide.”
The best scene in the novella is located at its center. While living and teaching in China, long before her father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis, Meredith awakes to find her face ravished by Bell’s Palsy. Her gradual realization of this is visceral, even frightening. The reader feels her first impressions through this wonderful simile: “My voice was a foreigner: an ugly term, but well-suited to the situation.” It isn’t until much later, when she meets her friend Agatha in America, that the words “Bell’s Palsy” are even used. Instead, we’re left only with her frightened impressions. As she enters a hospital:
I imagine that the disdain I felt was similar to a xenophobe’s feelings about the non-native’s tongue. Yet my voice’s pronunciation belonged to no ethnic group. Rather, it was beholden to the makeshift, bastardized whims of my stiff jaw and dead lip.
These arresting metaphors are perfectly allied with the character’s passions: of course a linguist (a phonetician at that) would consider the symptoms through its impact on her voice, her pronunciations, her phonemes. But it also ties in with her relation to her father’s overpowering voice, and in her desire to escape that influence.
Throughout the novella, Meredith wishes to diminish her father’s “fingerprint on [her] actions.” This neatly foreshadows her facial paralysis, and prompts an interesting rereading of the title. Halston’s title, “The Mere Weight of Words,” seemed at first glance a cliché, implying stunted communication — now, though, it stands for the narrator’s most essential desire: “I longed for a place where my father couldn’t reach me or, barring that, one where he mattered significantly less.” It also foreshadows the wonderful passage where Meredith chooses her nickname, “Mere,” by listing all the other names she considered, and transcribing the dictionary definition of Mere. It is not just another pun. By having her friends call her Mere, she is also willing the idea of diminution onto herself.
There are few characters besides Meredith and her parents. There is a tender moment with her friend Agatha when Meredith returns from China with her newly-afflicted face. There is a slight romantic subplot with her boyfriend Patrick, which both does and does not parallel her relationship with her father. The reader may well hope for the bountiful details of the Alice Munro story and the years of witnessing a character lose what they had with their companion, but they aren’t to be found here. The reunion between Meredith and her father is brief. The novella is left to Meredith’s memories, and she considers what her father’s forgetting might mean for the two:
I’ll be the person I was before our split, the phonetician I was before my face – I’ll be an almost artist. I’ll be a silent daughter, a child before speech, with only my parents’ memories as proof I lived at all. How many of those days will my father remember? How many movie premieres, press conferences, ceremonies, feasts?
All the memories and flash-forwards — cutting from Meredith as a child to a teenager to a woman struck with Bell’s Palsy — have also, in terms of the narrative structure, cut her father’s life short. The reader has no access to the memories that Meredith’s father forgets, and about which Meredith never has the opportunity to learn.
Sean Campbell is a graduate of the Emerson MFA program living in Boston.