If only we can name our fears, we can vanquish them. Or so the story goes.
But in this culture, the dread that tops the list is our own mortality, and some of our victories on that front are more Pyrrhic than we’d care to admit. Eternal youth is the elusive goal; what we’ve achieved in quest of it is medicine that lets us linger longer at the far end. The “last scene of all,” Shakespeare called it: “second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” It’s the phase of life that spooks us even more than what comes after.
Loss of one’s marbles is the great terror of the intellectually active, over-60 set in Lore Segal’s “Half the Kingdom,” an acerbic, compassionate, astonishingly keen, very funny report back from the territory of old age — the borderland where, should we manage to stick around, each of us will eventually arrive. At 85, Segal is part of the same generation as Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, and this satire feels like kin to theirs, but Segal is still standing, still writing, and more advanced in years than either of them got to be.
As the book opens, an indiscreet physician in a New York City emergency room tells her patient about a surge in the cases of older people who’ve lost touch with reality. “Our Dr. Stimson is starting a log of all the sixty-two-pluses who go around the bend,” she says.
“Having an Alzheimer’s epidemic, are you?” inquires the patient, Joe Bernstine. Like a number of characters here, he has figured in many a Segal tale. An eccentric think-tank director now retired and in failing health, he’s ramping up a new project called “The Compendium of End-of-World Scenarios.”
Studying the possible outbreak of dementia — could it be the work of organized malefactors? — strikes him as a job for his team. He deploys them to the hospital. Playfulness is afoot.
Segal is a master of the short story — for evidence, see her delectable 2007 collection, “Shakespeare’s Kitchen” — and parts of “Half the Kingdom” have been published in magazines in story form. In the novel, the madcap plot allows her to twine together many strands, with no shortage of sorrow: Jack and Hope, long-ago lovers who need the help of their sandwich-generation children in order to meet for lunch in midtown Manhattan, where they reminisce about their travels together in Europe; Samson, raised in a family where the conversation never stopped, now paralyzed, unable to communicate; Lilly, her body abruptly “vacated by mind,” her sister so despairing that she commits suicide; Francis, a lanky old composer who collapsed in the lobby of his hotel; Ida, an immigrant whose fiercest allegiance is to the bitter resentments she’s carried with her across continents and decades; little Luba, who won’t stop stripping the clothes from her aged body.
And Ilka, a longtime Segal alter ego, last seen robust at the center of “Shakespeare’s Kitchen.” Here, when she is well, she is as fiercely smart as she’s ever been. But interludes of confusion encroach, clouding Ilka’s fine mind. Her daughter, Maggie, determined to be her champion, is stymied by surreal bureaucracy.
“I went to the Kastel Street Social Services office,” Maggie tells a woman named Lucy, sitting next to her in a hospital waiting area.
“And discovered,’’ Lucy offers, “that Kafka wrote slice-of-life fiction?”
Lucy, agile writer, member of Joe’s team, and best friend to Joe’s cheerful wife, Jenny, has the anxious habit of calculating her distance from decline. She hears tell of a patient in her 90s. “Lucy did the arithmetic. At seventy-five, Lucy was at least fifteen years younger than Anstiss, who had gone off the deep end. Lucy experienced relief.”
Our reflexive pathologizing of old age is one of Segal’s targets. So is the harm we do in trying to banish death: our insistence on prolonging life, even when a mind or body is ravaged beyond repair. The satire comes in how easily, particularly in a hospital setting, the young fail to understand the old, and, seeing only age, attribute the trouble to mental decay.
Lucy is being driven nuts, but it’s not dementia; it’s her editor, Maurie, who has been a frustration to her since at least the 1970s, when Lucy was the title character of Segal’s novella “Lucinella.’’ After all these years, he won’t even acknowledge, let alone publish, the short story Lucy’s sent him. Unable to bear being creatively silenced, she starts reading it aloud to anyone who will listen.
In Lucy’s story, a man is asked by an ambulance attendant to describe the pain he feels. Dull? No. Stabbing? Also no. “He searches the language and does not find in its vocabulary the word that names this peculiar excruciation. ‘Get me Roget’s Thesaurus!’ shrieks the man in pain.”
These are Segal’s people: They have no intention of going gentle, or imprecise, into that good night. But for some of them, the light is flickering.