Why do diseases and disorders play such an important role in modern fiction? Some of the most famous characters in film and literature are famous precisely because they are not well. From borderliner Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard to cancer patient Hazel in The Fault in Our Stars, we seem to enjoy fictional characters on the verge of collapse, either physically or mentally.
I was reminded of the potency of illness in fiction while reading “Hersenschimmen” (translated as “Out of Mind”) by Dutch writer J. Bernlef. The novel, written in 1984, deals with Maarten Klein, an elderly man who suffers from a rapidly developing form of Alzheimer’s disease. The writer adheres strictly to Maarten’s perspective, showing the destruction of the human mind from the point of view of the mind being destructed. The result is a terrifying chronicle of human frailty.