July 2015

John Anspach

fiction

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball

Jesse Ball's A Cure for Suicide is a novel about learning to forget the past. It also functions as a kind of mystery in which the reader must attempt to piece together the history that drove a man to erase his memory. This is a beautifully written quest for meaning that challenges assumptions about the tie between memory and the creation of meaning. Memory allows us to love the people we've known in the past, but it may prevent us from finding beauty, love, and meaning in the present.

The novel begins with a woman, "the examiner," arriving at a Victorian house in which a man, "the claimant," lies in bed with absolutely no memory of how he got there. The examiner has been assigned to this claimant; she will teach him everything from mechanical functions -- this is how you sit in a chair, this is how you button a shirt -- to the proper ways of interacting with other people. The examiners and claimants live in "gentle villages," villages in which all the houses, stores, and restaurants are identical and everything is predictable.

The lack of context concerning the history of the claimant and villages makes reading this novel a kind of mystery, a search for clues, the discovery of which will not leave the reader adrift in a strange village with an unknown history and purpose. It is made clear that the claimant came to the village because a woman he loved had died, but the claimant does not know this (his memory has been erased), nor do we know the details of how she died. Without revealing that this pertains to his own past, the examiner explains to him, "If a person was loved, and a person has died, we want to bring them with us while we still live, but we cannot allow their memory to ruin all new things." Yet there is a desire for the reader to lay claim to the claimant's absent memory. By doing so, we may sympathize with him and what he has lost.

There is a quiet poignancy to the claimant's interactions with the examiner -- the sadness of a lost identity and a lost love that we aren't allowed to feel, let alone understand. Much to the alarm of the examiner, though -- and much to the excitement of the reader -- the claimant's memory begins to return to him in his dreams. He writes about a dream in which the woman, for whom he erased his memory, appears to him: "She is surrounded by images... Somehow I feel that they are images of our happiness... I feel that these things are hidden from me, and that she has carried them into death and I can never know them again." This image of happiness is both heartbreaking and hopeful -- the hope is that in reclaiming these images, the absent past will (re-)present itself. The claimant will become accessible to the reader once we know his memories.

Since this story begins with absence, it is no coincidence that the novel is structured around absence. Dialogue and paragraphs are broken up from each other by white spaces -- absences of words, silences. Absences woven into the structure of the narrative make possible all the varieties of experience -- sadness, love, loss, confusion, and desperation -- that the claimant may be feeling outside his limited vocabulary and the impersonal, sanitized narrative of the villages. They allow the reader access to the lovely, quiet space in which the examiner and claimant interact, but the mystery of the villages and the claimant's past isolate the reader. Without the claimant's memory, the gaps in the narrative are unsettling reminders of the gaps in the reader's understanding of the characters. The claimant and examiner may be sweet and loving, but they are fearfully unknown.

The novel furnishes just enough evidence to allow the reader to try to close these gaps using the claimant's history. For example, the claimant draws a disturbing picture of a woman lying dead in a coffin-like room. He "had drawn this same scene" over and over for an entire afternoon. Soon after, he falls in love with Hilda, another claimant, upon whose face "one could imagine many scenes." His love for her makes sense, because it is apparently dependent upon her image reminding him of scenes from his past, the woman he once loved. In this instance, it feels as if the explanation for why the claimant is drawn to Hilda serves to bring the reader closer to understanding the claimant. He is no longer such a mystery.

In one of the final sections of the novel, the claimant's past is finally revealed. The narrative returns to the time before the claimant entered the village. He goes to the office of "the interlocutor," whose job is to speak with the people who want to end their current lives and start anew as claimants in the process of villages. The claimant's story, devastating and beautifully written, closes the gaps that lie between the reader and the claimant. We are given a concrete history that we can use both to sympathize with and draw closer to the claimant. But the interlocutor immediately challenges this form of sympathy by offering his theory on the misconceptions of memory:

We think of memory as a redeeming thing. We build monuments that appear to be monuments to this person or that person or this struggle or that, but really, do you know what they are? They are monuments to memory itself... We want it to be meaningful that things be remembered. If we do not remember what has happened before, then we are powerless to give meaning to what is, day to day.

The interlocutor's comment upends and invalidates a reading of this novel as a search for meaning hidden in memory. While looking at the gaps in the narrative, "one could imagine many scenes" that do not rely on memory's revelations for meaning. Though this novel may seem like a mystery, it is important not to let the search for answers get in the way of the constant, subtle pleasures of its language.

A Cure for Suicide is about a "yearning... to keep dead things alive." The claimant wants the woman he loved to return, but she never will. He must sacrifice his memory in order to be free of her ghost. We want to bring the claimant close to us by understanding his memories, but memory is also a kind of love that must be sacrificed. She is the beloved that the reader must learn to live without in order to be present to hear the quietly beautiful prose that resonates throughout, filling the empty space.  

A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball        
Pantheon
ISBN: 978-1101870129 
256 pages