House Mother Normal- A Geriatric Comedy
House Mother Normal is an experimental novel that at first seems to answer the question of what people are really thinking, though the author’s skilful use of format conceals more than it reveals. It’s the story of several elderly residents of a care home and their monstrous House Mother (Matron) all experiencing the same evening together, but each one has a different take on the action and a different level of cognition with which to interpret it. Each chapter- one per resident- begins with a potted medical history including their level of mental facility; the novel begins with the stories of two fairly coherent women and, by the end, degenerates into a series of nonsense words and large expanses of space that are both stylistically daring and tragic.
When I used to visit my grandfather in his own care home, there was one old lady who used to speak in what had clearly become her own language; whereas my granddad, who had always been quite plain-speaking, developed a Shakespearean oratorical style that highlighted rather than concealed the gaps where ordinary words had fallen away. He asked how I was enjoying ‘the Continent,’ (London) while describing his own state as ‘the hinterland,’ - which always seemed quite accurate. The care home was always a quiet place, but teeming with internal stories that went either untold or unheard.
Johnson- a pugnacious, sensitive and highly defensive writer- wasn’t a fan of many other authors, but he did have a lifelong regard for Samuel Beckett, which shows not only in his lack of superstition and deference towards the written word, but also in the way that his frail characters tell their stories, or what’s left of them, to no one in particular. Interactions between the residents are fractious and limited, and the House Mother (who provides a jaw-dropping floorshow) certainly isn’t listening. The stories of these trapped people are handled with a confidence that suggests Johnson, who died comparatively young, was capable of creating far more works with this maturity and compassion.