Feeding Time by Adam Biles
Our bookshelf is a space where the editors (and, perhaps, guests) can share what we’re reading and thinking about without the formality of a longer review or the focus on recent books, or even sticking to fiction as we usually do.
Novels I’ve read about the aged tend toward the short, melancholy, and introspective, like Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper, Gustaf Sobin’s The Fly-Truffler, and Thea Astley’s Coda. Then there are those of a more sentimental bent (not usually my thing), helpfully signalled by their longwinded titles — The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, and so on. Adam Biles’ Feeding Time, however, is a very different kind of novel about elderly life than others I’ve read. It begins with a woman’s arrival at her new residence in an eldercare home, but from there it goes off in all kinds of thrilling, thoughtful directions.
It’s a novel about aging, but it’s also a novel of resistance — resisting the ravages of senescence, and senility, and the indignities of being treated as irrelevant by those paid to care for you and those you cared for as your own children. And in Feeding Time that resistance takes on literal form as the residents of an utterly cruel, miserable, mismanaged senior home revolt against the institution in increasingly high-stakes, dramatic, often hilarious ways. Led by “The Captain,” an inmate whose rambunctious military bearing refuses to to be cowed, the residents seek to reclaim their dignity and identities in the face of institutional forces determined to reduce them, and among the many layers of that conflict I especially enjoyed the seriousness with which fantasy (even comic fantasy) is treated by Biles — his characters, the elders but also the incompetent “CareFriends” paid to mind them and the useless manager of the facility, all struggle between what their life is and what they think it should be. They resist or fail to resist bad marriages, a lack of prospects for getting ahead, and the realization of what they’ve become, so rather than the elders in their declining bodies being the most “decayed” among the cast there’s a reversal. The elders are active, with genuine agency and self-determination, as they try to reclaim identities they’ve been stripped of by so many forces from time to bureaucracy.
As the characters, old and young alike, struggle to hang onto themselves and, crucially, the fantasies that have allowed them to get on with life and endure, the novel incorporates adventure stories written in Boy’s Own fashion (and the “vintage” advertising included in the reproduced pages of those stories gave me some of the biggest laughs of the book, reminding me more than once of the LL Bean parody Items from Our Catalogue, a childhood favorite). Fantasy, and the fantastic, move deeper and deeper into the heart of the novel as it develops, though I don’t want to say more and risk spoiling it. Ultimately what I found really impressive and rewarding — not to mention great fun — was Bile’s success at giving dignity to his characters and their grim circumstances while balancing it with elements that could have so easily become awkward or clunky but, in Feeding Time, never are.