New Books with Old Characters – Otsuka, Ozick, and Guterson

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.

For other reviews of books pertaining to old age see here (Doerr, Osman, Tawada, Wilder), here (Alameddine, McNamer, Bauer, Englehart), here (Schwab, Goethe) or here (Huxley).


Old Characters, New Problems – Book Reviews

I  recently read a number of new and old books which feature older characters, and so would like to pass on some observations and recommendations.

I was excited about Anthony Doerr’s new book, as I had loved (and learned much from) his last novel, All the Light We Cannot See.  Cloud Cuckoo Land is a very different kind of book, and the main character is Zeno, an old man who thinks that life has passed him by until he connects with five young people whom the kind librarian sends his way.  Doerr writes about the endurance of story, as we follow an old Greek text through the centuries, until – encouraged by his young friends – Zeno turns it into a play, the performance of which is interrupted by an ecoterrorist attack.  In flashbacks, we follow the life of the manuscript, of Zeno, and the immature and misguided terrorist.  In flash forwards, we see Doerr contemplate what may be the fate of books, people, and the planet. It is all wonderful, but Zeno is the best of all, working on his Greek with the help of the library computers and exciting his young friends with the things he is still enthusiastic about.

In Richard Osman’s mystery, it is the old people who put the world to rights with their wisdom and experience and lack of self-importance (most particularly the latter).  The fact that they are continually underestimated and unnoticed works to their advantage.  The Man Who Died Twice is the second in Richard Osman’s series about this group of elderly sleuths; it is devastatingly funny and real.  His senior-living residents have all the challenges of old age: recovering after falls, bladder control, going into nursing homes, facing death.  One of the group has a husband at home in the early stages of dementia.  But the oldsters egg each other on, comfort each other, and care about the world that they know they will be leaving soon.  A really enchanting read – but please start with The Thursday Murder Club,  the first in this series.  I hope there will be many more.

Old age and climate change also are topics of concern in The Emissary by Yoko Tawada. This dystopian novel takes place in a secluded Japan after an undefined period of war and climate change.  The younger generations are growing weaker and weaker from pollution, radiation, who knows what else. (In the UK, the title of the book was Last Children of Tokyo.)  It is the old who are forced to be strong, to push the wheelchairs, provide food, take charge.  Our hero here is 108-year-old Yoshiro, who is taking care of his weak (but wise) great-grandson Mumei.  Retirement is unheard of – then there would be nobody to do the work.  The extremely old do what they need to do, but they still age, ache, falter:

Stumbling as he took his shoes off, Yoshiro rested a hand on the wooden pillar to steady himself, feeling the grain of the wood under his fingers.  The years are recorded in rings inside the trunk of a tree, but how was time recorded in his own body?  Time didn’t spread out gradually, ring after ring, nor was it lined up neatly in a row; could it just be a disorderly pile, like the inside of a drawer no one ever bother to straighten?

Yoko Tawada is a wonderful writer (The Emissary won the National Book award for a work in translation), and the novel has much to say about what we have done to the world around us and the possible consequences for future generations.  It is a book to read slowly and ponder.  It will scare you, but it will also give you faith in the ability of the old to persevere, to face the challenges that are presented to them.

I also re-read Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey  recently.  Surely you have read (or were forced to read) it many years ago.  If so, you probably did not fully appreciate the old characters –  the most memorable being the Marquesa de Montemayor.  The book purports to be based on the work of Brother Juniper, who is convinced that the death of five people when the old bridge collapses cannot be a random act.   In trying to make sense of their lives, he tries to make sense of all lives.  If you have never read it or cannot remember it, pick it up again some time and try to decide whether Brother Juniper comes to the right conclusion.

I cannot leave any discussion of recent books without recommending Richard Powers’ new novel Bewilderment.  For the most part, the characters are not old; the main character is a young boy.  But it is about memory and loss, climate change and mass extinctions, love and mourning.  It is about the promises and dangers of technology and what happens when we can’t bear what we are doing to the world.  And it is a good read.  If technology could put you in communication with a loved one you had lost, would you be interested?  This is a book that challenges us to think about the meaning of relationships – between people, between people and animals, between people and technology, between people and the earth. 

All of it is fine reading as we head into the colder, indoor months.  Enjoy.  There is a certain amount of divination in all these books, but if you want to read about bibliomancy (the process of divination through the use of books), try  my short story, “By the Book.”

Old Folks in the Stories That Formed Us

Salman Rushdie had an essay in the Sunday New York Times last week about what we learned from the books we loved in our younger days. While Mr. Rushdie’s juvenile reading list was very different from mine, I agree with his conclusions: “I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives.”  If this is true – and surely it is, at least in part – then what did those beloved books and stories tell us about getting old?  In the books of my youth, there seemed to be two kinds of old people – the  nasty ones (think of Aunt March in Little Women) and the nice ones (Mr. Laurence, also in Little Women).  Mr. Laurence has an  initially gruff exterior, but gradually reveals his good heart.   In fact, many of the aged characters in the books I read in my youth were first described as gruff and perhaps miserly, until “warmed up” by a young character.  This was the case with Mr. Laurence (warmed up by Beth), with the old Grandfather in Heidi, and with Silas Marner (perhaps middle-aged rather than old and brought back from his miserly life by his little charge Eppie).  

In fairy tales, the witches were often old (and ugly), while fairy godmothers could be young or old (but were always beautiful).  Old folks were often feeble or bedridden (think of Red Riding Hood’s grandmother).  Or silly.  There was an old woman who was stupid enough to swallow a fly, and Old Mother Hubbard had so many children she didn’t know what to do.  No role models there. 

In the Bible (I was a Sunday School child), living to be old was a sign that God liked you if you did the right things: “You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you will possess” (Deut. 5:33).  If you’re good you will thrive in old age: “Those that be planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God. They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be fat and flourishing.” And we should particularly be good to our old parents if we want to live long ourselves: “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be prolonged in the land which the Lord your God gives you” (Exodus 20:12).  Then there was old Simon in the New Testament who just wants to see the Messiah and die.  None of this particularly interested my younger self.

But when we were young, we were not looking for models of elderly people in literature.  We were looking for coming of age stories – stories that gave us hope, or at least some comfort that we were not alone in our angst.  In our old age, we are looking for a Vollendungsroman, a story about the end of life, the winding down.  It may be time to go back to those old stories.  Rushdie suggests that we may find a new emphasis in old stories.  “A book may cease to speak to us as we grow older, and our feeling for it will fade. Or we may suddenly, as our lives shape and hopefully increase our understanding, be able to appreciate a book we dismissed earlier; we may suddenly be able to hear its music, to be enraptured by its song.”

I reread Heidi a couple of years ago, and, while originally the spunky little girl was of the most interest to me, now the hero of the piece was the grandfather.  Alone and self-sufficient (and more than a little irascible) on the mountain with his goats, he is eventually able to garner the effort to take a little girl into his life.  I also had forgotten about Peter’s blind grandmother, to whom Heidi reads and with whom she develops a touching bond.  These characters were always in the book, but they escaped my younger imagination.   As a teenager, I was particularly taken with Salinger’s Franny and Zooey; going back to it I am reminded of the picture the young people conjured up of the imaginary Fat Lady for whom Seymour tells them they must perform – she is old and fat and cancerous and the very reason for life itself.  Michelangelo’s God is a very old man.  Christ is forever young, but God is always old. 

In any case, this is what Rushdie’s column made me think about.  Maybe it will inspire you to think about the stories that formed you and what they taught you about getting old – and what they could still teach you.

I continue to admire Franny and Zooey so much that I paid homage to Salinger in naming the characters in one of my novels (Order of the Stock Farm Jesus) – although I changed the spelling to Zoë and both characters are female (Salinger’s Zooey is the brother).  And while there is no Fat Lady in my story, it contains a formidable grandmother and a limestone Jesus.  There is an excerpt from that novel here.