In her slender fifth novel, her first book since the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Shakespeare’s Kitchen in 2007, 85-year-old Lore Segal has written an eccentric and slightly manic parable about one of contemporary America’s last taboos: old age.
At the fictional Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in New York City, something is amiss among the “sixty-two-pluses,” who appear to be exhibiting inexplicable symptoms of a rapid-onset dementia. The rash of admissions of elderly patients, who are told that “all their vitals are good” even as their mental status deteriorates, sparks talk among the medical staff of a “copycat Alzheimer’s.”
Into this bizarre environment steps Joe Bernstine, retired head of a respected think-tank who’s now an acolyte of the apocalyptic preacher Harold Camping and who devotes his life to his work on an encyclopedia called The Compendium of End-of-World Scenarios. Joe, only recently recovered himself from a near-fatal illness (when asked by his irascible daughter what he’s smiling about, he replies, “Not being dead yet.”), is recruited by the hospital in something of an undercover operation to seek out the cause of this mini-epidemic.
The complex tapestry of relationships into which Segal weaves her characters—spouses, parents and children, siblings, lovers and friends—is reminiscent of a Robert Altman movie. She moves somewhat arbitrarily from one character to another, offering glimpses of each one’s predicament before quickly shifting her focus, creating a novel that’s more a collection of sketches than a conventional narrative.
Though their entrances are dramatic and inexplicable, the characters who make their way to the hospital’s Senior Center are no different from the millions of aged people who find themselves alone and isolated at the end of life. Half the Kingdom is more wistful than didactic in shining the light of satire on that tragic fact.