When the End of Life Seems Endless

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By Lionel Shriver

When we meet them in their 50s, the Wilkinsons, Kay and Cyril, a married couple, she a nurse and he a doctor in Britain’s National Health Service, she a blowzy free spirit who likes her wine, he an earnest socialist intoxicated by his own virtue, are considering whether they should kill themselves. Not immediately, but in due time. They have their reasons.

Kay’s father, a victim of dementia, has just expired after a long decline. For Kay, her father’s “infinite dotage” was a demoralizing ordeal that grated on her senses — its smells, its messes — and seemed to take years off her own life. For Cyril, a man who tends to overthink things in a bloodless utilitarian way and is always alert to the interests of the collective, the drawn-out death of his father-in-law was proof that aged people linger too long on earth, consuming medical and social resources that are best devoted to younger folks.

And so, over drinks one night, Cyril proposes a plan that he hopes will save his wife and him — not to mention the state — a lot of bother. When they turn 80 (or rather when Kay turns 80, because she is a few months younger than he) they will down an overdose of sleeping pills that Cyril has already stashed in the refrigerator, 30 years ahead of time. Kay is skeptical of this plan at first, but after noticing one day that her mother has started to grow forgetful, she tells her husband: “I’m all in.”

With the winding of this fatalistic clock, which requires only a few pages and transpires in the form of chipper banter reminiscent of a Noël Coward comedy, we find ourselves in the realm of the high-concept. We are reading a novel of issues, a thesis novel concerning euthanasia and medical rationing. It’s not ripped from the headlines, perhaps, but neatly clipped from them, its manner quippy, satirical and arch, its characters capable of op-ed-style rants on the questions at hand, and on many others too. Current affairs such as the Brexit vote are the couple’s abiding interest, even more than their own children (or so it seems). For example, here is Cyril on the pandemic, which happens to strike in the novel as the Wilkinsons are approaching their long-contemplated last act:

“I’ve studied the data. That weedy, doom-mongering computer modeler at Imperial College London who predicted 510,000 British deaths without draconian intervention — he has his head up his backside. The ponce may have Boris in his thrall, but Neil Ferguson has overestimated the lethality of the virus by at least an order of magnitude.”