Nursing Home Lit: From B. S. Johnson to Clyde Edgerton

B. S. Johnson:  Not a Likely Candidate for Nursing Home Lit

B. S. Johnson: Not a Likely Candidate for Nursing Home Lit

As Baby Boomers explore “eldercare” options and help their parents move into assisted living facilities and nursing homes, some have written novels about the lives of the elderly.

Nonfiction is crucial for research, but fiction helps us emotionally understand the hidden culture of old age.

I felt the need to read about others’ experiences after a relative nearly died twice in two months in an assisted living facility.

And somehow I began to collect fiction about old age.  There is quite a lot of it.  Here are a few titles.

1.    Pre-Baby Boomer Nursing Home lit:   B. S. Johnson’s 1971 experimental novel, House Mother Normal.

house-mother-normal-  b. s. johnsonI read about this reissued novel recently in the TLS (part of my self-improvement program is to read literary criticism:  actually, the TLS is  fun to read, or I wouldn’t bother).

Johnson’s House Mother Normal consists of  interior monologues by the eight residents of a charity home for the elderly and the house mother.

The book is very short, and can be read in a couple of hours.  If you like Beckett or Joyce, you’re in luck.

But honestly this is a very easy “experimental” read.  Although the residents’ accounts of a  Social Evening at the home at first seem fantastic, their memories of the past are realistic.

You know things are not as they should be at the home, but it takes a while to put it all together.

Each monologue begins with some stats from the patient’s file.

Sarah, a 71-year-old widow, one of the most agile and alert of the residents, is concerned about the strange work assignments and the games organized by the house mother.  After dinner Sarah is put to work scraping labels off bottles, while some of the others roll paper to make Christmas crackers.

Sarah thinks,

“Good deed indeed, she must make something out
of all this, though it’s not sweated labour by
any manner or means, I will say that for her, it’s
not arduous, and she can’t get much for
these Christmas crackers they make…”

They are forced to play games.  When they play Pass the Parcel and the parcel is opened, Sarah tells us it’s shit.  You think, What is it really?  It can’t be shit, can it?

Then they play a game where the mobile residents push the ones in wheelchairs and they have a “tourney” with mops.

You keep thinking, Wait, this can’t be right.

What’s going on?

Charlie, a 78-year-od pianist, has been told after dinner to pour some liquid into bottles.  He thinks:

“Suppose this must be liquor of some sort.  My sense
of smell is nearly gone.”

He wonders if the house mother is selling it to clubs.

A few of the residents are so bewildered that their monologues are blank pages or only a few words on a page.

The abusive house mother’s monologue brings everything together.

“They are fed, they are my friends.  Is this not enough?”

The horrors of this home are endless.  The residents’ perceptions are surprisingly accurate.

But it ends with a metafiction.

Excellent novel, but now back to the traditional.

2..  At the heart of Clyde Edgerton’s  Lunch at the Piccadilly, a humorous, moving novel about residents in a nursing home, is Carl, the kind, dutiful, unexciting, unmarried nephew who visits Aunt Lil and drives her and her cronies to the Piccadilly for lunch.  Driving represents freedom for the residents, who are otherwise stuck gossiping on the porch. Lil hopes one day to drive home to her apartment.

lunch-at-the-piccadilly-edgerton3.  Tessa Hadley’s stunning novel, The London Train, begins with the death of  Paul’s mother in a nursing home.  He mourns her, but is relieved that her life in the home was not prolonged.  The administrator explained she had wandered out into the garden on the night of her death, making “one of her bids for freedom,” and was found 20 minutes later. The death seemed unrelated to the escapade.  (It is not nursing home fiction per se, but it is on my list anyway.)

london train tessa hadley4.  Jill McCorkle’s new novel, Life After Life, tops my Nursing Home Lit TBR list.  The description says it is about the residents, staffers, and neighbors of a retirement home.

Let me know if you have other recommendations for Nursing Home Lit.