MacKenzie Warren reviews Ian Maleney’s Minor Monuments
When I burst into tears while reading Ian Maleney’s Minor Monuments, my upset took me by surprise. What shocked me wasn’t the fact that I was crying. I opened the book expecting emotional turmoil. Maleney’s subject is the swift decline of his grandfather, John Joe, as Alzheimer’s disease takes its toll, and I assumed, going in, that many of the author’s experiences would touch a raw nerve in me. My grandfather also suffered from Alzheimer’s in the last two years of his life, and, like Maleney, I was also called upon to care for him in his ailing state. What shocked me was that my tears sprang forth so suddenly, provoked by a single sentence over which I choked up and wept: “That summer,” writes Maleney, “when I was young and free of every restraint, liberated for the first time from every tie and bond, I somehow became caught up in my grandfather the way one gets caught in rain.”
That’s exactly it. That is exactly how it feels to be in that situation, to have been in it. That is exactly how it felt for me to become helplessly implicated in my grandfather’s life at the very point that the memory of it began to elude him. My involvement in his wellbeing was conscious and consensual, but also, in a sense, involuntary, a response to an obligation imposed on me from above. My immersion in his life defied all my intentions for coping with it, for managing it, and often left me with a sense of having been inundated — soaked through — by a torrent of care for a person whose demands were so overwhelming that they could never be satisfied. In just one succinct line of prose, then, Maleney captured a harrowing experience of dazzling complexity, and gave expression to the lived sensation of it, in a way that I have struggled to do since my grandfather passed away. What shocked me about it was that, although I expected to recognise myself in Minor Monuments, I also felt recognised by it. I felt as if the book itself could see me as I was reading it, and sought to offer me the words I’d not yet found for something I’d lived through.
This is quite an achievement for a writer like Maleney — a writer who doesn’t present himself as primarily a writer, who in fact presents himself as something else in these pages. True, on one level, Minor Monuments takes the familiar form of an essay collection, with most of its contents falling easily into the genre of life writing. True, too, that Maleney laces his autobiographical material with references to W.G. Sebald, Gabriel Josipovici, and Joan Didion, and with critical insights drawn from heavyweights like Rebecca Solnit and Susan Sontag, John Berger and Roland Barthes. But throughout the book, when accounting for his own presence in the events he depicts, Maleney appears less as a person with something to say than as one who attends closely to what is said by others. This is his way of being, both by temperament and by vocation: Maleney is a sound recordist and occasional broadcaster — a producer for The Stinging Fly podcast and the creator of an audio series on Ireland’s housing crisis — and although Minor Monuments is a book, composed solely of words in print, Maleney selects his words with reliance on his practice of recording speech and soundscapes. He says, early on, that what he hopes to achieve in his essays is what he usually achieves through audio capture. His aim is to find an immutable form to contain transient events, to preserve the now before it flees, to create an artefact that testifies to “what it is like for a particular person to be… in a particular place at a particular time”.
“Being there, listening — this is my gesture, my offering, my mark of passing”, Maleney writes, so that each of his recordings “is not so much an accurate replication of the time spent listening as it is a personal reminder that the time was spent at all”. But, he adds, in using written words to preserve the fleeting presence of John Joe, he intends to lower his gaze, to salvage those quiet states of being that slip by beneath more consequential events:
During the final two or three years of his life, I made many surreptitious recordings of John Joe as he sat by the fire in [his] kitchen. He was in the process of forgetting almost everything he’d ever known. He was fading out of the world, and I began to grieve long before the death was final. I wanted to record whatever it was he might say before it was too late. Not because what he had to say was particularly significant or even memorable, but because no-one would ever say anything like it again. … Regardless of their fidelity, the recordings suggest a depth, a duration, and a movement to what photographs of him have frozen flat and static.
What this means in practice is that, in order to write about John Joe, Maleney must take pains to attune himself to the silences surrounding his grandfather — where “silence” is, for a sound recordist, “not the absence of sound” but “a lower order of sound, an experience of extremely diminished sound”. Initially, of course, he feels compelled to focus on his role in unfolding events, to make a narrative of daily doings, to sift through the silences in search of “something significant”. But over time he finds that relinquishing this desire allows him to relinquish his egotism — a narcissistic conviction that his “superior artistic impulses would rescue from obscurity something which everyone else had missed” — and so, provocatively, he finds himself newly open to previously unacknowledged dimensions of Alzheimer’s disease. “When almost all sound is taken away”, he says “the sounds which remain take on a greater definition and a greater weight”. By analogy, then, to focus on the daily minutiae of Alzheimer’s disease, rather than on the magnitude of its degradations, is to allow the disease itself to offer new possibilities for experience — quite disconcertingly.
To be fair, Maleney is forthright in defining Alzheimer’s disease as “an existential illness”, and he doesn’t shy away from describing the mercilessness with which
it attacks fundamental notions of personhood and identity. The loss of memory typically associated with Alzheimer’s, combined with the disengagement from the social world which inevitably follows memory loss, is a challenge to the common understanding of how the self is formed. If, as many people believe, we are the sum of our memories, at what point does the loss of those memories result in the loss of the subject constituted by them?
But, for Maleney, to recognise Alzheimer’s in only these terms is insufficient, limiting our understanding of the disease and of ourselves as human subjects. In a key passage woven into a story of his misadventures as an aspiring musician, he recalls his early efforts to develop “an ethics of sound”, and in the end he arrives at an intriguing word. His ethical principles, he writes, demand “patience and alertness” directed towards “recognising the characteristics of the [atmosphere] in which we find ourselves and responding as suitably as we can to its affordances”. Its affordances? As in, its blessings? As in, its offering of unexpected opportunities? Now extend Maleney’s “ethics of sound” to his act of writing about John Joe. Suddenly, for all the existential terror of Alzheimer’s disease, the illness becomes capable of inspiring more than simply fear: it becomes a stimulus for a shift in perspective, for a wilful enlargement of our generosity towards an intimidating unknown.
On first reading Minor Monuments, I found this notion difficult to accept. Even now, some weeks later, I still find it difficult to live with. Having witnessed dementia and its capacity for destruction up close, I didn’t and don’t want to think of it as something that might also bear gifts or call on me to realise a better version of myself. But I also couldn’t, and can’t, resist the seductive style of Maleney’s essays. There is something at once heartbreaking and comforting about the vulnerability of his voice, the gentle poetry of his prose, the way his intellectual humility softens the boldness of his speculations. Nor could I escape the structural trappings of the book as a whole. Maleney sequences his essays so they drift leisurely from one subject to another, then swirl back to an earlier subject or elliptically approach the next, with each page prompting the reader to reassess the direction of the volume as a whole, to appreciate the deft interweaving of its strands. While these qualities do not make it any easier to appreciate the “affordances” of Alzheimer’s disease, they do at least apply a salve to the difficulty of becoming aware of them.
In assembling Minor Monuments as a holistic work of literature, Maleney seems to have modelled his creative process along the lines of Brian Eno’s concept of “generative music”. Eno’s method, in Maleney’s telling, involves composing music in a way that is “more like trying to create a seed than engineer a tree”, giving rise to art that “opens outward from the [creator’s] original idea, mutating and regenerating as it spreads”. With the album Discreet Music (1975), which hypnotised Maleney in his younger years, Eno produced a work composed of a series of very simple melodies, repeated over and over, and “a lot of space between the repetitions”. These spaces, Maleney writes, are “filled by the blurred and gradually decaying echoes of those same [melodic] bodies”, and the echoes “feed back into each other very slowly and very softly [in] a systemic recurrence and recombination”. So it goes with Minor Monuments, too. In successive essays, the “seed” of Maleney’s activities as a writer — the decline of his grandfather — “opens outward”, “mutating and regenerating”, germinating ideas that reach into other areas of Maleney’s life and then “feed back into each other”: a recursive melody blooming from a single, powerful bass note. In ‘Season of Migrations’, for instance, Maleney finds John Joe in hospital for a kidney operation during “the beginnings of his troubles with dementia”. There, in ruminating on the obligations of caregivers, he makes observations that receive an echo later, in ‘Pneumonia’, when Maleney offers respite to his grandmother while John Joe is bedbound with an even more troubling condition. And as this account allows Maleney to acknowledge the privilege of not being a fulltime caregiver, it points back to ‘Fidelity’, which describes the origins of his passion for sound recording, and ‘Fidelity’ in turn resonates with ‘This Is How It Was’, which asks how a paucity of family photographs impacts on one’s sense of reality, of belonging.
By way of this incremental, almost loping movement into proximity with John Joe, Maleney arrives at his first recognition of the “affordances” of Alzheimer’s disease. He realises that although the existential effects of the illness are at their worst in those who suffer it — loss of memory, loss of a sense of self — they are felt by all of us, at all times, even in the prime of health. We all forget things we have done, things that others remember. We all lose pieces of ourselves over time, and our conceptions of the selves we retain are often challenged by the people around us. With respect to the decay of identity, then, the difference between those who suffer dementia and those who do not is a difference of degree, not of kind. Indeed, we spend our lives shoring up defences against forgetting and therefore against the infirmity of our selves — we use photographs, storytelling, and localised traditions as tools in this endeavour — and in doing so we indicate our awareness of how provisional and precarious our identities already are.
There’s an especially haunting essay in Minor Monuments, in which Maleney reflects on John Joe’s account of his sister Chrissy. Chrissy moved from Ireland to the United States at a young age, leaving behind her family in order to become a nun, and John Joe spent much of his life lamenting her departure. What is haunting about the essay is not just that John Joe’s lament seems to have grown louder as Alzheimer’s affected him, but that, when Maleney approached Chrissy to hear her side of the story, she baldly contradicted John Joe’s. In this scenario, where were the “real” participants to be found? John Joe remained adamant that his memories of Chrissy correspond to reality, that he had a sure grasp on her identity. She took the same stance towards him, but held fast to different certainties. Neither of them was quite the person they believed themselves to be, because they couldn’t recognise themselves in the memories of the other — and Maleney’s own uncertainty about the truth meant that they couldn’t rely on him, either, to strengthen the foundations of their identities.
Does this suggest that we are all slowly dying, even as we live, moment by moment losing our past selves, and that dementia sufferers are merely dying at a faster pace? Yes, says Maleney, it does, if we understand “death” as “the removal of a person from the flow of time”, whether or not the removal is protracted. This definition of “death” allows Maleney to equate the decline of a dementia sufferer with a “dying process” whose “immaculate, pitiless logic” unfolds over several years, and brings him to another realisation:
Life lived in the company of someone with Alzheimer’s is life shot through with death, as if life were the shutters on a window, and death the light leaking through. … The experience of Alzheimer’s is first and foremost a loss of temporal familiarity. It is the fatal disruption of an internal cohesion which we normally take for granted. Our sense of ourselves as a person in the world is accumulative and narrativised, based on our ability to join the dots between different experiences we have undergone, different people we have known. Our personal history is our account of these actions in time. When we lose our memory, we lose our sense of time. We are forced to live without that most constitutive element of our existence — our sense of duration, our succession.
Loss of memory therefore entails more than the loss of a stable self. It also entails loss of chronology and causality — a loss of the ability to trace the continuity of a self in flux, developed throughout a series of environments with specific temporal signatures. As a result, it puts the lie to our visions of ourselves as subjects with agency in the stories of our lives. This realisation opens up another of the affordances of Alzheimer’s disease: an understanding that if our narrativised selves are contingent upon memories that are never not faulty, then we are at liberty to shrug off our narratives of selfhood and ignore the impulse to narrativise. Maleney seizes this liberty and goes about jettisoning his understanding of himself in narrative terms, difficult as the task may be. He begins by unpicking the originary threads of his narrative. Fresh out of college, “free to make my own way”, he recalls how he left his home in the Irish countryside to become an artist in Dublin, “excising my rural upbringing, ploughing guiltlessly into what I thought of as a world of cultured urban possibility”. But now, he says, he sees his disavowal of his rural upbringing as little more than “performative self-narration”: a prefabrication of the person he wanted to become, and a subordination of all future experience to the process of becoming. His supposed freedom has proved to be as much a constraint on his possibilities as were the circumscribed horizons of his youth. A more meaningful liberation — made perceptible to him only when he witnesses the effects of dementia on John Joe — would involve letting go the reins of his narrative of selfhood, and indeed letting go of narrative altogether.
This realisation, once acted on, leads Maleney to the third and most profound of the affordances of Alzheimer’s disease: a heightened awareness of the ethical imperatives and implications of being in proximity to others, and of making a record of their presence in any medium other than one’s own memory. At the outset, Maleney is thrilled by the idea of recording John Joe for posterity. It allows him to feel that he is honouring his grandfather, and also, perhaps more importantly for himself, that he has upended the narrative in which his rural life was merely “a restriction and a limitation” rather than a rich “opportunity”. “[I]n those days”, he admits, “I wanted to record [John Joe] as I would a most precious and enthralling sound, like a passing vibration in the air”. But then, by indirect means, he comes to question his presumptive right to behave like this towards his grandfather, to question his belief that his recordings would adequately represent anyone’s experience of anything, and to question his naïve hope that by recording John Joe he might strengthen his ancestral connection to his “people”. His intellectual foundations fall to pieces beneath him — or, better, he rises above them, clawing his way up to a new vantage point from which to survey all the territory of his book.
Maleney’s “indirect means” towards admitting self-doubt appear in the two essays least connected to his own story. It is in these two essays — ‘A Kind of Closing Cadence’ and ‘Machine Learning’ — that Minor Monuments, having grown from its seed, begins to yield fruit. They are as introspective as the other essays, yet more future-oriented, asking questions not only of life as it has been lived but also as it ought to be, henceforth, and the results are extraordinary: brutally honest, consciously inconclusive, and counter-intuitive.
‘A Kind of Closing Cadence’ is mostly concerned with the life of Seamus Heaney and his memorial service. When Heaney died in 2013, his funeral was open to members of the public and Maleney jumped at the opportunity to attend. “I made sure to take special notice of the unusual”, he writes, reflecting his belief that he might someday compose a poem using material from the event: “This is what a poet does, I thought.” In choosing to write literature, he explains, writers assume certain duties — “of bearing witness; of noting down, connecting, drawing out” — which amount to a “responsibility, in the end, of always finding the right words”. But because his approach to taking stock of the events at Heaney’s funeral is analogous to his approach to recording John Joe, there’s a self-excoriating power to his realisation that he is attending in bad faith, scouring the ceremony for creative fodder and therefore treating it as an instrumental occasion. “Writing divides us from life”, Maleney concludes, “in a small but permanent way”. Writing about Heaney’s funeral is no way for him to truly honour Heaney, because the very thing he values about Heaney’s poetry is its “yearning for a world where meaning is to be found in the vitality of the experience itself, not in any use that might be made of it”. Nor, by extension, can he truly honour John Joe by recording his final days: for all the good faith of his attendance at his grandparents’ home, there is none in the way he attends to John Joe and his particular needs.
Moreover, even if Maleney’s recordings could somehow honour John Joe, he has no way of knowing whether or not they are enough to give substance to the man. “[W]hat would I know about what [John Joe’s village] needs or doesn’t need?” he asks at one point, teasing out the consequences of his own decision to leave. “My way of seeing things had little or nothing to do with the reality of the people who live there. My position… was that of an interested and concerned observer, sheltered from a process over which I had no influence at all.” And then, even if he could substantiate John Joe — enabling him to deliver his own testimony in the fullness of his being, yet with all the attenuations of his disease — that very process could never bring Maleney close to his grandfather, for it would affirm the distance between them. “I imagine I might, by accumulation of stories and points of reference, stitch myself back into the fabric of the [village]”, Maleney writes, “in order to feel singular, native, whole. I’m looking for roots, origins. … But writing does not grant me that kind of intimacy; writing, in the end, keeps us apart.” This is so because, as he puts it elsewhere,
by writing about [this world] I deny myself the possibility of really living in it. It falls away from me and I’m left only with what is on the page. I take what flows between people who have a common language and I pull it out, make something else out of it. I am not unaware of the violence latent in this act, or the damage it can do on all sides. I’m often afraid that I’m using my family more than I let myself believe.
And indeed, this is the pre-eminent lesson he learns from Heaney, who had a similarly rural upbringing and a similarly vexed relationship to it. “What he left, he left forever”, Maleney writes of Heaney’s emigration from the countryside,
and it lived only in memory and verse for the rest of his life, a tug on the string of the mind. [But i]t seems to me that Heaney spent his career responding to that tug. … Heaney’s writing forms a record of his relationship with home as it changed over the course of his life, an accretion of knowledge, significance and effort — solid and evidential. … In writing it all down… [we create] this separate, uncanny thing which one no longer has the freedom to forget.
“[T]he freedom to forget”: now there’s a phrase that seems shockingly amiss in a book about the devastating effects of dementia. But it is a necessary phrase, too, by which Maleney’s thoughts on his own memory, his own identity, feed back into the thoughts sparked by his grandfather, returning Minor Monuments to the seed from which it has grown. And it represents the destination of Maleney’s second, more extraordinary detour into exploring his self-doubt by indirect means.
‘Machine Learning’, like ‘A Kind of Closing Cadence’, revolves around people and events outside of Maleney’s family circle, though it also stands alone as the only essay to begin in an overtly historical mode. Maleney devotes several pages to reconstructing the life and thought of the early twentieth century academic John von Neumann, a former colleague of Alan Turing, whose research into computational mechanics took the first tentative steps towards the computerisation of the human brain. After following the ripple effects of von Neumann’s innovations through to machine learning, Google’s patented algorithms, facial recognition software, and the networked social interactions of Facebook friends, Maleney muddies the waters by pointing out that von Neumann suffered from some notable cognitive defects. He struggled with the recognition of faces and the retention of names. As a result, Maleney suggests, he created a theory of machine learning with a skewed sense of priorities. He had his own particular notions of what it is valuable for machines to learn, and they did not reflect the notions of people with average cognitive capabilities. More than that, Maleney adds, when we interact with each other via algorithms founded on these notions, we are induced to similarly skew our priorities as well. In consequence, we distort our own abilities to remember who we are.
What actually happens when Facebook tempts us into updating our feed with a recent photograph? We implicitly assert the lasting value of a lived moment that is more likely to be statistically insignificant in the context of a lifetime. We also teach the Facebook algorithm to use this moment in order to shape our future behaviour on Facebook, so that its supposed significance informs the way the algorithm tempts us into interacting with others. What are the existential effects of this conduct on our memories, our identities, our narratives of ourselves? When we engage with one another via social media, and revisit and reshape the selves we present to the world, we warp and fragment our own remembrance of who we are, and dwell in a digital simulacrum of the dementia that settles over John Joe. In this context, “the freedom to forget” is an object of desire. It is the freedom to forget what might be truly worth forgetting, to slough off the falsehoods of a past twisted out of shape by misguided evaluations. It is the freedom to be who one is, based on what one remembers, rather than being the person one has created by recording fragments of one’s existence and installing them in a chimerical repository of remembrance.
This “freedom” is certainly made possible by dementia, but is it an “affordance” in the sense that it offers a true liberty? My instinct is to say no, to recoil from that suggestion. But then, drawing breath, I’m moved to think twice. I think back to my sudden tears and the words that prompted them: “I somehow became caught up in my grandfather the way one gets caught in rain.” I remember it vividly, that sense of succumbing to a deluge — but what was it a deluge of? It was a deluge of caregiving, I think, aimed at the maintenance of a person: not just labouring to maintain his physical health, but bracing myself against the currents of his condition to maintain his identity, to assert its continuity via his place in a succession of memories. This deluge, however, was no longer his to withstand. The pressure to maintain his selfhood no longer fell on his shoulders. While I still can’t bring myself to say that this amounts to a sort of “freedom”, or even a vague sense of relief, I also can’t deny that I recognised in my grandfather a certain levity which I did not possess in his presence. I think this is something like what Ian Maleney sees in John Joe when he draws near to the man, falls silent, and listens for the affordances of the moment. It is, to my mind, the levity of a person stepping out of a downpour — the downpour of one’s past ties, one’s deeds and obligations, ceaselessly drumming onto the now — so as to seek a shelter outside of time.
But while those are the best words I can find for what I recognised in Minor Monuments, and what I felt it recognised in me, they are insufficient, insubstantial, when set beside the book itself. Maleney has many more, and more specifics, recorded in a minor key more powerful for its quietude. His work is intimate in the fullest sense of the term: not just preoccupied with private affairs, but born from an experience of being deeply embedded in the moments of their unfolding. If it is not always easy to bear, and still less to accept all of Maleney’s propositions, this is a sign of its vitality, its genesis in the heart of a writer who has seen with his own eyes the struggles he writes about. Maleney is not simply a writer who poses unorthodox questions for polite consideration or mere speculation; he is one who has clearly lived the act of questioning, who has inhaled the atmospheric uncertainty of a life full of questions that evade easy answers. His choice of a sensitive subject makes Minor Monuments a book that asks to be put down regularly, especially for those who’ve known Alzheimer’s disease. But his sensibility invests even its most distressing sections with the power, the composure, to soothe as well as to shake those with patience enough to hear him out. Take pause, take breath. Attune your inner ear to a voice approaching silence. Heed the small wonders it calls to your attention. Listen with care and try to remember.