I don’t know if I am imagining it, but there seem to be more good books written about old age. Some are fun, some are inspiring, some are tragic – but the best capture some of all that. Old age is both tragic and funny, both inspiring and depressing.
The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka starts with the allegorical story of an underground neighborhood swimming pool used by a number of dedicated swimmers who have their preferred times and lanes, and know the other swimmers by their quirks. Alice, in the “early stages of dementia,” is among them. Alice loves to swim; she knows the pool; she knows the routine. And then the beloved pool develops a suspicious crack. First no one thinks much of it; some people deny that it is even there. Then it gets worse and there are haphazard attempts to repair it, to no avail. Some swimmers are fascinated by the crack; others change lanes to avoid it. The crack consumes the minds and imaginations of the swimmers:
Several of us worry that the crack might somehow be our own fault. We feel ashamed of it, as though it were a blemish, a defect, an indelible flaw, a moral stain upon our soul that we have brought on ourselves.
The crack worsens; the pool is closed. Alice no longer has the outlet of her exercise and her routine. But think about those words: might somehow be our own fault, feel ashamed of it, as if we brought it on ourselves.
The book moves from a group portrait of the swimmers to a chronicle of Alice, written alternately in her voice, the voice of her daughter, and a collective voice of the people in the nursing home with Alice. The methodology is interesting. We get long lists of things Alice remembers (the persimmons of her youth, the first love of her life) and the things she has forgotten, including most of what happened twenty minutes ago. Some reviewers took exception to the catalogs that make up much of this book, but these lists give us Alice. I have often wished that I had saved my daily to-do lists, which I have made kept since I was an adult. Lists make up our lives. When our author (or the voice of the daughter) cannot grasp what Alice is thinking or feeling, she gives us the concrete. Alice’s fade into dementia (the “Diem Perdidi” section of the book) is heartbreaking as she clings to routine in the midst of the fog that is enveloping her.
Alice is soon moved into a memory care center, Belavista. “You are here today because you have failed the test.” The crack has gotten worse, the mind has been shut into a “long-term, for-profit memory care residence conveniently located on a former parking lot off the freeway.” Alice and her fellow patients are there because each has become “an extremely difficult person to live with.” The rest of the book details Alice’s descent in the home – a descent into dementia and a descent into hell. Having had to watch a loved one in such a setting, I found it depressingly accurate. Why read it? Because it is there; it is true; as we have more very elderly people, it is proliferating.
The next two books in an indirect way talk about the relationship of aging and writing. First, there is Cynthia Ozick’s Antiquities; Ozick is still writing at 93, which is a good enough reason to read the book. I found the writing excellent, gorgeous at times, but the story unsatisfactory. It is told in the first person of a very old man (in every sense) literally living in the past (his old prep school turned into apartments for the last trustees) and obsessed by three incidents of the past – his attachment to a strange Jewish student, his father’s mysterious disappearance into Egypt for a period, and his lifelong adoration of his legal secretary, which he apparently never did anything about. This aging Lloyd Petrie is fixated on a series of objects relating to these memories, including his secretary’s Remington manual typewriter with which he encodes his memories. In this the book reminded me of another excellent recent book, Ruth Ozeki’s Book of Form and Emptiness, in which objects actually speak of memory and life.
Maybe Ozick’s Antiquities is unsatisfactory because life is not satisfactory; loose ends do not tie themselves up at the end of the book, at the end of our lives. Or at least, not very often and certainly not in this book. At the end, the old man is dismayed that no one is interested in his father’s journals; he surmises that no one will be interested in his either. And yet, it is these journals that Ozick has created to give us a book about old age and the power of memory.
David Guterson’s book – The Final Case – was also unsatisfactory as to story, but nicely portrays the difference between the son (in his early sixties) who stops writing novels early and the father who is 83 and still goes into his law office every day, bringing bran cereal for his 10AM cereal and coffee ritual. Guterson published this novel when he was 65, and is clearly grappling with a decision as to whether to go on writing. To be clear, this novel is fiction, but Guterson is an author and his father was a criminal defense attorney. He may have disguised some of the facts, but the story has the ring of truth. The old man takes on public defender cases, as he has his whole life, and dies of a stroke while wrapping up the defense of a despicable woman who has murdered her adopted daughter through neglect. The narrator then contemplates death for a few months and concludes, as Auden did, that in the end all there is is love: “We must love one another or die” (from “September 1, 1939”). Again, the plot does not satisfy and the story of child abuse by fundamentalist parents appalls, but Guterson’s comparison of a “green” old age and an old old age, the contrast of early retirement and dogged perseverance, has much to recommend it.