Over my car’s radio yesterday morning I caught the end of an interview with an author talking about her husband’s aphasia and recovery from it. As I drove into the Target parking lot the women were still talking, and I hadn’t heard any names of books or people yet, so I sat in the car a little longer, digging around in my purse to find a tiny black notebook to write in.
Eventually the host mentioned that we were listening to Diane Ackerman talking about her book 100 Names for Love, which tells the story of her husband Paul West’s recovery from a stroke, and the ways in which she was able to help him in the process, though their relationship was challenged and changed. The 100 names were the new pet names he came up with for his wife, when he could not recover the old ones. One of them that she mentioned was My Bucket of Hair. (She has a good head of it.) Many of the nicknames were as unusual and poetic, like My Remains of the Day, and My Residue of the Night.
I have tried reading Ackerman before, and there is too much about her prose and perspective that makes her tedious, but the things she said on the radio about love and care-giving and language recovery made me think I really wanted to read this particular book. I came home and put it on my Amazon list, but then I went on to read about Paul West, and found an excerpt online from the book he himself wrote, The Shadow Factory.
In the interview Ackerman had shared that, when he was depressed about not being able to write — and writing had been his profession — she suggested that he write a book about his experience, and he agreed to dictate to her as he labored to find each word and phrase in the rubble that was his brain. The following day he would rework the text, and the whole project became a huge part of his rehabilitation both emotionally and mentally.
I heard Ackerman describe her husband’s book as a “free associative dream version” of how it felt to have a stroke and to heal from it. Those words gave me the impression of it as the type of writing that I find hard to endure. But now that I’ve read this small part, I’m not sure I agree with her description. Here are a couple of paragraphs from the article I link to:
There was a bewildering assortment of false starts and incomplete sentences for the mind only. I no sooner thought of something to say to myself than I forgot it, and I was lucky to get beyond the second or third imagined word. Of course no one in his right mind overheard any of this, the dumb speaking to the silent in a reverse image, so no one was upset. But if this happens 50 or 60 times, one wants a little revenge of some sort. Of course, one was in all probability speaking no kind of written English, so this meant that whatever you said was relevant and you could not say anything irrelevant.
Reading, at which I used to be no slouch, now gave me the most incredible, disheveled experiences of my print-bound life. Now print jigged toward me, then it hung back. The one part of it that was readable swam backward or forward to render the reading experience at best incomplete, or subject to the vilest, maddest vagaries of a proofreader’s nightmare.
So far I am thoroughly enjoying West’s post-stroke prose, and find it much more focused and readable than Ackerman’s, so perhaps I’ll be content with having heard her radio voice, which seems to absorb better, and in my Amazon shopping cart I’ll trade her book for The Shadow Factory.