When You Are Feeling Old and Adventure Is A New Brand of Dryer Sheets: Read Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal
By Jennifer Clements
It could be the day you’re struck by multi-colored wind suits in the display window of a shop and realize that, oh yes, that crap from the 80s could in fact be considered “vintage.” Or the day that your reflection in the bathroom mirror reveals more gray hairs sprouting from your scalp than you can comfortably uproot at once. Or the night you find yourself out past midnight, yawning into your mojito and wishing you were home with your pet bird and your new knitting needles. Or the day you realize that adventure is a new brand of dryer sheets. It happens to you, just as it happens to everyone else: you find yourself feeling decidedly old.
On that day, read Lore Segal’s latest novel, Half the Kingdom, which provides us with a reminder to savor the thrills of lucidity while we may. But as we pluck each gray hair from our heads, we are also reassured that, despite the perils of the aging process, one’s bifocal years don’t preclude a few bouts of absurdity and adventure.
A hospital satire, Half the Kingdom follows conspiracy theorist and lovable quirk Joe Bernstine. A former head of a Connecticut think tank, he’s invested his post-retirement time and resources in a passion project—developing The Compendium of End-of-the-World Scenarios, an encyclopedia and guidebook to any plagues, earthquakes, meteors, or melted polar icecaps that could potentially do us all in. And he’s persuaded some friends and their grown children to assist in this effort.
When a woman leaps from the roof of a nearby office building, it signals a state of emergency among his apocalypse team. Who was she? Why did she jump? Their investigation leads them to the Cedars of Lebanon hospital, where a crisis is underway—every person above age sixty-two has been stricken with severe dementia: patients, caregivers, and visitors alike. Like a good conspiracy theorist, Joe believes it’s all an extensive terrorist plot. Clearly some villainous organization has bioengineered the “copycat Alzheimer’s” that’s been spreading through the hospital. It is, at least, an easier enemy to confront than one’s own age and mortality. With everyone over age sixty-two slightly out of their heads, Half the Kingdom takes us into the minds of the afflicted as Joe and his crew go undercover to unravel the imagined bioterrorist threat.
Like any good satire, Half the Kingdom packs some serious commentary beneath its zany characters and off-the-wall events. It serves at once as an indictment of the present healthcare system in America and an objection to the archetype of the octogenarian fading into obsolescence, one game of Bridge at a time. Indeed, if there is a villain in this novel, it is the hospital itself—and all others like it. If there is a hero, it is the troupe of active and sharp-witted, if somewhat loopy, senior citizens, who take it upon themselves to investigate the outbreak.
As disjointed and fragmented as the memory of one of her Alzheimer’s patients, Segal’s narrative unfolds in snapshot scenes which take place both inside the hospital and through the memory of the hospital’s patients. Yet while the well-crafted and respectfully comedic depictions of the aged grant this book much of its mind and heart, they also carry a larger meaning.
The day you long for the bygone years of delirious schemes and good old-fashioned teenage revolt, read Half the Kingdom and remember there is always another authority or institution to be questioned. Read it and remember that inquiry, investigation, adventure, and rebellion are not just for the young and idealistic.