I was in St. Mark’s Bookstore about three months ago, looking at the pretty wall of new releases–which St. Mark’s is quite good for–and next to the Lonely Christopher collection was a small white volume with a pointillist drawing on it. I picked up for closer inspection. The font:
One could get lost in that font. About three pages in, you realize that Suicide is the kind of book that, once you start reading it, seems to fossilize your experience–the time of life during which you’ve read it becomes documented even in the act of reading. The feelings you feel reading it are never evoked either because of the words on the page or your inner life, but because of some weird congruence between them. Random sentences you’ve read from it pop up during a lull in conversation, or you find yourself thinking of them when you should be concentrating on practically anything with a greater bearing on your day-to-day life. Which is everything.
Suicide is a series of memories–real or imagined–that the narrator recounts about his friend, who has committed suicide. Though the anecdotes the narrator strings together are vague and intuitive (‘Since you seldom spoke, you were rarely wrong’) they correspond to each other well enough to form a coherent story–and the story is the character.
The character is someone whose depression is not immediately recognizable to the outside world. On a questionnaire filled out at the doctor’s office he might not have answered positively to the:
Slurring speech or moving slowly?
You reject the color yellow
You despise being able to recognize habits in others
Julian Assange haunts your dreams
Levé’s character is formed entirely of his opinions and inner thoughts–very rarely do emotions surface. This, if any, is the triumph of the book. Because for all the innovative changes one can make formally and stylistically, the most modern thing a book can do is to create a character who could have only come out of this period in time, out of a curiously modern relationship to the past, equal parts worship and loathing.
But, being a perfect book, it is perfect in more ways than one. Formally, it is a series of disjointed memories and hypotheses–it contradicts itself, seems to forget things it has already said, and seems to ingest itself, ideas it has already put forth, images already described, like an ouroborous. Thematically, it is an ode to completion. Every intimate remembrance of the narrator for his dead friend, every partially-explained quirk or specific habit of the character in the end never strikes one as vague–they are all parts of a brilliantly constructed whole: the short, almost fragmentary sentences which seem to be begging for footnotes, quizzical observations which obscure and reveal at once. It is a story, maybe the first of it’s kind, told without the pressure of cohesiveness.
What is important to most people about Suicide is the circumstances under which it was written, the fact that Levé killed himself within two weeks of turning in the manuscript to his publisher. To the casual reader of the book, it seems a tragic afterthought–one of those sinister situations in which life becomes art unexpectedly, and some almighty meaning blossoms in its wake. He killed himself, thus the book, like the act, must be:
- a cry for help?
depending on one’s medical opinion. But the thing one feels, coming away from Suicide, is that it is a work of art so complete that the author could not have possibly surpassed it, no matter how long he’d lived. The action, from the point of view of an artist to whom nothing is more important than art, is the wisest one he could have taken. The end of the book, as such, reads like a sigh–not one of despair or anguish–rather of peace, acceptance, and the sense that author and narrator both had taken away from life all that they possibly could have taken. Suicide is finally one of those great works that breaks the forth wall with an incredible shattering sound, and reminds us that the responsibility of humans is perhaps not to keep plowing ahead at all costs, but to know when, and how, to stop.