Writing about Alonso Quijada, the fictional man who declared himself Don Quixote, Milan Kundera traced the twinned roots of the novel thus: “since its birth, the novel is suspicious of tragedy… Poor Alonso Quijada. In the vicinity of his mournful countenance, everything turns into comedy.” In Half the Kingdom, Lore Segal’s sprawling cast of characters meets a similar fate – while they tilt toward the windmills at the end of the world, it’s us readers left to be tickled by Segal’s brilliant verve. The tragedy of living beyond one’s mental faculties pushes itself hilariously into the absurd in her latest novel. Segal pierces the darkest elements of writing and of being alive with pointed prose and absurdist farce.
While both the epigraph and the last line of Half the Kingdom are stolen from the Brothers Grimm, Segal’s characters aren’t your average school-aged fairy-tale protagonists. Many of them are closer to end of life than the beginning, and at the fictional Manhattan teaching hospital Cedars of Lebanon, this means that most of the cast is in danger – 62 marks the age at which one becomes vulnerable to a mysterious plague of dementia, “copy cat Alzheimer’s,” or simply having “gone around the bend.” A fog mysteriously descends onto the minds of the seniors at the hospital, including a group of New York literary types that long-time fans of Segal’s magical realist wit will recognize from her previous works.
There’s Lucy Friedgold, who it would seem was once the Zeus-loving title character from Segal’s 1977 novella Lucinella. Her days as divine consort are behind her and Lucy returns as a “barely e-mail literate seventy-five-year-old poet with emphysema” hell bent on getting a reply from an editor at “The Magazine” regarding the short-short story she’d submitted months ago. This lack of editorial response is her primary fixation, despite the recent loss of her husband, and witnessing another woman’s suicide (by multi-storey jump) just a week into Lucy’s new job as a researcher for a friend’s ambitious, possibly demented new project, The Compendium of End-of-the-World Scenarios.
Then there’s Ilka Weiss, who readers first knew as Ilka Weissnix, a Viennese refugee determined to see America in all her vastness, from Segal’s Her First American (1985). In Half the Kingdom she’s but another citizen of the state called confuddled old age. She vanishes down hospital corridors, while her daughter, Maggie, navigates the agonizing bureaucracy of hospital administration in order to locate the right kind of care for her ancient mum. Maggie makes calls and attends appointments but the bureaucrats who might help her are foggier than the minds of the demented seniors wandering through the novel.
Beneath her skewering of the inefficient systems of daily life, Segal takes wicked jabs at our collective longing to live forever. Somewhere between the bookended Brothers Grimm references (“And if they have not died, they are living to this hour”) a pair of elderly lovers are sitting in a cafe, near the window; glimpsing their reflection, one of the lovers thinks to herself that she looks just the way Diane Arbus might have seen her. Even on the brink of death, it’s life that makes us freakish.
Segal’s depictions of her characters’ desire to remember what clear thinking feels like are tiny terrors told in jokes, like when poor Ida Farsk is confronted by a triage nurse’s questions about just who she is and what’s wrong with her: “Not knowing had volume, was cloud-colored and located behind her eyes.” Segal gives weight, texture to an absence and drapes her reader in the eerie substance of what can be both woven and unraveled over the course of a life.
Half the Kingdom has an airy, farcical quality. The flighty rhythm of the novel as it breezes through the perspectives of its unwieldy cast feels looser than lips spilling the juiciest dirt. And like Lucinella before it, Half the Kingdom is gossip spun into gossamer – old friends colliding and new generations complaining and is such-and-such still alive and does so-and-so still work for this or that magazine? Both good and bad writers have been known to pillory their own sort, even their own lives, and Segal continues to best the best of them with her light hand and heavy comedy.