It’s not always easy getting old.
Vancouver author Brett Josef Grubisic explores this point, in a delightfully disarming way, in his latest work Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O.
The novel follows a man named Marcus who grapples with life in his mid-60s, including dating, revenge and more — not always with the greatest grace.
We caught up with Grubisic to learn more about the book, aging and the one thing we can all see in Marcus that can likely be found within ourselves:
Q: How would you describe Oldness, or the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O, in three words?
A: Gee, that’s tough. Brevity isn’t my first instinct. How about this: ‘Wisdom despite oneself.’
Q: And, without a word limit, what’s it all about?
A: It’s a variety pack of ideas. It’s set in the 2020s and about cultural ‘Siri-ization’ or ‘Alexa-ization’, where our vocal interfacing with computers has normalized, as has our anxiety about environmental collapse. It’s about becoming older and realizing your social capital has shrunk. And it’s about being well-educated but remarkably thin-skinned and taking petty revenge — over years — after you think you’ve overheard a much younger colleague refer to you as passé, a fossil. Plus, it’s about online dating at 65.
Q: What ultimately inspired you to write this book?
A: I finished my PhD at UBC in 2001, and have been wandering corridors there, and teaching classes, of course, since then. In a sense, Oldness is satiric, a kind of workplace comedy, so all I needed to do was select which aspects of my own I’d seize on for the novel. As with any place of work, I imagine, the self-importance, entitlement and resentment, and grudge-holding there can be breathtaking.
Q: Retirement, late-in-life romance, the book touches on a few … potentially touchy transitional themes. Why did you want to address them in this novel?
A: It’s trivial and probably showcases me as vain, but … one day at the gym, I noticed an age spot — just suddenly there — on the top of my left hand. After initially noticing it, I kept seeing it; in a low-grade way I felt preoccupied with the visible fact of it and the apparent declaration of my own flesh: you are now old. I’d just turned 50, and it felt as though oldness was looming. Instead, Oldness was looming. Pondering the era leading up to the so-called golden years came pretty naturally after that.
From there, the character and his story fell into place, more or less. Marcus, the protagonist, shares with me a bothersome age spot on his hand. Maybe a few other bits, too. But otherwise he’s pure fiction.
Q: Were there any unexpected challenges you encountered while penning this book?
A: No, thankfully, just the usual challenges: keeping my inner cynic and smartass in line while coaxing my inner editor to stick around for a while and help out.
Q: When it comes to Marcus, is there something in his character that we can all relate to?
A: Marcus is prone to self-pity, knowing less than he thinks he knows, having unrealistic expectations, eating a bag of chips for dinner, and being both unkind and ungenerous. These traits are familiar human ones, I’m fairly sure.
Q: What do you hope people take away from your latest work?
A: Hmm, the literary pleasures of spending time with a difficult, often unlikable man, which is far better than spending time with a flesh-and-blood difficult, often unlikable man. It’s got some funny bits and some black comedy and it’s written in what I hope is a deeply quirky-but-accessible style. I hope readers enjoy those, too.
Q: And, lastly, what’s next?
A: I’m filling out a short-story collection. But oh-so gradually. And there’s Horsetail Camp Infirmary, right now at its infancy. It’s the final novel in my trilogy about River Bend City, which began with The Age of Cities and continued with From Up River And For One Night Only. This one is based on a terminally ill prisoner at a minimum-security prison in Mission in the 1980s.