Margaret Drabble has written a novel about aging and death, which for American readers should make it as popular as a colostomy bag. That’s a pity because Drabble, 77, is as clear-eyed and witty a guide to the undiscovered country as you’ll find.
The ominous title of her new book, “The Dark Flood Rises ,” comes from a poem by D.H. Lawrence that you mustn’t post on the community bulletin board at Grandma’s retirement home. Among its menacing stanzas is this bit of advice:
Have you built your ship of death, O have you?
O build your ship of death, for you will need it.
Drabble’s feisty heroine, Francesca Stubbs, knows that ship is on its way, but she has no intention of waiting at the pier for its arrival. And don’t think “heroine” is too lofty a honorific for Fran. “Old age itself is a theme for heroism,” she insists. “It calls upon courage.” Newly single — again — and in her 70s, Fran has developed a survival plan that depends on outracing the Grim Reaper. “She needs to keep moving,” Drabble writes. “She seemed unable to settle down to being elderly, she was forever on the move, as though in perpetual flight, in a restless panic.” Living in constant denial of the inevitable, she is, nonetheless, infected with “relentless broodings on ageing, death and the last things.” She can’t get lines from “Macbeth” out of her head.
The irony of Fran’s perpetual motion — and a source of the novel’s humor — is that she’s annoyed by the way her fellow senior citizens resist their golden years, years that now stretch on further for more people than ever before. “She is perplexed and exercised by the way that now, in the 21st century, we seem to be inventing innumerable ways of postponing the sense of arrival, the sense of arriving at a proper ending,” Drabble writes. “The result, in so many cases, has been that we arrive there not in good spirits, as we say our last farewells and greet the afterlife, but senseless, incontinent, demented, medicated into amnesia, aphasia, indignity.”
Determined to avoid that fate, Fran, who always “dresses with bravado,” has dedicated her latter years to a charitable organization that evaluates nursing homes and retirement villages. She’s determined to study them, rather than be incarcerated in one of them. It’s a job that keeps her buzzing all over England, usually at high speeds. What better way to go, after all, than in a spectacular crash with a “complementary frisson of autonomy”?
And so once again, Dame Margaret, the author of more than two dozen books, has created a story that defies its own parameters. Gentler than Muriel Spark’s “Memento Mori ,” but no less honest, “The Dark Flood Rises” examines aging from liver spots to liver failure, but the novel’s humor vaccinates it from chronic bleakness. (We hear of one unfortunate man who slipped on some mail. Diagnosis: “Death by glossy magazine.”) Eschewing chapter divisions, the novel races along like Fran, pausing just long enough to take a breath before darting off to follow some other story line involving one of Fran’s friends or relatives.
There’s nothing schematic about the range of these characters, but eventually it becomes clear that they make up a kind of catalogue of doom. They live and move “in the world of obituaries now, in the malicious crepuscular light of memorial services.” One friend, although still in excellent health, has decided to meet old age halfway by proactively moving into a retirement home before she needs such support. (That she dedicates her free time to historical research on “Deceased Wife’s Sisters” is just the kind of erudite touch that makes Drabble so much fun.) Another of Fran’s friends is in hospice, but keeping up her spirits, as one must. And Fran’s ex-husband, whom she divorced “in a fit of self-righteous rage nearly half a century ago,” is now bedridden, which allows Fran the pleasure of bringing him meals and lording her spry health over him — such loving revenge.
All this might sound closed up like a sick room, but that danger is counteracted by a subplot in the Canary Islands, where, legend has it, Circe once promised Odysseus eternal life. In that gorgeous setting, Drabble explores the ramifications of a very different kind of death, along with the complications of aging for an older gay man and his younger partner. The wider world’s problems seep in, too. African immigrants are swimming up against Europe’s new xenophobia, and rumbling volcanoes threaten to unleash a tsunami that could wreck havoc as far away as England and New York. There’s a clear sense that Earth itself can hear “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”
Running through all these aging lives are recurring references to a London revival of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.” Although less famous than his “Waiting for Godot,” it’s the perfect complement to Fran’s manic efforts to stay above the ever-rising grains of sand collecting around her. Drabble never sinks to the level of Beckett’s despair, but she’s refreshingly frank about the tragicomedy of aging.
Remembering one of her dearly departed friends, Fran thinks, “She never said a dull word.”
The same might be said of Margaret Drabble.
Ron Charles is the host of the Totally Hip Video Book Review.
By Margaret Drabble
Farrar Straus Giroux. 327 p. $26