Should We Stay or Should We Go: A Novel
The premise of this novel about a couple in their fifties, who make a pact with each other to off themselves on their 80th birthday, is a study of themes that author Lionel Shriver investigates in her work: the inevitably of aging and death. And perhaps the meaning of life.
Both Cyril and Kay are medical professionals who have witnessed first-hand and repeatedly the indignities of slow death by decline of the elderly. Kay’s father diminished through Alzheimer’s over ten years, and by the time he faded into his last breath he had become a paranoid lunatic unable to fulfill the most common functions demanded by being alive in a physical body. The couple are determined not to allow such things to happen to them. They devise a suicide pact that will also show them to be politically sensitive and avoid this burden on the health system.
Early on in the novel, the inevitable day arrives, with both Cyril and Kay rather still functioning and healthy. Kay panics just before swallowing the saved pills. She texts her daughter, alerting her to the attempted double-suicide. Very soon after, as Kay is being revived by ambulance workers following her daughter’s emergency call, Cyril has already swallowed the pill and is dead in the shed.
So now what? The next, and following chapters are like Groundhog Day: the couple is miraculously alive, the same D-Day approaches, but Kay and Cyril respond to the challenge differently, with varied consequences each time.
With each permutation, we see these characters, with the same propensities, behave similarly in slightly different circumstances. In one scenario, Kay dies trustingly in Cyril’s arms, but Cyril, upon his wife’s death, suddenly reconsiders the promise he made to do the same. Thereafter his daughter (who received the text from Kay!) accuses him of murder—and he spends the rest of his days unhappily denying her accusations and missing his wife. In another they end up in a fabulous retirement village that more resembles a mental institution.
In this way, through short “what-if” novellas, the author explores the possibilities and realities of aging, serving up a smorgasbord of contemporary issues such as overpopulation, migration, Brexit, and societal changes due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, the more we see these two romping through the decidedly ambiguous pleasures of aging, the less they seem like individual characters, and the more they come across as “those old people.”
Each episode is a meditation on not only death and dying, on human nature in general, but also on the culture we find ourselves immersed in. Cyril, with his obsession over Brexit, his fiendish desire to write his (ultimately meaningless) memoir, becomes not a tragic character, but simply an inconsequential, ordinary Brit curmudgeon.
The repetition of the exercise, watching the characters face off against aging and dying in slightly different scenarios, 12 times in the novel, takes away the existential importance of this event in everyone’s life. Shriver, while attempting satire steals the basic tragic premise of our existence—What is the meaning of life in the face of inevitable death?—and turns it into a premise.
But it does get more interesting when Shriver proposes that an anti-aging drug is discovered that actually reverses the physical effects of aging. With this permutation, the author goes well into the future (when the world population balloons to 11.5 billion). Down this what-if rabbit hole, Shriver shines as a sci-fi speculative futurist. Her imagined scenarios, which depend on the premise that no one ages or dies (except in the “odd accident,” and “the perplexing raft of suicides”), include living long enough to be a tourist in every locale in the world, changing your skin color and sex, the scarcity of children, (who ultimately grow up to look like everyone else).
In this what-if, everyone gets to keep everything we now mourn losing: looks, agility, health, time—even lack of war. In this world, a beige quality descends on every discovery and turns it into a ho-hum event that is so common and so repeated by everyone else who looks like, acts like, and talks like everyone else. “The evidence was in,” Shriver concludes in this premise/scenario, “The betterment of only one human attribute was demonstrably boundless: the capacity to be dull as dog dirt.”
Cyril muses, “I still can’t get my head around what it means to be alive. I don’t know what this place is, I don’t know whether it’s even real, much less whatever it is we’re supposed to do here.” And Kay mourns, “Spiritually at least, we’re paralysed. We’re physically able to speak, but we can’t say anything new, so what’s the difference?”
There are more variations on scenarios, and many more questions, each one resonating with the inevitable one that Kay finally asks in one of her 2020 scenarios: “How much better are our lives going to get than they are right now? What are the chances that everything gets worse from here on out? Not only a bit worse. Loads worse?”
If you want to explore these themes and answer these questions, Shriver can’t help you, she can only ask.