Death is an infinite and unknowable space. When we think about death, we fill that space with whatever meaning we choose. It's common for children to think of death as sleeping, for instance. Adults insert all manner of interpretations into the void: mythology or anxiety or uncertainty. And then there are all the other death expressions — nearly as many as there are stars in the sky: la petite mort, Death by Chocolate, the exquisite corpse.
Don't let the subtitle — A Novel About Living — fool you; Rachel Heng's debut novel, Suicide Club, is all about death. It takes place in a utopian future in which humanity, thanks to inventions like "SmartBlood™, DiamondSkin™, and ToughMusc™," has all but conquered death. But just as the common illusions and clever witticisms about death tend to fade away once you're forced to sit in a room with a corpse for a few hours, the utopia of Suicide Club only lasts for a few pages before the veneer fades away and the dystopia is revealed.
Lea, the protagonist of Suicide Club, is a "lifer," meaning that she has the potential for immortality if she does everything right. And Lea never does anything wrong: she stopped running when the central scientific authority warned that high-impact exercise was hurtful; she doesn't eat any food that might harm her, from salt to meat to fruit (which government agencies label the "#1 cause of diabetes-led blindness"); she keeps her stress levels well within acceptable parameters. She lives in an apartment (where the windows, naturally, don't open) with her fiancé and her life is the sort of superficially perfect heaven that you might see on a highly edited social media feed.
Naturally, because the universe bends toward decay, Lea's life falls apart. Her missing father returns, and he brings with him uncertainty and messiness — and an ice cream cone for his daughter:
It was only when the cold sweet fluid touched her lips that she remembered she was eating sugar, synthetic sugar, non-fruit sugar. And dairy, preservatives, additives, food coloring. She thought of the days she would lose from eating that ice cream, the spike in insulin levels that so much sugar would trigger. She thought of the cravings that would come later, the potential addiction the would set in.
Of course, we've all read novels about futures that prove to be too safe. The thing that keeps Suicide Club from tipping into familiarity is Heng's beautiful prose. Rarely has decay felt so decadent:
The flowers were beginning to wilt. Huge bulbous peonies in violent corals and heavy white roses strained to open, their thick petals peeling backward obscenely, revealing powdery orange centers. Slumping over in their crystal vases, naked stems starting to give under the weight. The balloons were sinking, too, helium leaking into the dense cloud of human breath. While there were so many that the ceiling was still filled, some floated at half mast, their tasseled tails trailing along the floor.
In Heng's hands, Suicide Club feels less a warning for a specific future and more an observation of our tortured present. And as I noted above, death is such a wide-open subject that Heng examines it as a metaphor for almost everything.
It's possible to read Lea's (literal) picture-perfect life, with its performative healthiness, as an indictment of Instagram perfection culture. You could also read Suicide Club as an extended critique of income inequality — particularly in a country like the US, where wealthy people live up to 15 years longer than poor people, on average.
But the beauty of Suicide Club is that it can't simply be cracked open like a geode to reveal some gorgeous pattern hidden under the surface. Heng resists easy interpretations. Lea is, to say the least, a problematic hero who conceals some dark secrets. The mythical Suicide Club of the title isn't some heroic revolutionary group fighting eloquently for death. Instead, they're as rough-hewn as any organization pushing for social change.
The problem with writing about death is that it consumes everything — from centuries-old trees to entire species. Because we all wind up in death's belly eventually, it's impossible for us to fully encompass death in our minds. We are the panicked prey, not the coolly assessing predator. Rachel Heng understands this, and she allows space in her novel for that ambiguity and that terror.
The death in Suicide Club isn't some warm death that we can all cozy up to in the end. It's cruel death — the death that refuses to be cheated, that shows up on your doorstep at moments when you least expect it. This is a Biblical death. You can't just gently glide into it. You have to work for death like this.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant