As much as we hold onto such over-used clichés as “70 is the new 50,” Lore Segal’s novel gives us all something to think, and/or worry about! The very first scene takes place in a busy emergency room. A physician comments to the man she is examining, upon overhearing a commotion in the next bed, “That’s our third patient gone berserk in one day.” She then tells him about her chief, “Our Dr. Stimson is starting a log of all the sixty-two –pluses who go around the bend.”
The patient, Joe Bernstein, himself in the terminal stages of disease, is not “going around the bend,” is not sitting and waiting for the end. Instead, he begins work on a rigorous project, an encyclopedia, The Compendium of End-of-World Scenarios. He invites a group of quirky but sincere people to be his research assistants. They gather in a rented office right in the heart of Manhattan to plan their study. They represent the friends and family we all recognize as players in the aging journey. We meet Joe, his wife, their cranky daughter, a couple of young men, and the feisty writer mom of one of them. The subjects of their investigation are a cross-section of aging people, in and out of the same ER, with familiar back stories including dementia, family abandonment, Holocaust life trauma, hallucinations, and deep despair. They struggle with worry, annoyance, anger, and fear. With them we consider all possible causes of the declining days, including Joe’s own conviction in a conspiracy theory. He says of the terrorists, “They have to drive us insane, while keeping us indefinitely alive. We are dealing with an enemy of enormous sophistication, ingenuity, and patience.”
This engaging story is played out against the very timely backdrop of an emergency room in our current health care pandemonium. With wry humor, biting sarcasm, and terrific character interplay, Lore Segal calls the question: did these folks all come in “around the bend” or go there after being in the emergency room? Whoever we are — the aging parent, the care-giving child, a sympathetic friend — we leave, after a rollicking read, with more respect for the worrisome aging process.
Read Beth Kissileff’s interview with Lore Segal here.