Throughout June we'll be posting about the career of Merrill Joan Gerber. I've asked some writers to take a look at her work from the 60's through last year and will most likely write a post or three myself during the month.
Merrill Joan Gerber is exactly the type of author we had in mind when we created the Dzanc Books rEprint Series. One of our goals with the series is to bring back great works of literature in eBook format and find a new readership and discussion for these works and authors. Merrill Joan Gerber's outstanding body of work deserves the attention that the eBook format will offer her.
Gerber has published over a dozen critically acclaimed books. She's frequently had her writing compared to greats such as Bellow and Roth. She's had stories selected for both the Best American Short Story series and the O.Henry Prize anthology series. She's had a novel win a Pushcart Editors' Book Award and had another receive the Ribalow Award from Hadassah Magazine for the "best English-language book on a Jewish theme." The L.A. Times listed her Anna in the Afterlife as a Best Novel of 2002. Cynthia Ozick has called Gerber "one of the masters."
Across the eleven stories featured in Anna in Chains, Merrill Joan Gerber offers readers varying glimpses into elderly life and the world of a nursing home. A linked collection, Anna in Chains invites the reader into the perspective of cantankerous and spunky Anna Goldman, a former piano player and widow who progresses from the independence of her mid-70s into the decreased mobility and nursing-home confinement of her late-80s. What is truly remarkable about the collection is that it manages to make the reader feel confined along with Anna, and also ruminate on the lack of elderly protagonists in American fiction and what it means to grow old in our society.
Early in the collection, Anna is mobile: she still visits her two daughters and their children, she still complains about her Armenian neighbors, and she still notices with shock the bared midriffs and open sexuality of those around her in the changing world of Los Angeles, a world still turning away from the mass fear of AIDS in 1998 when the collection was originally published. As the collection progresses, the wide-open and liberal landscape of Los Angeles serves as a counterpoint to the realm of the nursing home. Anna falls; she loses the independence of her own home. She loses the ability to freely visit her family, to walk Santa Monica Boulevard, to notice the diversity of the city around her, to be part of the live-studio audience of The Phil Donahue Show with her sister. Her world instead becomes one of “Wheel of Fortune, Meals on Wheels, poker, little tiny portions of milk frozen in margarine containers to last the week.”
As Anna’s world narrows her mind expands, growing more and more active within the nursing home. She finds herself underestimated, assumed to be shell of her once-self. She also finds herself frustrated, confined not only by her surroundings but by her own body too, in decline while her mind remains active and alert. This disconnect is hauntingly expressed: “The skin of her face was an accordion of the days of her life, folded one upon the other. This was what was left of her. What counted was inside, invisible.” Anna recognizes her own dismissal by nurses, orderlies, and even by her own children. Gerber captures masterfully the ways in which the elderly are neglected and ignored, and how both the body and the hospital become cages for a woman who knows her own character as unbound by age. Anna resists her evolution into obscurity, a backward march of time: “She was becoming an infant without teeth, a baby who peed in bed, who couldn’t walk, who couldn’t turn over herself, a baby who was going backward into the sea of time till soon she’d sink under, her head disappearing, and be gone.”
Upon finishing Anna in Chains, the reader may view his or her surroundings in a new light. He or she may also reflect with surprise on how little the end of life features in American fiction. The nursing home is a rarely addressed reality of old age, a landscape most readers and writers would rather ignore. Merrill Joan Gerber evokes this landscape with pain and precision, and through Anna’s compelling voice. Anna in Chains is a brave collection, one not easily set aside when finished. Gerber pulls back the veil on what it means to age, and what it means to be immobile and at the mercy of being forgotten.