Matthew Thomas Tackles Dementia in His Ambitious First Novel, 'We Are Not Ourselves'

At one point, Thomas gave up his teaching job because the desire to finish his writing had outweighed the desire to achieve financial security. Such passion is evident in the pages of his novel.

We Are Not Ourselves

Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Length: 640 pages
Author: Matthew Thomas
Price: $28.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2014-08

Eileen grows up without much money, in NYC, in the middle of the 20th century. Her mother is an alcoholic. Her father has very little ability to help her mother, and for a long while the two live separate existences under one roof. There's a big atmospheric stew of love and hatred. Eileen wants to get out.

Then Ed comes along. He's from a fancier caste. He is training to be a neuroscientist, and he's much gentler and quieter than Eileen's father. The two marry.

Here's the problem: Ed has grand moral ambitions, and Eileen is grasping and acquisitive. Ed enjoys helping his students; he cares more about their growth than about his own chance at making more money in more-illustrious positions. Eileen can't really understand this high-mindedness. She wants a big house in a suburb. She wants a man who will gawk with her at the gaudy window displays in major department stores at Christmas. To Eileen, Ed's moral fineness is just a bit of grating, unnecessary asceticism.

Into the mix comes Connell, the couple's one and only child. He is bright. He wins admission to Regis, the famously rigorous Catholic high school for boys in Manhattan. From there, his road is paved to the University of Chicago. In adolescence, he doesn't have much time for his parents (and this is probably true of most teens). He is mostly interested in meeting girls and studying.

Everything changes when Ed begins to suffer from dementia. It happens quickly, and it happens fairly early in Ed's middle age. He can't remember what to say in front of his students. He spends hours and hours attempting to update his grade book, and the task is simply beyond him. From here, it's a horrifyingly short trip to the days when he is shitting his pants and getting swindled by a sullen adolescent clerk at the local grocery store.

The specter of mortality softens Eileen. She becomes less focused on material wealth. Her life at late middle age is one surprise after another. Consultations with a shambolic "shaman-lady", a brief affair with a bulky caretaker, a catastrophic house party -- one moment after another upsets and destabilizes her. But she persists. Her trials make her somewhat heroic.

Meanwhile, Connell grows up. He becomes a high school teacher, and wonders if he should go on with life when it's so fragile, when you could become a vegetable at any moment. There's so much senselessness, so much terror. In a late epiphany, in front of his students, he decides he does indeed want to pitch a tent here on Earth, to build a family. He wants to have children, and he wants his children to experience some simple pleasures; the taste of ice cream, the sound of a carousel. So he'll commit to living, even though he's deeply afraid. He will try to keep himself busy.

Dementia is part of the zeitgeist right now. Julianne Moore has made it so. Her new movie, Still Alice, for which she will likely win her long-overdue Oscar, covers some of the same terrain as Matthew Thomas's novel. "Live in the moment," says Moore's character. "That's what I tell myself. It's all I can do." It's worth both reading Thomas's novel and paying a trip to your local cinema.

Also, it's worth picking up a copy of King Lear, which provided some inspiration for Thomas. The title of his novel is a quotation from King Lear. Wretched adversity can turn us into something other than who we once were. That something can be good or bad, or both. In a disturbing moment from Moore's film, a daughter confronts Moore with evidence of a misdeed. Moore's character says, "I didn't do that. I wouldn't." But of course she did do it, in a moment of senility. She did it in a moment when she was not really "herself".

Families do and do not work; sometimes they both function and malfunction at the same time. This is clearest in extremis. Both Moore and Thomas do a lovely job of illuminating this truth.

For Thomas, the effort to write a novel took many years. At one point, he gave up his teaching job because the desire to finish his writing had outweighed the desire to achieve financial security. Such passion is evident in the pages of his novel.

Pay especially close attention to the details used to evoke Connell's daily life. One gets the strong sense that Thomas is writing his own coming-of-age story, and indeed a short glance at press materials will confirm that Thomas had a father who suffered from dementia. There are small flourishes throughout that give you the sense that you're entering an actual life, and not just reading an imaginative conjuring.

Connell gets his name from an "Evan Connell novel". This great, somewhat neglected, American novelist wrote Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge -- both portraits of mundane marital struggles and of the blinkered nature of "white-folk" existence. (Eileen has a bit in common with Mrs. Bridge.) Later, in middle school, Connell endures bullying, and the discord between the pettiness of the behavior and the effect it has on Connell's little psyche is truthful and disturbing. Lastly, on the plane home for his parent's funeral, Connell meets and "courts" a young lady. He will take her to Little India, near midtown Manhattan. There are two restaurants there, quite nearby, that are almost exactly the same.

Connell is, of course, clinging to simple lust as a security blanket; in times of crisis, it's easy to get aroused, as a way of reminding yourself that you're still alive. These little details give the novel an unmistakable sense of realism and beauty. It's hard to make up stuff like this. Thomas has intimated that he did begin by staying close to the truth, and that he grew confident as he proceeded, and began to allow himself to invent scenes toward the end.

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