FEBRUARY 12, 2014
WE’LL ALL SOME DAY be crooked and shrunken, bent before the mercy of the medical system. Into a hospital, each of us will bring our own pains, weaknesses, history, and fate. The ER doesn’t care how we measure beauty. We get a chart. There are certain hours we can be visited, and certain things we can expect from the people who are supposed to care.
Lore Segal’s slim new novel, Half the Kingdom, presents a sci-fi pandemic while at the same time suggesting that a mass rush of illness is a perfectly natural — even expected — byproduct of the way we live now. How we carry ourselves near the end — individually and together — is the ultimate measure in this 85-year-old Pulitzer finalist’s delicate, dark, complicated, and beautiful story.
The action begins when a body falls out of the sky. In an office on an upper floor, Joe Bernstine is the wacky but effective former head of a Connecticut think tank who has decided to create an encyclopedia, “The Compendium of End-of-World Scenarios.” He’s worked with Nobel winners, so you know he’s legit. His staff these days is more modest. There’s his son, who can fix the computers. Then there’s old friend Lucy, the writer, who will read the books that have been written about the apocalypse, and will — in her capacity as the book’s center — help offer up Segal’s own version. To scowl at Lucy and push around paper, there’s Beth, Lucy’s sour daughter.
At first, there’s so much waiting, with everyone in the office trying to imagine what the end of the world might look like. The reader becomes accustomed to the razor-sharp daily and hour-by-hour reality of these characters, and the contrast between their inanity and what’s coming. Assembling a computer takes an entire morning. Let’s have lunch, shall we? First:
Lucy stood at the window and watched nothing happen. In the office building across the courtyard — the building that must front 58th Street — someone sat at a computer. On the floor right above, a woman brought a plant to the window and watered it and did not know what lay in the courtyard twelve floors below, where a door had opened.
“‘Interesting,’ Lucy said to Bethy who stood beside her, ‘the long beat between something happening and the world taking any notice.’”
Something has happened: An elderly black woman has jumped to her death. What drove her to go, and what will bring her — and everyone else in the story — to a nearby hospital, is the menacing engine of what is actually a pretty scary meditation on inaction and not knowing, on the lines between good and bad, alive and dead, ill and well.
In an emergency room, the apocalypse team assembles. Why are the city’s elderly all going insane? Segal renders the situation against the buzzing democracy of a waiting room, the powerlessness, and the desperation of any ER. Of the crew, Lucy is tapped to be admitted, to see what she can see. She puts on a gown. After all, it’s the writer’s job to pretend to be patient.
We hear about the last time Lucy has been in the ER, for the death of her husband. It’s a traumatic event, but what can you do about a tough time? With Lucy ‘s gaze — gentle, intelligent, melancholy — we see in the hospital a series of devastating collisions, sharp turns, and allusions to how close all of us are to passing through that gate to the other side. Then, when Lucy can’t read her own chart, it seems that something even larger is at stake.
At its deepest registers, it’s actually the Holocaust that haunts the book’s feelings about death and the cruelty of its bureaucratic manifestations. In other words, hospitals do not look good in this book, nor do the staff members that are obliged to treat their patients like prisoners, and the facilities that come to feel like places for the unwanted to die.
Here’s one ostensibly demented patient, speaking with clarity for the first time in years, and it’s hard to blame her for being catatonic so long:
“Summer 1935, before they closed the swim baths. Juden ist der Eintritt Verboten. We used to go every Sunday and stay all day […] Poldi, best figure of anybody, but it was Berta who had the loveliest face. Here’s your father, a little man. Onkel Igo. Maxl, Terry. You see where I’ve put their names on the back. When I’m gone who will remember who they ever were?”
It’s people like Lucy and Lore Segal — and if we’re lucky, you and me — who participate in the often unloved and/or underappreciated act of writing things down so that none of us can forget. The dark truth is that to be a loving, sentimental, ecstatic observer of the world is to be, according to medical norms and establishments’ ability to care for us, a little bit insane. Better to enjoy life and not to ask questions!
“I always think of the painting by Miró, at the Met,” [Lucy’s elderly friend Jenny muses.] “The card next to it quoted him saying, ‘I confess that I look at real things with increasing love’ and you know what things? ‘the fuel lamp, potatoes.’ Things,” Jenny says, “and the holes they make in the fence so I can see the new building going up. The doggy bag. A mother and a baby smiling at each other and the cabbie who understands about little boys and their bears. My neighbor putting a quarter in the meter to save a stranger getting a ticket. Walking on Madison Avenue, my bed, my own apartment […] They’ve diagnosed me with bipolar depression stuck in a phase of permanent euphoria.”
Both funny and tragic, delightful and dizzyingly complex, Half the Kingdom feels whole.