TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Aging is a hot subject these days, particularly in memoirs. Cathleen Schine’s new novel explores how one character’s physical and mental decline ripples out and becomes a family affair. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, has a review of Schine’s novel called “They May Not Mean To, But They Do.”
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Cathleen Schine’s latest novel is full of pee. It opens on a Lear-like vision of an old man who stumbles out of his Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, urine-soaked pajamas and adult diapers collapsed around his ankles.
Images of the weak-bladdered follow – a poorly housebroken dog who requires puppy pads, an elderly woman who frequents the ladies’ room, a drunken young man charged with public urination.
Schine’s book, which is called “They May Not Mean To, But They Do,” may be the only novel I’ve ever read that relies on pee as its major symbol. And what a unifying symbol it is – cross-generational, stinging and humiliating. That omnipresent tinkle reminds us of our common fragility – of what a leaky vessel we’re all in throughout this voyage of life.
If Schine’s title sounds familiar, you know your nasty poetry. It’s from Philip Larkin’s infamous poem about family called “This Be The Verse.” The first stanza, which I must edit, reads – (reading) they bleep you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had and add some extra just for you.
That poem serves as Schine’s lodestar throughout this compact novel of manners about family, loss, aging and resilience. At one point, Joy Bergman, the 86-year-old Jewish matriarch of this tale, cites Larkin’s lines, but flips them, reflecting that her adult children can, in their own way, mess up their parents.
And the mixture of comedy and despair in Larkin’s verse has pretty much been Schine’s signature tone ever since her first novel, “Alice In Bed,” about a sexually active college student who finds herself partially paralyzed and stuck in a hospital room. Schine’s latest book takes readers back to the sick bed for a space.
But this time, the prone patient is at the end of his biblically-allotted life span. Aaron Bergman, the diapered and damp figure I alluded to earlier, is dying of old age. The early chapters of this book dramatize what a toll Aaron’s long fall through palliative care to hospice to death takes on his wife, adult children and grandchildren.
Through the novel’s omniscient narrator, we get a panoramic vision here of exhaustion. For instance, daughter Molly, who lives in California with her wife, flies back to New York several times within a few months to tend to her parents, to try to organize their medications in little plastic boxes labeled with the days of the week and set up Spotify and program it to endlessly play Frank Sinatra.
Joy suffers a minor stroke and a scary infection, courtesy of her close daily contact with her dying husband’s colostomy bag. When Aaron finally does die, it’s a relief to his family and a mundane tragedy. Here’s Joy waking up in the apartment the couple shared for decades.
(Reading) Joy woke up. And as usual, Aaron was dead. What was coming was clear to her. And it was a vast emptiness – a blank, much like the winter with its white horizon, dense and low – no distance to the sky at all. Her daughter Molly had gotten her a medical alert contraption that came with a wristband with a button on it. Sometimes, she pushed the button by accident and a man’s voice from the machine asked her if she was all right. It was company.
I bet some of you are thinking, who needs a novel about colostomy bags and grief? Oh, but you do need Schine’s novel. At least, you do if you’re a reader who relishes acute psychological perceptions and lots of laughs to leaven the existential grimness, like those other literary domestic goddesses to whom she’s sometimes compared, Jane Austen and Nora Ephron.
Schine can’t help but crack a joke at the most inappropriate moments. Thus, we’re told that poor Aaron was prescribed various painkillers that teenagers in shrinking Midwestern towns abused. The fun and bad behavior really kicks into high gear when the widow Joy meets an old flame who proposes to lift her out of her grief.
That’s when her loving adult children begin behaving like the graying toddlers that deep down they also still are. Does anyone really ever do anyone else any good? That’s the question this sparkling and sad novel mulls over and answers with a wry shrug. After all, as Larkin told us, imperfect as we may be, we’re all we’ve got.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed “They May Not Mean To, But They Do” by Cathleen Schine. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review the posthumously released final album by pianist and songwriter Allen Toussaint. This is FRESH AIR.
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