“Losing It” explores growing old through an assemblage of tales and lessons drawn from works of the past—the Icelandic Sagas, the classics, the Bible, the Torah—to which the author adds a plenitude of his own dicta and pensées, slinging the whole contraption together on a webbing of extrapolation and free association.
Losing It by William Ian Miller. Yale University Press, 328 pages. $27.
By Katherine A. Powers
It may once have been true, as John Jay Chapman wrote, that ”every generation is a secret society and has incommunicable enthusiasms, tastes and interests which are a mystery both to its predecessors and to posterity.” But he died in 1933, well before the so-called Baby-Boom generation arrived on the scene to broadcast interminably, in all possible ways and in every detail, its own fascinating concerns. Right now the big one is the unfortunate matter of getting old, a terrific affront to a generation who thought anyone over 30 was essentially dead. The nostrums, devices, routines, surgeries, and programs on aging—or rather on fending off its unpardonable effects—are without number, as are books on the subject. Here before me I have—to give it the full treatment, Losing It: In which an aging professor laments his shrinking brain, which he flatters himself formerly did him noble service: A plaint, tragic-comical, historical, vengeful, sometimes satirical and thankful in six parts, if his memory does yet serve. It is the work of William Ian Miller, a professor of law and author of a number of other books including the highly regarded Anatomy of Disgust (1997).
The “It” in question, according to Miller who likes nothing so much as refining a point, “refers mainly to mental faculties—memory, processing speed, sensory acuity, the capacity to focus” and also to the other parts of the body that are decaying. “This ‘it,’” he goes on, “whether mental or physical, is more general, and the process of losing it more drawn out, than when ‘it’ stands for a cell phone or virginity, each of which can be lost in mere seconds of thoughtlessness.” Thus the book begins, and thus it continues with every idiom, concept, or passing thought squeezed of all possible by-products to wearying effect.
But to return to the Miller’s ostensible subject: getting old. He explores that predicament through an assemblage of tales and lessons drawn from works of the past—the Icelandic Sagas, the classics, the Bible, the Torah—to which he adds a plenitude of his own dicta and pensées, slinging the whole contraption together on a webbing of extrapolation and free association. I may as well just say it: This is a really annoying book not only because it lacks coherence and is padded out with miscellaneous filler, objets trouvés, and by-the-ways, but also because it abounds in specious pronunciamentos, hairballs of “wisdom” that just aren’t any good or even true: “All cultures,” he informs us, “must have rituals of self-abnegation or, for instance, there would be no apology.” True? False? N/A? Elsewhere he declares that a “truth about the chronic complaints of life’s daily annoyances” is that the “particular annoyance you are complaining about generally goes away or ceases to matter, unless you are complaining about old age.” Really? What of physical disability, mortal disease, poverty, persecution, and odious neighbors, just to mention five blights of humanity?
Miller begins the book by going over the brain’s shrinkage and deterioration from the age of 30 on but also notes that the upside of possessing an aging, decomposing brain is, at least according to surveys, that older people are happier than younger people. Later, he offers a further explanation for this pleasant state of mind, which is that formerly plain or ugly people (who are in the majority, according to him) have a “special treat” in store for them in old age, in that they will feel “delight” in the gratifying fact that “the nice-looking people who treated them with contempt are now not differentiable from themselves in the eyes of the young.” And here we have themes which run through the book like toxins: schadenfreude and resentment. Add to this his other preoccupations, complaining, humiliation, and revenge, and you are not looking at a bowl of cherries.
Miller’s interest in revenge is at least understandable as he is, apparently, an authority on the Icelandic Sagas where revenge is central and, to my mind, entirely satisfying. But he mines the concept—as he does everything—well beyond its capacity to produce meaning. “Not very differently from revenge cultures, we still feel we are owed when a loved one dies, or else someone else has it coming.” I don’t know who this “we” is but it doesn’t include me or anyone I know. Still, to proceed with the lesson: “Welcome the market,” Miller continues, “which answered the need rather nicely, doing the pious work of assuaging rage that might otherwise have been directed at God, or burned the old lady next door whom the shaman fingered as a witch. Life insurance provides compensation in lieu of revenge. Somewhat overstated,” (he admits) “but not false for all that: life insurance is blood money.” I don’t know about the market, but if you buy that you’ll buy anything.
I suppose the real goal of this book was to achieve a satisfactory word count to support its eminently saleable title, but the result has not been a happy one. To be sure, Miller brings a spirit of festive malice to the subject of getting old—when he can stay on the subject and forego dipping into “the ungauged reservoir” of his mind, as George Eliot said of Mr Casaubon. And I, personally, am all for showing the darkly comic side of getting old, but perhaps it is best represented in art. Certainly it has been realized magnificently in novels, among them Muriel Spark’s Momento Mori, William Trevor’s The Old Boys, Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up, Evelyn Waugh’s Basil Seal Rides Again, and Jane Gardam’s Old Filth. That’s what I’d read if I were looking for laugh about life’s slippery slope to the grave.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.