Richard Alther, author of five novels, also creates abstract paintings like the two shown here.
Few topics are as fraught as the end of life. The external world constricts to a bed in a room. The internal world careens from the monumental (“Was I a good human being?”) to the mundane (“Can I make it to the bathroom?”).
This is the territory that author and artist Richard Alther, who splits his time between Palm Springs and Vermont, mines in his recently released fifth novel, Bedside Matters. Walter, a wealthy entrepreneur, is in the last stages of a degenerative neurological disorder that’s left him bedridden and dependent on paid caregivers, his days punctuated by visits from his ex-wife, son, and daughter. Although his age isn’t specified, Walter’s casual sexism and racism place him in a generation of older white men whose worldview is so entrenched that female ambition is a curiosity and the brown skin of his physical therapist is “exotic.”
Having crested the heady days of dealmaking, Walter’s priorities shift to humbling items of comfort — sippy cups, wheelchairs, sponge baths, and cushioned toilet seats. He gradually adapts to being completely reliant on other people. Rather than succumb to self-pity, he struggles to fix past mistakes, make amends, and tap into creative expression through painting and poetry — activities that, in his money-making prime, he might have dismissed as trivial.
On the advice of his daughter, Walter latches onto the work of Jalāl ad-Dīn Mohammad Rūmī, the 13th century Persian mystic generally referred to as Rumi, whose poetry arose from grief to encompass themes of joy, transformation, and divine love.
Walter enjoys Rumi’s playful puzzles. Others, such as the ego-dissolving admonition to “Be melting snow. Wash yourself of yourself,” are difficult for a man who achieved success by putting himself first, and Walter’s awkward attempts at generosity and empathy prove that deathbed conversions don’t always go well.
To portray universality, Alther says he took “a laser beam to one man, one experience,” choosing not to include the secondary characters’ interior lives. In light of the pandemic and racial reckoning, the omission is frustrating. Women do the majority of caregiving, sometimes at the expense of their own well-being, prompting critical but largely unaddressed questions of familial obligation and willingness to serve. Alther touches on the transactional dynamic where paid caregivers are involved, including thorny ethical areas of intimacy, which may make some readers uncomfortable. Alther hopes his novel will spark discussions about caregiving between family members, as well as advance planning. We are all given the gift of knowing we will die, yet we avoid using the privilege of getting ready.
Alther is an accomplished abstract painter, and he brings that skill to hazy, indeterminate moments. Walter floats in and out of dreams, questioning, as often happens in later years, whether memory is real or imagined. Art, nature, music, and literature offer grace and personal growth even as his body weakens.
Faced with the hard truth of death, we cling to the hope that we’ll gain clarity when the veil between worlds lifts. Does it matter if we die with loose ends hanging? Is dying truly the end or is life a rehearsal for what comes next? Just as Walter’s orbit of caregivers guide him toward making the best of his final year, Bedside Matters guides the reader to questions that deserve reflection, however unanswerable they may be.