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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

I mean, to die that way, with no awareness, like an animal. To be reduced, humiliated before she could make arrangements, or even say goodbye. It crept up on her, and then . . .

At the beginning of the novel, Molly Lane's former lovers gather at her funeral after she has died of a rapidly degenerative disease. One of her former boyfriends, the composer Clive Linley, speaks about her demise with an element of fear. Molly lost her mental capacities before she died, and this frightens Clive, who makes his living writing grand musical compositions. This excerpt foreshadows Clive's own eventual demise, in which he, too, will lose his faculties and become more like an animal.

What fascinated him was the promise, the aspiration—he imagined it as a set of ancient worn steps turning gently out of sight—the yearning to climb on and up and finally arrive, by way of an expansive shift, at a remote key, and, with wisps of sound falling away like so much dissolving mist, at a concluding melody, a valediction, a recognizable melody of piercing beauty that would transcend its unfashionability and seem both to mourn the passing century and all its senseless cruelty and celebrate its brilliant inventiveness.

Clive Linley sets to work writing a symphony that he feels will be a fitting end to the century. He imagines it as a staircase that curves out of sight, and this symbol is an apt one, as he will never wind up finishing the symphony before his death. The symphony stands for his desire to make a permanent and lasting contribution to society and culture that will outlast him, but he is not able to do so. Therefore, he dies without something to outlast him, and his death is all the more permanent and tragic. He can't make sense of the twentieth century, with all of its violence, and instead the world will pass into the new century without Clive's invention to put it into its proper context.

The image was there, but he wasn’t entirely convinced. The sensation, or the non-sensation, still occupied the right side of his head like a tight-fitting cap. When he trailed his finger across his scalp, he could identify the border, the demarcation line where feeling on the left side became not quite its opposite, but its shadow, or its ghost.

Vernon Halliday, one of Molly's former boyfriends who is now a newspaper editor, imagines that his body is falling apart. After he attends Molly's funeral, he feels as though the right side of his brain is disintegrating. It's interesting that he imagines the decline of the right side of his brain, as he also tries to attack Julian Garmony, one of Molly's former boyfriends, who is a right-wing politician. By mounting this attack, Vernon causes his own undoing, much as his feeling that the right side of his brain is disintegrating causes the undoing of all of his mental faculties. His body is occupied by a kind of shadow until this shadow takes over his entire body, and he begins to decline.

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