Back when I was a spotty-faced youth, it was the grown-ups who got all the respect: the attention and the jewelry and the shags and the sparkling champers. Adults were-I know it’s hard to imagine-at the center stage of the cultural drama. Sure, there were pop tarts and gangly layabouts, but nobody listened to them or took them too seriously. No cultural figure-no artist or politician or window-dresser or ventriloquist-was given any props until he/she hit 40. And now, as my dotage looms, the entire system has switched around: I am now a 50-year-old fart drifting vacantly across a hideously youth-skewed landscape, where the autobiographical musings of former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham are read with breathy reverence and middle-aged people have become virtually invisible-give or take a John Guare play or two. It’s simply not fair! Today, the world is focused on juvenile B-celebs, strippers and rappers. Trendy New York nightlife no longer welcomes those scene-making wrinklies of yore-the Capotes and Halstons and Vreelands and Martha Grahams. Nobody will pay us any attention ever again unless we happen to live long enough to hear Willard Scott yodeling our name.
Literary fiction was always a “safe space” where mature guys and broads could drink gin and conduct clandestine affairs. Now, however, novels exploring the machinations and crises of adulthood have been replaced by the pointlessly naff chick-lit twitterings of a million vapid Eve Harringtons, all of whom seem to be suffering from a nasty case of high self-esteem.
Suddenly last spring, while rummaging at the Shelter Island library book sale, I stumbled upon a salve for my feelings of marginalization: a large cache of Iris Murdoch first editions. I was initially attracted by the groovy 60’s and 70’s cover art and then, upon reading-bingo!-I found the pages were crawling and seething with vibrant, horny middle-aged people: Oxford dons, actors, wine merchants, psychoanalysts. In Ms. Murdoch’s world, young people play minor roles as objects of ridicule or mere pawns in the devious psychodramas staged by their infinitely more fascinating elders. (Annoyingly, Iris , the recent biopic starring the gorgeously young Kate Winslet and the ancient Dame Judi Dench, managed to avoid the middle years almost completely.) Murdoch youth usually meet a horrid death-e.g., jumping out of windows on dope or hitting their heads on sharp rocks and then stupidly drowning-or wind up in loony bins after shaving their hair off. Serves them right!
The mature Murdoch characters, with their endless capacity for introspection and their mania for verbally dissecting their feelings and interpersonal dynamics, are peculiarly un-British (in this regard, they actually remind one of contemporary American lesbians, who spend a significant part of each day processing their feelings with one another). This emotional anal-retention does not stop these folks from taking life by the horns: They join alternative religious communities ( The Bell , 1958); they pursue amorous obsessions, even in retirement ( The Sea, The Sea , 1978); and they engage in incestuous and/or sadomasochistic relationships ( A Severed Head , 1961). Re sex: Murdoch prose is mercifully free of gloppy descriptions of penetration, anatomy or anything else involving bodily fluids or ludicrous and challenging positions. Proponent though I am of a focus on middle age, I have no desire to confront the biological realities in print.
When your eyes are bleary from reading Murdoch (she wrote an astounding 26 novels, five plays, four books of philosophy and a single collection of poetry before her much-talked-about descent into Alzheimer’s and death in 1999), there’s a 1971 movie which is-to put it mildly-a must-rent for those of you Geritol-lovin’ kooksters who share my feelings of alienation: I’m talking about Zee and Co. , a freaky and miraculous undertaking screenplayed by the venerable Irish author Edna O’Brien and directed by someone called Brian G. Hutton. If Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? were relocated to trendy, rich, bohemian early-70’s London, it would be Zee and Co. Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine and Susannah York, this tortured, torrid, tragically hilarious depiction of middle-aged triangulation will have you screaming with joy and exhilaration. It is quite possibly the best movie I have ever seen! Ms. Taylor plays a loud, trendy, caftan-wearing middle-class chick called Zee who spends her time playing loud rock music, changing her clothes and taunting her handsome working-class bloke made good (Mr. Caine) about his love of fried food and various other common habits. She reserves the rest of her energy for emotionally pulverizing her husband’s girlfriend, Stella (Ms. York): “She’s the kind of girl who’s always slightly out of breath and sees beauty in everything … even shit !” Liz tells her nelly hairdresser over cocktails.
The grotesque brilliance of Ms. Taylor’s performance aside, the film serves as a salutary reminder that it is the prerogative of every middle-aged person to go completely over the top in the fashion department. Screw age-appropriate dressing! Ms. Taylor’s rule-breaking wardrobe consists of exhibitionistic hippie chiffons with flyaway panels, endless gaudy ponchos, capes, plumed cavalier hats, buccaneer boots and massive ethnic jewelry-worn on her forehead. Re fashion, you contemporary middle-aged chicks only have two choices: You can starve yourself to death in order to squeeze into the teeny designer offerings du jour , or head straight to Eileen Fisher, load up on her signature adult Garanimals and then-à la Zee-theatrically accessorize the shit out of your outfits with boas and piratey hats. I would recommend the latter.
Zee and Co. is hard to rent and expensive to buy. At the time of writing, Amazon.com has seven VHS copies starting at a hefty $60, but it’s worth it just for the opening credits, with the blousily mesmerizing Liz playing ping-pong in slow motion. Menopause, schmenopause!