Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Cheer up! It's Friday!

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Cheer up! It's Friday!

Sarah Kane's play 4.48 Psychosis was written just before she committed suicide. The Guardian reviewed it, and titled that review, "How do you judge a 75-minute suicide note?" Which I guess is the same as asking whether you can separate the author and the work, once you know something about the author's personal life - except you know, more dramatic and immediate seeming. She killed herself after writing the play, but before its production.

Sarah Kane The Complete Plays is a great book. Her play Blasted starts with a scene of domestic violence, establishing a realistic tone before violence on a much bigger scale comes crashing into the hotel room. The play keeps breaking its promises to the viewer about what's happening. It's bewildering and insane. Well worth owning.

This suicide scene from the movie Rules of Attraction, plays like a clip from Beautiful Agony. Aside from the sexual, though, there's also a weird ugliness to the scene. There's fear and confusion on her face. Rules of Attraction also features a failed suicide played for laughs, and a staged suicide as a practical joke. Neither is nearly as effective as this. This is such a strange scene for the movie, as it's the best scene in the movie, and is almost entirely unrelated to the plot.

Last year I interviewed novelist Helen DeWitt and asked about the role that the idea of suicide plays in her novel, The Last Samurai.

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Joey: Suicide is often associated with mental illness. But in your work it's presented as a logical act. A fiercely rational act. Did you always think of suicide this way? You mentioned that there's a need for suicide philosophers. One of the warning signs for suicides is a sudden cheerfulness after a long depression, which can be a sign that they've made their decision. Is there a freedom that comes with this view of suicide as tool available to us, even if the decision has not been made?

Helen DeWitt: Well, it's possible to be mentally ill and rational - Leonard Woolf always said Virginia was extremely rational when she was mad. But I don't think I have ever thought suicide per se evidence of mental illness.

Any number of philosophers have written about suicide. The one I mentioned in The Last Samurai is Jonathan Glover, a modern Utilitarian who wrote a book called Causing Death and Saving Lives. I can't quote from memory - it's been a long time since I've read him - but he says something like, if death really looks better than the life you're leading, try to change the life first before killing yourself. Quit your job, leave your wife, go to another country.

So yes, taking suicide as a serious option might offer freedom. If you're ready to walk away from your life, it clears the mind: you can ask yourself whether killing the body is the only way. There might be some other way to walk away from your life. You could get on a plane, go somewhere new, start over again. NEW GAME NEW GAME NEW GAME.

Or, of course, there might really be no prospect of something better. Virginia Woolf once wrote in her diary: Father would have been 92 today. 92! People do live to that age. His life would have been the end of mine: no writing, no life, nothing. [I am paraphrasing horribly, relying on a very bad memory.] Sir Leslie Stephen died when she was 21, if I remember correctly. She wrote the entry in her diary when she was 46. If someone of her talent was to have no chance of using it, death at 21 looks better than death at 46. And her life as a daughter in a middle-class Edwardian household is hardly the worst we can imagine.

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Thomas Disch killed himself in 2008. His novel, The Genocides, is a disaster novel where nobody survives. I've always loved this awesome quote from Elizabeth Hand's remembrance of him at Salon.com:

---"The Genocides" was published in 1965, a vision of Earth as an agribusiness run by extraterrestrials who sow the planet with a single vast plant crop, then methodically exterminate the human pests who infect their harvest. It ends badly. As Disch cheerfully pointed out in a 1990 interview published in the British journal Foundation, "Let's be honest, the real interest in this kind of story is to see some devastating cataclysm wipe mankind out ... My point was simply to write a book where you don't spoil that beauty and pleasure at the end."---

Anyway, just a few things to think about as you end your work day.

1 comment

I studied theatre in university and Sarah Kane was a bit of goddess in the acting studio. Her utterly abstract visuals, nearly indecipherable text, and raw, explosive character behaviours make the plays both challenging to perform and open to wide interpretations. You'll never see a similar production of the same Kane play, but it takes a damn fine actor (and production team) to do it right. Just an observation!

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Joey Comeau

Joey Comeau is the author of Overqualified and Lockpick Pornography. With photographer Emily Horne, he creates the comic A Softer World. One Bloody Thing After Another is his latest book.

Go to Joey Comeau’s Author Page