Should We Stay or Should We Go

At the beginning of the vaccine distribution, I was inordinately miffed at somehow being classified as too young to be vaccinated. Having overcome my umbrage, I found Lionel Shriver’s Should We Stay or Should We Go had me considering old age again. Although the author is 64, she uses 80 as the marker for the beginning of being “really old.”

When her father dies after a long and debilitating illness, Kay Wilkinson can’t cry; she is relieved. Determined to die with dignity, her husband Cyril makes a proposal. To spare themselves and their loved ones such a humiliating decline, they should agree to commit suicide together once they’ve both turned eighty – end it all before it gets any worse. A medical Doctor, Cyril has access to Seconal and neatly places the pills in a black box in the refrigerator, to be washed down with a good wine when the time comes.

Although the subject matter is morbid, Shriver uses Gallow’s humor to good advantage. I knew by page fifty there was not a simple solution to the dilemma of Kay and Cyril when the chapter title “The First Last Supper” promised more adventures to come. Shriver creates a parallel universe in alternate chapters, showing how their decision on that fateful birthday could resolve. If they cut their lives artificially short, what might they miss out on, or what horrors might they escape?

Shriver cleverly creates thirteen chapters of scenarios, including surviving cryogenics, being hit by a bus, using long-term health care to live at the London version of the Ritz old folks home, contrasted nicely with no health care and living on the government dole at a place right out of “Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” And she addresses the “five-minutes-to-12 syndrome” – the temptation to hang on until it’s too late, and lose the opportunity to decide anything. Sometimes it’s good to stay, sometimes it’s better to leave.

Some chapters have them leave; others have them stay, and Shriver, an American writer living in London conveniently connects the Leave or Stay to the Brexit vote. Later, the Covid pandemic shows them in two versions of lockdown, one in dire straits of near hunger and isolation, the other living so well they are reluctant to rejoin the fray after quarantine is lifted. Shriver also tackles the future of immigration and its unexpected effects on the old couple.

The topic is becoming popular: Roz Chast humorously addressed it in her New Yorker style cartoon book – Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant, and Derek Humphry’s 1991 self-published Final Exit: The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying, was on the New York Times bestseller list for over four months. Katie Engelhart’s 2021 book, The Inevitable, is about people determined to exercise control over their own deaths.

And yet, most of us will put up with anything rather than die. Shriver notes that most think “If they ever do die – not that most people believe in their heart of hearts that they ever will – they’ll be wise, warm, funny, and sound of mind until the very end, with doting friends and family gathered round.” But it doesn’t always work out that way.

My mother, who died at 94, after a life of never going to the hospital except to give birth, and 5 last days of slow decline, told me – “Noone wants to leave the party.” Shriver would caution – make sure there’s still a party.

At times disturbing and even gruesome, Shriver’s sardonic wit provided enough comic relief to keep me reading, and her ingenious possibilities kept me wondering what would come next.

A Dissection of Evening

9780375700262_p0_v2_s192x300   Discussing Susan Minot’s novel Evening did not change my view.  Minot’s language is beautiful and her stream of consciousness narrative promotes attention to the underlying current of a dying memory, however faulty, but her plot has the unrealistic dramatic tone better suited to the movie it later became.

Ann is dying at sixty-five from cancer, and as she slowly falls through to the last stages, with her daughters and son at her bedside, and the trusty nurse who administers regular doses of pain killers, she remembers a weekend when she was twenty-five.  As Ann relives the steamy love affair with Harris, a Don Juan secretly engaged to his pregnant fiancee, Ann mourns the loss of her one true love.   Minot would have the reader engage in the fantasy that the brief affair with a near stranger matters more than anything else that has happened in her life since then.  All of the realistic complications of her life as she goes on to marry (three times) and have children, seem to disappear in the morass of passion.  D.H. Lawrence would be proud of Minot’s evocative descriptions, but other authors (George Eliot, Edith Wharton) might question the power of a youthful passion to separate feeling over reason over a lifetime.

As Ann’s past slowly is revealed, her children and others around her speak of her as they know her now.  Minot has her main character slip away in the end, secure in her secrets.  No one knows her as well as she knows herself.

Have you read the book or seen the movie?

The Many – Suspense on the Man Booker Longlist

TheMany11       Throughout Wyl Menmuir’s short novel – The Many – Gothic undertones play on scenes full of dark and murky possibilities.  A sense of foreboding permeates the narrative, and Daphne du Maurier’s Cornwall with an abandoned house on the coast helps to set the scene.

The narrative alternates between the two main characters: Ethan, a local fisherman, and Timothy, an outsider who is renovating the old house left empty by the death of Ethan’s friend Perran for ten years.  Each character is battling personal demons, and as it progresses the story evolves into a fable with strange symbolism.

Death and grief figure prominently – the death of Perran, leaving a hole in the fishing community  so large the inhabitants fight to preserve his memory yet refuse to talk about him to Timothy – even resenting Timothy’s attempts to restore his old house.  When Timothy’s struggle with the death of his infant son surfaces later, with obscure dream sequences and haunting memories, the story falls away and changes – just like the flooding sea overtakes the village in the end. Suddenly, the reader must rethink the meaning of everything – the dead fish killed by chemicals, the blockade of large ships circling and imprisoning the cove, the mysterious woman in the gray suit who patiently watches from afar.  Are they more than they seem?  What do they represent in Timothy’s mind?  What is their connection to his solitude and his haunted existence?

Timothy struggles with the question the villagers do not want to hear or answer – “Who is Perran?”  And, the unspoken question – Why did he die?  When the name of his dead son is revealed, the reader cannot help but wonder if the village and the broken house were all a reason for trying to explain the unexplainable.

The Many is a gripping story, but the questions it raises and leaves unanswered could provoke a lively discussion, and the reader may need to reread this short book several times before getting close to understanding all of its complexity.

The Vegetarian

410gorh9G-L._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_   The winner of this year’s Man Booker International Prize, The Vegetarian by Korean author Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, is not what I had expected. With an innocuous beginning, the story quickly progresses from someone who has decided to become a vegetarian to a disturbed protagonist straddling fantasy and reality.  Like my recently reviewed Man Booker Finalist, A Little Life, The Vegetarian questions  whether it is better for the protagonist to survive or to die, and answers “…is it such a bad thing to die?”

Reviewers have used Kafka as the model for Han Kang’s storytelling.  Kafka was always a mystery to me, yet I remember a philosophy professor expounding on Kafka’s parables. His stories represented a world of anxiety, fear, and paranoia, but mostly strangeness, and always with a haunting ending. The Vegetarian meets all the criteria.

Although the focus of the book is Yeong-hye, the vegetarian, this slim book is narrated in three parts by others: Yeong-hye’s husband, who has an unsatisfactory office job; her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful visual artist; and her older sister, who owns a cosmetic store and works full-time to support her child and artist husband.

Yeong-hye’s mind crumbles slowly; at first, her demand to throw out all meat and refuse to eat meat seems reasonable, but she faces the fierce opposition of her father and her husband.  She battles tradition and becomes a victim of abuse.  Gradually, she loses weight and suffers from insomnia, eventually abandoning  any normalcy in her life.

After her husband leaves, her brother-in-law becomes obsessed with her and lurid yet strange erotic sex scenes follow.  Finally, her sister places her in an asylum  and the reader is treated with scenes of force-feeding and depression.  In the end, everyone deserts Yeong-hye – family, physicians, friends; all but her loyal sister, who at times thinks about abandoning her to find relief from watching her sister’s decline.

In the end, her sister’s wondering just how close she is herself to losing her own mind makes a case for the slim thread of sanity with which every person struggles.

Although The Vegetarian is short – under two hundred pages – it has a heavy and thoughtful impact and is not for everyone.  Underlying its themes of abuse, eating disorders, sexual assault, and violence, however, readers may find some relatable truth in the vegetarian’s journey.   Porochista Khakpour in a review for the New York Times  calls it “a parable of personal choice, submission and subversion.”  Kafka would be proud.


Prague Kafka Statue

Related Review:  A Little Life

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

9780525954682_p0_v2_s260x420Brooke Davis offers a humorous and thoughtful view of death, grief, and growing old in Lost and Found.  Motivated by the sudden death of her mother, the Australian author uses the voice of Millie Bird, an abandoned seven year-old, to examine loss. Millie’s mantra may seem harsh, but it is also reassuring:

You’re all going to die. It’s okay.

The story revolves around three main characters and a mannequin:  Millie Bird, a seven year old with an unusual interest in death  – abandoned by her widowed mother in the ladies underwear department; Karl the Touch Typist, an elderly refugee from assisted living, still mourning the death of his wife; Agatha Pantha, an 82 year old recluse, bitter over the death of her unfaithful husband; and Manny, the life-sized store dummy dressed in an Aloha shirt.

The four fugitives connect and start a road trip in search of Millie’s mother.  Led by the perspicacious Millie, who has dubbed herself superhero Captain Funeral,  the elders discover strength in breaking the rules – they are not dead yet.   As she changes voices, from the wise young heroine to the two adventurous elderly protectors, Davis observes and philosophizes about old age and death – and inserts a variety of irreverent scenes for comic relief.   The ending is hopeful and realistic, but not happy.

Davis includes her journal article “Relearning the World” in the appendix of this short tale (289 pages), offering clear insights into her mindset as she wrote the book. Telling the story as a seven year old gave her permission to be funny and quirky while revealing a thoughtful perspective on a difficult topic.