Sunday, March 16, 2014

"Half the Kingdom," by Lore Segal

I have such contradictory feelings about Lore Segal’s recent short novel, “Half the Kingdom” (Melville House, 2013) that I hardly know where to begin. On 7/22/13, I wrote here about my admiration for her 2007 novel “Shakespeare’s Kitchen.” One of the main characters in “Half the Kingdom” – Joe Bernstine – was also a main character in “Shakespeare’s Kitchen”; a few other characters have also appeared in her earlier novels. So, the contradictions in my feelings: This current novel is short, fragmentary, constantly interrupts itself, and often feels frustrating and unsatisfying to read. On the other hand, Segal compellingly describes the world of the emergency room at a large New York City hospital, a chaotic world that seems to represent life in the 21st century and especially life as it is for the aging. The premise is that all patients over 62 arriving at the emergency room start “going around the bend,” in an epidemic of what one doctor terms “copycat Alzheimer’s.” Joe Bernstine, the retired director of the Concordance Institute (the site of the earlier novel “Shakespeare’s Kitchen”) is conducting a sort of unofficial, semi-secret, slightly mad research project investigating this epidemic. He enlists some of his relatives and friends to do undercover research, but they themselves, or at least those over 62 themselves, get caught up in the drama when they pose as patients, leading to questions about the thin line between the investigators and the investigated. There is a certain Kafkaesque quality to the story, and the novel itself quotes Kafka. Yet there is also much justified questioning and wisdom about the state of medicine, of the country (including references to Abu Gharib), strained family relationships, and most of all, the state of life for aging people. (I must say, though, that the thought of counting those 62 years of age as “aging” doesn’t sit well with me! But this is perhaps in fact how the world looks at those of this age or older. And it is important, as I have written here before, to have more fiction illuminating the lives of older characters.) The novel has been described as “darkly comic” and I suppose that is a good description; there is definitely humor and there is definitely darkness. At times it seems the humor overtakes the darkness, perhaps because it would be too depressing for readers otherwise. In any case, I still admire this wonderful writer, Lore Segal, but I am also not quite sure what to make of this quirky, hard-to-classify, irritating, thought-provoking novel, “Half the Kingdom.”


  1. Steph, reading about the premise of this novel made me think about an actual recent phenomenon that has been bugging me: the "Senior ER", as they call it at a local hospital here. They have tv ads promoting this, and the idea is that "seniors" (age 65 and up) have different medical "needs", and that this kind of triaging will allow them to get the best care for their gerontological stage. Or something like that. I picture people being shunted off to a nice, slow quiet place where perhaps the emergency care is not so emergent. Or perhaps pushed down a chute which will then branch off, as needed, into a nursing home, and then perhaps a final chute... It doesn't take much of a leap for me to conjure a Kafkaesque nightmare. Wonder if the author's imagination was piqued by those same rosy ads...

    1. Mary, wow, I hadn't heard of such special senior emergency rooms! I didn't include this in my post, but this novel did in fact include a special senior center room, far away through various wings and elevators. "Seniors" who came to the main ER and exhibited any symptoms that could possibly attributed to their age were taken up there. So what you write is exactly in tune with Segal's vision. Both scary!


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