Monday, May 29, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE SUICIDE CLUB”” by Sarah Quigley  (Penguin / Random House, $NZ 38)

            Sarah Quigley’s latest novel is called The Suicide Club and the blurb on the back tells us sententiously that it deals with “the last taboo”, which presumably means suicide. So it’s fitting that it begins with a failed suicide attempt and ends with a successful one.

            On the opening page, 20-year-old “Bright” (Brian) O’Connor plunges (or was he pushed?) 19 storeys, falling symbolically past a huge billboard of a sexy and half-naked woman, as his life flashes before him. But, miraculously (and, dare I say, very improbably) his fall is broken, and his life preserved, by a trundler full of newspapers.

            The trundler is pushed about the city by 20-year-old Gibby Lux (his parents were going to call him “Digby”, but they couldn’t spell).

            Both Bright and Gibby are oddballs – or perhaps geniuses. Bright  doesn’t get on with his pompous father and his stepmother. He is a compulsive reader and writer. He appears to live in a stationery cupboard. He has had one book published and is on the verge of becoming famous. So what motivated his suicide attempt? Could it be writer’s block – or the fear that he will not be able to follow up his first book? “Every time he opens his notebook,” we are told much later, “he’s back on the ledge, with the pair of hands at his back. Then he feels nauseous and faint. The blank white page is the inverse of empty darkness; both hold the terror of limitless possibility.” (p.150)

            Gibby is working towards being some sort of inventor, always coming up with ideas for a new or modified gadget. But he’s socially awkward, still lives with his parents, has no friends and is cursed with a special hypersensitivity: “Other people’s lives have always been a mystery to him. It’s the other things, the more hidden things, that he can see astoundingly clearly. For instance, standing under a tree, he sees the sap pulsing under the bark, pushing buds out into the wind. He can hear the tiny crack  of a root six feet under asphalt. And if you stand beside him now, and look up the way he is, you might start to see the separate componenets of the clouds, each one and intricate woven ball of water vapour….” (p.173)

Then there’s 20-year-old Lace (her parents called her Grace, but she chose a sexier name). Gentle reader, let me make it clear at once that I regard Lace as something of a fantasy figure, as improbable as the trundler breaking Bright’s fall. Lace has: “her extraordinary beauty, which knocks men sideways and dents their hearts and confidence; her cat-like detachment, coupled with her deeply caring nature…” (p.45) But sexy young Lace is “hurtling down the lift-shaft to escape love.” (p.28) She beds men one by one and moves on as soon as any of them look like becoming emotionally attached to her. Lace, we soon understand, is suffering from long-term deprivation and bereavement and is reacting by making nothing permanent in her life. Her loveless bed-hopping is a means of avoiding real intimacy.

About halfway through this longish novel we learn that for Lace: “Life is a long losing process. (She runs, cries, runs.) Losing keys, losing wallets, losing coats slung over radiators in cafes while the snow drops in thick flaky pieces from the sky. Losing your virginity, losing your idealism, losing belief that there’s someone out there who is looking for you. Losing your parents, sister, home. Losing faith, losing hear. Losing your mind.” (p.202) And much nearer the novel’s end we get the full, childhood, details of how such an attitude was implanted in her.

So here are three lost and unhappy souls. I will not try your patience by saying how or why, but these three characters become entangled. In the novel’s second half, Bright’s father sends him to a psychiatric facility in Bavaria called The Palace. Gibby, who has taken on the role of Lace’s protector, takes Lace to the same facility. So they are involved in group discussions with the kindly Dr Geoffrey and do much soul-searching. Also, a romantic triangle forms. Gauche Gibby regards Lace as his enterprise and feels jealousy when Lace seems to be attracted to the more flamboyant Bright.

I told you it ends in a suicide, but I will not be so crass as to say of whom. The author deserves not to have all her surprises and twists of plot revealed so soon after a novel is first published.

There are some good things in The Suicide Club. The incidental comedy works in places – such as Bright’s strained attempts to talk to his father’s chauffeur, Lewis, as he is driven to the sanatorium. Sarah Quigley does, page for page, fill her tale with incident. But at a certain point, some of this seems more like stretching out – or padding – a fairly simple idea, rather than really illuminating the characters or telling us more about them than we knew within the first hundred pages. At 400 pages, this is a tale that could have been told more concisely. More rigorous editing would have helped.

Worse, as I read The Suicide Club, I kept having mental flashbacks to the 60-year-old movie Rebel Without a Cause. Bright, Gibby and Lace are really James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood building their special relationship in the face of horrible adults who just don’t “understand”. It doesn’t help that Bright’s Dad is a one-dimensional stereotype (a hypocritical clergyman) and, of course, when Gibby takes Lace to a party put on by his father’s business, all the grown-ups are crass and repulsive.  The three main characters are all aged 20, but this is very much in the mode of teen lit that strokes self-pity. Are there young people with emotional problems as severe as those depicted in this novel? I’m sure there are, But Sarah Quigley’s resolution is pure Hollywood.

The publisher’s flyer included a high-minded statement by Sarah Quigley about how her novel was intended to encourage a more compassionate attitude towards suicide. I think the attitude towards suicide which it really encourages is the romantic one often embraced by teenagers.

See the posting on A. Alvarez’s The SavageGod for a detailed discussion of this phenomenon.

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