There is, writes Floyd Skloot, a "singular strangeness" to being a middle-age writer, living with a damaged brain and watching your 90-something...
“A World of Light”
by Floyd Skloot
University of Nebraska Press, 199 pp., $24.95
There is, writes Floyd Skloot, a “singular strangeness” to being a middle-age writer, living with a damaged brain and watching your 90-something mother disappear into dementia. “It is as though chance and fate have reasserted our inherent connectedness, dealing our brains complementary blows.”
This trenchant observation comes early on in “A World of Light,” a nourishing meditation both meticulous and lyrical, a convergence familiar to anyone who has read Skloot’s earlier memoir, essays and poems.
Skloot, now in his late 50s and living in rural Oregon, contracted a virus in 1988 that changed him from a marathon runner and nimble number-cruncher into a man physically and mentally fragile, frequently unable to perform simple tasks or hang onto thoughts for more than a moment. He’s learned to inhabit this changed self: “As long as I don’t get overtired, as long as I don’t contract some kind of infection or other challenge to my already-compromised immune system, eat right, and control my expectations for walking or writing, I can function for an hour or two every morning.”
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It is impossible to read this book without a constant awed awareness of what it cost to write it. Each phrase mined, then cut and polished, set down only to be revisited by its often-baffled creator. A page takes months to harvest. “When memory and reason fail, when thoughts cannot cohere and time falls apart, I become trapped in a blizzard of fragmented images. A crazed, whirling storm of confusion, a kaleidoscopic cognitive white-out. Like a blind person who has lost all sense of visual cohesion, I forget what it’s like to remember.”
In his last book, “In the Shadow of Memory,” Skloot provided a cinematic view of life before and after the wounding of his brain. (That work was also published by University of Nebraska Press, then by Bison Books in 2004.). There he described a journey through a childhood demarcated by blows, both physical and emotional, mostly administered by his fiercely unhappy, volatile mother. In one of his most memorable essays, he politely exposed the humiliating investigative process forced on someone who dares to collect disability benefits.
“A World of Light” builds on that history, but the writer has matured; and, no irony intended, he is a more cerebral narrator. He continues to chronicle his life, including an account of a long-dreamed-of visit to revered long-ago mentor, Irish poet Thomas Kinsella. But now Skloot also looks deeper; he deploys his damaged self as a sort of interpreter, able to understand both the helpless woman before him, and the enraged woman who once inhabited her body and brain.
There’s a pleasing, dry humor to Skloot’s observations, as when he visits his mother in her nursing home and listens to her wonder aloud for the millionth time why he doesn’t marry that nice girl who always accompanies him. (His wife, the artist Beverly Hallberg, to whom he’s been married for more than a decade.) Skloot’s personal situation may be achingly unique, but his guilty exasperation in these moments is the plight of Everyman with an aging parent overtaken by Alzheimer’s.
It is this rare-yet-somehow-familiar paradox that makes Skloot’s writing so engrossing and so lasting in its effect on the reader. He manages, through unsentimental observations captured in searingly precise language, to make his odd, precarious world glow with its “singular strangeness.” He is not just the victim of a viral bandit; his is a world made beautiful by its changed prospects, even while it is frighteningly uncertain in its daily realities.
“Neither of us is as we were anymore,” Skloot writes of his mother. “Our memories have, to varying degrees, been shattered … Our brains have both undergone vast organic alteration and our minds no longer work as they did. So maybe, out of this weird wreckage, we can find something in the time we have left together that is better than what we found in the past.”
Kimberly Marlowe Hartnett is a writer living in Portland.