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Assault on a bibliophile's brain: a rare condition attacks--but doesn't defeat--a popular mystery writer.

The Man Who Forgot How to Read Howard Engel HarperCollins 149 pages, hardcover ISBN 9780002007146

The plot in novelist Howard Engel's new memoir involves the treatment of a rare neurological condition called alexia sine agraphia, which has whacked his ability to read but not his capacity to write. How on earth will he continue to write his detective fiction--leaving aside other stroke-induced problems such as remembering characters and subplots--when he can't re-read the work in order to do basic editing? This mystery is resolved, as it were, with an account of the successful publication of his novel Memory Book in 2005, the completion of which the memoirist is justifiably proud. The novel renders with fictitious licence (via Engel's alter ego Benny Cooperman) the same traumatic damage suffered by the author in 2001, and a similarly anxious recovery at Toronto's Rehab Hospital.

The subplot of The Man Who Forgot How to Read invokes Oliver Sacks. Just as Engel adopts some Dickensian methodology in telling his story (while claiming not to), so he echoes some Sacksian locutions and even vocabulary in describing his unusual stroke. The memoir's arc takes him on a visit to New York, after Sacks cites his case among similar cases in a New Yorker article about alexia--this following a letter Engel writes to Sacks from his hospital bed. The visit leads to Sacks's contribution of an after-word to the novel--and that after-word is recycled in the book we are now reading. Engel seems determined to live up to his mysterious condition in a way the influential Sacks would approve. "In a small way, I was trying to do for stroke victims what Dr. Temple Grandin did for autism." And so it is as if Engel has been Sacksed twice--once by his own account and once (well, twice now) by the good doctor in an essay about "word blindness" appended to both novel and memoir.

The reviewer may be forgiven for wishing to comment more on Engel's writing about his condition than on the condition itself. In the epilogue to this account of his stroke, Engel remarks on how writing autobiography feels less free than writing fiction. "Memoirs unleash a self-consciousness that squeezes the creative process into a straitjacket that cannot be easily shaken off." He says that while he has mainly told the truth here, maybe stretching it on occasion, he has learned to make "a friend" of the continuing confusion he feels in his daily life. When he repeats what he has earlier made clear about failing to remember names, you suspect the repetition owes to the habits of a mystery writer. The novelist who is used to taking care of loose ends feels an instinctive urge to retell and tie up what remains undone in his own life.

There is a more pertinent point. As alexia sine agraphia is inherently suspenseful, it would seem to demand a suspenseful account by the writer suddenly afflicted by it--above all a crime writer used to dramatizing his plots. In Engel's memoir, while we are sympathetic to its inquisitive and peppy narrator, we might wonder why he does not plunge straight into his assault instead of into his childhood decades earlier (including an interest in puppetry), followed by an account of his time at CBC Radio, his reading, writing and married life. Engel's "straitjacket" approach is uncomfortably apparent in its David Copperfield-ish chronology. Instead of an autobiography trying to squeeze itself into a memoir, his narrative might have worked better as a long feature governed by the editorial pickiness of a magazine.

Overnight, something weird happens to his brain. Why not begin with Chapter 4, on a hot summer morning in Toronto, when the well-known novelist steps out to his porch and discovers the words inside his Globe and Mail read like a cross between Cyrillic and Korean?

This is not to suggest the memoir does not succeed in conveying the author's life-long love of books and reading, and this adds to the effect of his affliction on our own reading, especially when Engel painstakingly describes the process of his rehabilitation. It is shocking to learn of his having to sound out Ernest Hemingway's name "again and again" every time he comes across it in a short passage--not only can he not recognize the two words, he can't recall having just read the name. He writes earlier, "The idea of being cut off from Shakespeare and company left me weak. My life had been built on reading everything in sight. My jokes were based on reading, my take on current events was informed by reading.

I was a one-trick pony, and reading was my trick." Slowly, through therapy and grit, his per-minute reading rate begins to get better.

Howard Engel is good on how he later manages, with computing feats and help from friends and editors, to write and complete his detective novel. What I particularly valued and wanted more of was the disaffected way Engel re-sees his home and city in the days and then years following the dislocating assault on his brain. "Perhaps the effect on me is best described by comparing my drive home to a drive made after a twenty-year absence, not fourteen weeks." Arriving home, he feels like a tourist there. "My whole office, where I had written several of my books, resembled a diorama in a museum. Where was the velvet rope? Where the printed cards giving details and dates?" He wonders, looking at his desk, who the stranger was who had sat here. In such passages his writing feels unconstrained, liberated.

Unfortunately, it can also read like a victim, suffering at times from the prefab language of genre writing the author is successful at elsewhere, but that prevents it from becoming the literature he professes not to commit. "Everything was coming up roses once again." More unfortunate, when Engel looks to rise above such blooms, his metaphorical sense can sometimes defeat him. "When my mind froze up, writing can only be compared to trying to move a ton of raw liver uphill by hand." (This sentence should never, ever be repeated except as a dire warning to meat cutters.) Not helpful either is some uplifting recovery language colouring a self-conscious preface. Still, you can only admire and be glad for this "addict of the printed word" whose stubborn passion for what he calls "the writing game" has encouraged him to go on writing for his many fans, often with a sense of ardour and elan.

Keath Fraser's most recent books are 13 Ways of Listening to a Stranger: The Best Stories of Keath Fraser (2005) and a memoir, The Voice Gallery (2002), both from Thomas Allen.
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Title Annotation:The Man Who Forgot How to Read
Author:Fraser, Keath
Publication:Literary Review of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2007
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