Nobody wants to go mad. We try to live healthy lives so that we won’t die slowly of lung cancer or quickly from a heart attack. But what we let ourselves worry about less – because there is so little we can do to protect against it – is living long enough to have our minds cruelly betray us, leaving us trapped in bodies that still work but in a world that no longer makes sense.
In Lore Segal’s Half the Kingdom dementia has become an infectious disease amongst the elderly, with every patient who checks into a certain Manhattan clinic developing what “the hospital’s spokesperson, for lack of a diagnosis, is calling ‘copycat Alzheimer’s.’’ It’s a chilling concept, but unfortunately the contagion spreads beyond the page. It’s not just the characters who stumble through the hospital corridors in bewilderment – the novel itself induces the same distressing sense of discombobulation.
One of the patients quips that the clinic has made them realise that “Kafka wrote slice-of-life fiction” but the sad truth is that one would far rather be trapped with Josef K. in the controlled, stylised madness of The Trial than lost in the mundane, tiresome muddle of this gentle satire. In an attempt to capture the disorganised mess of life that stumbles through the doors of an emergency room, Segal has crammed her slim book with a cacophony of loosely connected characters, who drift in and out, fretting and wailing and railing against their relatives, but failing to leave any real impression. The rambling narrative stubbornly refuses to cast a convincing spell. The centre cannot hold and the plot, like many of the character’s minds, falls apart.
But there are fragments of real poignancy amongst the chaos. The mother who lets herself admit that that her sullen grown-up daughter is not a “poor darling” but simply “an unpleasant woman”, before anxiously wondering “how long it would take her to forget having thought this.” Or the old lady who starts manically calling every single old friend in her address book, trying to find someone she can read her short story to, but frequently “talking into a silence like no other – the empty line of a phone that has been hung up.”
Segal published her first book in 1964 and at 85, the Austrian New Yorker is something of a literary grande dame. Like this book, her last novel, Shakespeare’s Kitchen, intertwined multiple storylines. Unlike her most recent work, it wove those voices together brilliantly and was on the shortlist for the 2008 Pultizer Prize. It is quite possible that Segal intended Half the Kingdom to be a disorientating read and that its incoherence really is meant to mimic the gradual erosion of one’s sanity. If so, it is a brave attempt, despite being a frustratingly unrewarding novel. “It’s a story of how we outlive our lives,” Segal explained in a recent interview, because “being old and being sick and expecting not to know what to do with yourself, it stinks.”
Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal is published by Melville House.Tags: Age, America, Fiction, mental health