[Review] Reasons to Live: Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club

{Written by Joshua Ip, this review is part of Issue 41 (September 2018) of Cha.} {Return to Cha Review of Books and Films.}

Rachel Heng, Suicide Club, Henry Holt & Co, 2018. 352 pgs.

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Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club begins with a teaser made for the cinema—a well-dressed gentleman imbibes a bottle of alcohol, mouths the marketing-friendly blurb “They leave us no choice” into a home camera and places a match to his tongue. The reader is led to expect an incendiary thriller full of macabre plot twists, or a dystopian parable, but when the accoutrements of those parent genres are stripped away, what we find is a quietly compelling story about the reasons we live—family, companionship or perhaps dignity.

Lea, a svelte centenarian, inhabits the calorie-free upper crust of a near-future New York. Her social status is secured by the one number that matters more than a standardised test score—her expected lifespan, hard-coded by impeccable genetics. Her natural aristocracy of fellow “lifers” is underpinned by a battery of constant treatments, ever-lasting bionic replacements and a meatless, tasteless, contentless diet. Yet her cortisol levels are thrown amuck by the reappearance of her father after his disappearance eighty-eight years ago, and Lea’s entanglement with the titular Suicide Club and their aforementioned home-video escapades.

Her central thread is interwoven with the thinner strand of Anja, a lifer living on the margins. In contrast to Lea’s high-flying HealthFin life, Anja flips patties at an Outer Boroughs diner (that doesn’t even serve gluten-free!), trying to finance her near-paralysed mother’s slow journey from unlife to death. In a world where a mechanical heart can go on beating for decades after the limbs, joints and throat have failed, the lub-dub of a loved one marks the metronome of Anja’s dreary existence. The story is told through the alternating points of view of Lea and Anja, with their separate backstories unfolding through a series of childhood flashbacks.

In this bleak future, a pale unlikeability daubs almost every minor character: from Lea’s beefcake boyfriend (which is a non sequitur, as he has consumed neither beef nor cake) to her bitchy frenemy colleagues to the ominously acronymised Observers from the Ministry. Heng’s dystopia is occupied with sad caricatures of humanity, with only Lea’s father Kaito exhibiting any signs of vitality, and that too leavened by a sense of nihilistic finality.

Indeed, if there are any criticisms to be made of this well-crafted novel, it is that too many characters are sacrificed on the wheel of its inevitable plot. Anja’s role as a fleshless foil of Lea leaves her too little space of her own to inhabit. Too much of her interior dialogue is left for us to intuit, her character development exhibited only in her actions, which lurch from stretches of passivity to occasional spurts of action. The minor characters trot in and out like clockwork as emotional triggers for Lea or well-made plot devices. And even Lea’s ponderous evolution from comic cartoon to complex creature is left a tad late for the reader to be fully invested in her development.

But the plot drives the novel forward with a sureness of hand uncommon for a debut writer of fiction. It rolls off the pages in unburdened, cliché-free prose, and I devoured the entire book in one furious sitting. First-book prose tends to call attention to itself and its cleverness, like an unconfident debutante gilded in gaudiness—but Heng’s prose is clear as a pane of glass, leaving the reader unaware of its presence until certain angles catch the light and diffract it into surprising rainbows.

Suicide Club‘s setting borrows heavily from the classics of dystopian fiction, with Orwellian echoes in the ubiquitous Ministry and Observation List that monitor and dictate Lea’s life. Newspeak words like the portmanteau “antisanct” (for anti-sanctity of life, the greatest value in a lifer society), and contraction “trad” (for “traditional,” a descriptor for cuisine made in the traditional vein, i.e. with flavour) speckle the prose. Doublespeak clamps down with all its familiar bureaucratic violence as Lea is assigned to “WeCovery” sessions for therapy. And the vacuous lifer elites and their obsession with wellness treatments evoke the soma-imbibing, hedonistic high society of Huxley’s Brave New World. If soma is famously described as one of Huxley’s characters as “Christianity without the tears,” what less the fervent belief in wellness in a world where immortality is the Promised Land?

Suicide Club is not a comedy, but Heng’s inner satirist conjures up healthy hunks of situational humour: “Posters lined the wall, comforting and familiar in their thin metal frames. A fat-encrusted artery stretched out like a sock (‘Meat kills’); a raw, torn joint (‘Switch to low impact today’); the ubiquitous glowing red eyeball (‘Fruit = #1 cause of diabetes blindness’).” And in her snarky imagination, mass production and capitalism merge with the language of health to produce DiamondSkin (“self-repairing and extra tough”) and SmartBlood (“clots in less than a millisecond”).

Yet there is love in this world. Heng is able to bring out surprising tenderness in in the most trivial bureaucratic minutiae with a wry eye, as in this extract describing Lea’s father and his love for her brother stuck in a low-level admin job:

She remembered how Kaito had been endlessly interested in Samuel’s work; questioning him on the minutest details of his day whenever he got home. And Sharona did what with the W8-E11B form? No! But surely she knew that was a W8-E11F!

At the end of it, I wondered where to place this piece within the context of Singaporean literature. Aside from an occasional Asian name (“Halimah” surfaces as a minor character), little visible ties the plot or setting to Heng’s country of birth. But whiffs of the familiar appear on a second sniff—an antiseptic nanny state? A cosmopolitan elite living in a claustrophobic, air-conditioned bubble? The next tier of benefits, a penthouse, a yacht, just out of tantalising reach of the next go-getter with a magic number earned in adolescence? The pong of helplessness? We know a little about that.

By the time Lea and Anja stage their Bonnie and Clyde ride into the sunset, the reader is left to ponder a series of dualities. Just as the best dystopias mirror the brightest utopias, is, perhaps, a culture of immortality the best backdrop against which to consider mortality? Is the only life worth living a life worth ending? Is a club built on suicide the truest expression of joie de vivre? And at the end of those artificially extended decades, what does a lifer really value? Like the tagline of this remarkable book, the author leaves us no choice. We have to read it again.

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Joshua Ip.jpg

Joshua Ip is a poet, editor, and literary organiser. He has published four poetry collections with Math Paper Press, won the Singapore Literature Prize for his debut, sonnets from the singlish, and placed in three different categories of the Golden Point Award. He has edited seven anthologies, including the A Luxury We Cannot Afford and the SingPoWriMo series. He co-founded Sing Lit Station, an overactive literary charity that runs community initiatives including SingPoWriMo, Manuscript Bootcamp, poetry.sg and the world’s first wrestling/performance-poetry hybrid, Sing Lit Body Slam. He received the Young Artist Award from the National Arts Council (Singapore) in 2017. Joshua is the guest poetry editor for the “Writing Singapore” issue of Cha. Visit his website for more information. (Photo credit: Jon Gresham.)

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