September 2011

Kelsey Osgood

features

The Last Novel: Suicide Lit

My friend is in graduate school to get a PhD in clinical psychology and she is required by her classes to administer practice psych exams. From September all the way through May, she would tell me periodically she was saving the best one, the 567-question Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (or MMPI for short), especially for me because “you’re so crazy!” Without either of us clearly giving a thought to word choice or ethics, I jumped in late one Thursday evening and began responding either true or false to every “I” statement listed (“I tease animals.” “I consider myself a fairly attractive person.”) in a way I was sure would give nod to both my thoughtful and slightly eccentric nature but also my sound and logical mind. 

But about a week after I took the test, my friend contacted me on Gchat (again, ethics aside) to tell me her professor had made her promise to check in with me and make sure that I wasn’t suicidal.  Naturally these findings came to light on the day I pilfered from my office a book that looked interesting solely based on its cover -- six-inches-by-four, and solid Mao red -- and title -- When I Was Five I Killed Myself.

I was devastated by my “diagnosis” for many reasons that are not worth delineating here, but I was not exactly surprised. This was not by a long stretch the first time I had been accused of being a nihilist. As a kindergartener, I had fantasies of being scooped up by God’s enormous cupped hand and taken up to heaven, waving down to my little friends as I disappeared into the clouds. Such “passive suicidal fantasies” reemerged in adolescence, as they are wont to do, though my growing pains were, in the new millennia of babies with bipolar disorder and plants on Lexapro, not much to write home about. As I got older, slowly my fascination with sadness and finality seemed less like a long, black dress I wanted to wear every single day (sole accessory: a scowl) and more like the shameful outfit of teenage years best left in the back of my closet -- or better yet, in the incinerator. At sixteen, I would certainly have been more pleased with the “suicidal” label. It would have validated my belief in myself as a wise and unfathomably dark soul trapped inside a miniature, towheaded and horrifically “cute” package. But at twenty-seven, there isn’t any part of me left that delights in or desires to appear fragile or unstable. No part, that is, aside from my lingering literary inclinations toward the tragic and, in particular, the self-destroyed man. I side wholeheartedly with Camus, who states at the beginning of his treatise on suicide, The Myth of Sisyphus that “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Presumably Camus would have answered the question I’m sure was the one that tipped my subscale ideation score clearly toward “unstable” the same way I did, by filling in the standardized test bubble “true” next to the declarative statement, “I think about suicide.”

***

We know all the usual suspects: Plath and Sexton, Foster Wallace and Woolf, the famous and always very talented writers who offed themselves (“Whoever heard of a bad poet committing suicide?” southern critic Walker Percy once asked). We also know the protagonists dead by their own hands: Plath’s literary alter-ego Esther Greenwood, Quentin Compson, Willy Loman, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier of Kate Chopin’s Awakening. I had sat with all these people in my younger days, wondered where they got their (yes, I’ll say it) courage, the will to make a decision they know will be their final one. Or do they debate right up until the end, like the man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in the documentary The Bridge and decided the moment his feet left the edge that he wanted to live?

The most impressive and startling suicide book was, for me, David Markson’s The Last Novel, which, coincidentally or not, turned out in fact to be his very last “novel,” if you can call it that. A friend gave it to me as a Christmas gift in 2007 and inscribed inside a note that read, “Never has a book reminded me more of you.” Markson’s work is not really a novel, but a collage of cultural tidbits no longer than a few sentences, with brief interspersed facts about the protagonist, named simply “Novelist” (“There are six floors in Novelist’s apartment building.”) I remember opening the book -- I was on a plane coming home from Brazil -- and letting my eyes adjust to the unfamiliar-looking page. I remember feeling a foreboding -- or perhaps I have imagined that, in retrospect? -- as the anecdotes, most about death and the madness and isolation implicit with artistry, piled on top of one another. Even though occasionally Markson’s self-proclaimed “intellectual bits and pieces” are humorous, there is almost always a sinister thread within. “Anton Chekhov died in Germany,” he notes. “His coffin arrived in Moscow in a freight car -- distinctly labeled Oysters.” “Pietro Aretino died in the midst of a hysterical fit of laughter that apparently turned into an apoplectic stroke.” “In flight from the Gestapo while a member of the French Resistance, Paul Eluard at one point hid for two months in an insane asylum.” In between these doses of literary Depakote, Novelist taunts the reader by proclaiming this his last book and pretending to throw his cat out his window. (“Novelist does not own a cat,” he clarifies later but “nonetheless he would lay odds that more than one hopscotching reviewer will be reading carelessly enough here to never notice these two sentences and announce the he did so.”)

It’s hard to tell, while immersed, if Novelist is psyching himself up for something or wearing himself down, or if in an impossible way he’s doing both, like pedaling faster and faster backward on a stationary bike. We see him throw papers onto the pyre -- books written by others, by him, sheet music, a copy of an analysis of his bone scan -- maniacally douse it in lighter fluid, and light a match. Though open for interpretation, the end is Novelist climbing up the stairs to the roof of his building, seeing the familiar Alarm will sound if door opened sign, and concluding with a quote from van Eyck: “Als ick kan,” which means “the best I can do.”

With a little research, one can easily learn that Novelist shares many things with David Markson: both are old and in poor health, live in Washington Square Park, write books, and name the Who’s Who of Beat Literature as their best friends. Some of the anecdotes Markson writes he learned by reading, and some, like a mention of a shitfaced Jack Kerouac, are memories of his own. This blurring of the art-life line is nothing to raise an eyebrow at, but what is interesting is that The Last Novel was in fact Markson’s final work, and his death, in June of 2010, was of “undetermined causes” (though his ex-wife confirmed he had cancer.) There is something eerie about reading the New York Times obituary in which it says, “His last novel, in 2007, was The Last Novel.” It’s almost as if Markson, cheeky and sly until the end, planned it that way -- and though the idea of this is titillating, I for one do not think it is the case.  

For Edouard Leve, it certainly was. Though his 2008 publication Suicide is on the surface about the suicide of a childhood friend, which he mentioned as an addendum in an earlier work, he must have known while writing it that he was planning to follow his friend off the ledge. Leve, a French postmodern artist and photographer whose previous works included a meticulous list of books never written and a catalog of his personal habits and characteristics, creates in Suicide a sketch of a middle-aged man, somewhat hermetic and silent but only dysthymic, who shoots himself after telling his wife he’ll be up to play tennis momentarily. The book begins with the suicide, and the narrator goes back, much like survivors do in real life, to mine the man’s life. Leve, presumably the narrator (the suicide is simply referred to as “You”), doesn’t look to the past for clues or reasons, as the suicide’s father does by compiling a folder of materials labeled “Suicide Hypotheses.” No, Leve instead looks for moments, and, it seems, for inspiration, for qualities in the deceased to revere and emulate. “Since you seldom spoke, you were rarely wrong. You seldom spoke because you seldom went out. If you did go out, you listened and watched. Now, since you no longer speak, you will always be right,” he says. “You don’t make me sad, but solemn. You impair my incurable frivolity.”

My first encounter with Leve’s book was reading an excerpt in Harper’s Magazine, and my second was reading a review of it by Zadie Smith in the same publication.  I coveted the book for weeks, mentally determining how high it should rank on the gradated list of 8,000 books I wanted to purchase. In a way, I wanted it to accomplish what Markson’s had for me -- let me experience a cognizant and willful death without actually having to perish -- and yet I guessed it would be more fulfilling than The Last Novel because of its even closer adherence to reality. The desire to experience death, while seemingly foreign and completely repugnant to some, is enormously normal, and examples of people, real and fictitious, seeking out the other side in order to possess the special knowledge only those who know death have are innumerable. The Bible itself purports that knowledge of death is equal to or greater than knowledge of life. “Ah, Lord,” Psalm 90:12 goes, “teach us to consider that we must die, so we may become wise.” Implying, of course, that those who have never been close to it simply cannot be wise.   

When I finally decided the book was to be ordered (after Gravity and Grace but before The Art of Cruelty) I clicked “ship” on Barnes and Noble’s website and waited anxiously like a child for reindeer’s hooves on the rooftop.  Looking back, I know the excitement was because I naively imagined that I would be able to answer some big questions Leve meant to remain gaping holes in his life and work. What intrigued me about this book was not so much the why but the when? Did Leve know when he began the book that he wanted to kill himself? Did he write the book because he was deliberately looking for a project that would erase the line between art and death? Or did he want to write about his friend, and after replaying the suicide over and over again, decide he, too, must have this experience himself? Two scientists in Italy determined that neurons in humans’ brains fire exactly the same way if they’re watching someone doing an activity, whether it be dealing cards, carrying groceries, or slitting their wrists, and if they’re doing it themselves. Was by-proxy death not satisfying enough for Leve? Was his book-long farewell note, then, like the slurred-word phone call is for many who have just swallowed a handful of pills: a cry for help, in this case to his publisher, a plea for him to call the police and save him? And for me: will my constant desire for a book that has at least one self-determined casualty lead to… gulp… the literary demise of my own Protagonist, in my own last novel?

When Suicide arrived, the pointillist portrait of someone -- the Suicide? Leve? Protagonist? -- staring at me emptily from the cover, I could barely contain my glee. As I read, marking sentences and passages with post-it tabs and light pencil marks, I thought that by the end, surely, Leve would have at the least impaired my incurable frivolity, if not eradicated it. But as I read further, I started to think that maybe this book wasn’t going to be as fulfilling for me as The Last Novel despite it all. As I slogged through the dull prose and the recounting of banal story after frivolous anecdote, I began to think that maybe Leve’s act of certainty wasn’t enough to really transform a mediocre book into a great one. In other words, if a bad poet, or in this case a boring and self-indulgent artist, kills himself, it doesn’t make his poetry good, or his art any less boring. When I reached the last thirteen pages, which is a replication of the suicide’s horrendous “verse,” not only did I remain unsure about why Leve decided to end his life, I frankly didn’t care all that much. Maybe it wasn’t the ending that drew me so, the rock solid things that death seems to signify, but the unanswered questions themselves, the actual struggle with enigma. Markson, because he wrote a good book and because he left questions unanswered was worthy of revisiting (I do it often) and contemplation. Leve’s suicide in fact wasn’t a source of interest because it was an end. It was an answer, and an insufficient one at that, to the real question I want to ask by studying suicides, which is: what does it mean to live, and how can we deal with the uncertainties endemic to existence?  

A week after my friend told me of my MMPI score, I was still raw from the experience, so I called a psychologist and asked her what, exactly, I should make of it all.  Her answer was pretty much what I had imagined it would be, but it was still a comfort to hear. People think about death, some people more than others, and about suicide, and that’s not wrong.  

“It’s probably less abnormal for you given your circumstances” she said, referencing to my former job as an amanuensis to a writer with Lou Gehrig’s Disease who frequently claimed to want someone to feed him an overdose of pills.

“When it comes down to it, almost everyone thinks about death, and a lot of people think about suicide. It’s not bad to contemplate it as a philosophical topic, but if you start to romanticize it, then that’s a different story.”    

Seeing impregnable beauty in the act itself would have meant loving Leve’s final work despite its numerous deficiencies; it would have meant letting Leve supersede Markson as the more worthy of the two writers simply because he had committed this one act, and it would have meant writing off Markson’s far superior oeuvre because he didn’t, for one reason or another, take the plunge. This choice of mine, to say that it is unequivocally true that “I find Markson the more interesting writer than Leve,” gave me peace in the fact that while I always may be drawn to the literature of suicide, the act itself would never trump the more important things -- most of all, a good book.