Reese wrote in with this question:I’m a student at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA focusing mostly on literature. Over the summer I’m attempting to do an independent study of suicide in art and literature. The only thing is, I’m having trouble formulating a reading list. While I can certainly think of a lot of novels that feature a suicide or two in them, I’m really looking for books that focus prominently on the subject. So far all I’ve got is John Barth’s The Floating Opera and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, in addition to A. Alvarez’s study of suicide, The Savage God. Any suggestions? I’d be much obliged.One of my favorite short poems is Langston Hughes’ “Suicide’s Note”:The calm,Cool face of the riverAsked me for a kiss.And I offer it as an epigraph to our reader in search of literary works that take suicide as a central theme or plot event. Here, with a few notes, is a (by no means comprehensive) list in roughly chronological order.Sophocles’ Oedipus and AntigoneVirgil’s Aeneid (Dido’s suicide in the fourth book)Shakespeare’s Othello, Hamlet (Ophelia’s suicide), and Romeo and JulietFanny Burney’s late eighteenth century novel Cecilia has a striking public suicide in one of London’s pleasure gardensAnna Karenina, which pairs nicely with James Joyce’s micro-Anna Karenina “A Painful Case” in DublinersWilkie Collins’ The Moonstone has a suicide involving a quicksand pit called “The Shivering Sands”The Suicide Club, Robert Louis Stevenson (three short stories)The Awakening and “Desirée’s Baby,” Kate ChopinVirginia Woolf’s Mrs. DallowayVladimir Nabokov’s Pale FireAlice Munro’s “Comfort”Sylvia Plath is the patron saint of suicide lit: The Bell Jar and, among her poetry, particularly “Lady Lazarus” (But you might also check out Anne Sexton’s work and that of Ted Hughes’ second poetess-wife to die by her own hand, Assia Wevill)”A Perfect Day for Banana Fish” J.D. SalingerAh, yes, and Dorothy Parker’s “Resumé” – as beloved as the Hughes and almost as short:Razors pain you;Rivers are damp;Acids stain you;And drugs cause cramp.Guns aren’t lawful;Nooses give;Gas smells awful;You might as well live.Happy Reading![Ed note: got more suggestions? Leave a comment]
The next novel I picked up was Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides. I was, as some of you might recall, very impressed by Middlesex and wondered about The Virgin Suicides. Most of my friends who have only seen the movie despised it, and those who read it suggested that the book was a success and that I should never bother with the movie, which is precisely what I did. The Virgin Suicides has a very complex storyline, narrated in contrasting simplicity by a man years after a quiet suburb of Detroit was shaken up by the suicides of the Lisbon girls. Eugenides is very successful in capturing the mental state of teenagers, as well as their struggles in growing up and establishing an identity. The lack of a male influence among the Lisbons – a family of seven with five daughters – the dominant, repressive and over-protective nature of Mrs. Lisbon, and the disengaged, mostly submissive stance of Mr. Lisbon form the nexus of complexities that eventually infect the Lisbon family and drive the daughters to suicide. The sexual escapades of Lux – the youngest of four sisters following thirteen year old Cecilia’s suicide – and the enigmatic Trip Fontaine’s obsession with her expand the plot and provide a window into the social environment of 1970s suburbia. The Virgin Suicides presents a good glimpse of Eugenides’ immaculate prose by the delightful narrative of a grown up from the stand point of a ’70s teenager obsessed with inward girls and the mysteries that surrounded them. I would strongly suggest The Virgin Suicides as an intro to Euginedes.Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale is my fourth book of 2005. The time-bridging adventures of Peter Lake, a fantastic protagonist raised by the Baymen out on the Jersey shore and thrown into the life of New York at age twelve in the late 1800s, Pearly Soames, a gold-obsessed thief and the nightmare of all gangs in New York (think Bill the Butcher from Gangs of New York), Beverly Penn, daughter of media magnate Isaac Penn who suffers from consumption, and the bridge builder Jackson Meade, who aims to build the rainbow bridge that will bring the Golden Age all reflect on the essence of the human spirit, which is warmest in the bitter colds of Winter. The narrative moves from the late 1800s to the early 1900s in a chronological fashion until a crucial showdown between Peter and Pearly, whom the former had wronged by ambushing the gang – the notorious Short Tails – during an attack on the Baymen. Next, you find yourself in the 1990s (and keep in mind that this novel was written in 1983), in a futuristic world not so different than the one we live in today, but one that has lost all sense of romanticism and sincerity. Still, there are those affiliated with the Lake of the Coheeries (a mystical upstate town, unbeknownst to common eyes – a pseudo Neverland more along the lines of The Shire) who have assimilated into modern culture yet maintain a hidden greatness inherent in their heritage of understanding and love. As characters cross paths in search of the Golden Age, and few know what to look for, back comes Peter Lake, Pearly, and Jackson Meade. When these characters of a century ago find themselves in New York, in the 1990s, they are befuddled to say the least. But shortly, everyone comes to realize that the unsettled accounts of the past were but the beginning of a reckoning scheduled for a hundred years later. As events unfold, New York suffers from a terrible fire and one gets the feeling that things are headed for the worst. Helprin’s fantastic story is touching and surreal, the beauties he draws upon are essential elements that most of us are prone to forget or overlook. Winter’s Tale is also a great ode to New York, one of the central and most beautiful characters – yes a character indeed – in the novel. The early image and infinite ideal of New York is best described in another character, Hardesty Marratta’s proclamation: “For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone.” If you are not a staunch realist and love a long build up, you will be delighted at the interplay of history, characters, New York, and romantic idealism that leads to a fantastic resolution.