Some kind of despair
Rachel Heng's debut novel is a joyless read about a joyless society
By Toh Hsien Min
Two of my extended family have committed suicide. In 2003, my cousin went to his girlfriend's flat in Tampines sometime between two and three in the morning, handed her his wallet and his mobile phone, marched to the window, and leapt. Six years later, his brother was found in the stairwell of a shopping mall, dangling from a rope. The family, especially their mother, never recovered from the double blow. I was told that in both cases there had been no event triggers, which makes me wonder about the depths of despair they had hidden away.
Suicide is one of those things about which society has consensus. When we carve out exceptions, we have to use a different word, euthanasia. Disagreeing with society in this instance attracts words such as the one I've just used, despair, which pithily encapsulates a state no one else understands. There is plenty of despair about Suicide Club, the debut novel from Rachel Heng, but it is not interwoven in the usual threads.
After a prelude scene of a video-streamed suicide, the novel opens with the 100th birthday celebration of Lea Kirino, a director at Long Term Capital Partners in a future New York. It is clear that she is high-SES socioeconomic status, to borrow a term modish in present-day Singapore but all this begins to change the next day when she spots her fugitive father crossing the road. Lea attempts to jaywalk to catch up with him but gets into an accident, and in this future where declining populations are a primary concern and medical technology seems advanced but not so advanced that everyone has equal access to life-extending treatments, falling afoul of "Directive 109A: Reckless pedestrian conduct in undesignated zones" means that she is placed under an Observation that scrutinises and interprets every action unfavourably, stalling her career and pushing her down the priority list for the new Third Wave of treatments rumoured to deliver effective immortality. The combination of this, her attempts to reconnect with her father, and her friendship with a young woman named Anja, who is the new leader of the Suicide Club whose sole purpose is to set up an Aunt Sally of an opposition to the status quo, makes up the rest of the novel.
That summary is all one needs to know about the story. Nothing actually happens and there aren't spoilers to give away. Between high-fibre plot and high-fructose world-building, Heng has skewed her ingredients towards the latter, giving us DiamondSkinTM, SmartBloodTM, ToughMuscTM, antisancts, WeCovery in a depressing environment, Waves of experimental Replacement programmes, and the like. This creates two unnecessary challenges. First, the consistency and the science of the future New York is unconvincing. Keeping the science in the background, as Kazuo Ishiguro does in Never Let Me Go, helps the core thrust of the novel; on the other hand, supplying details that would not be out of place at a scientific conference, as Michael Crichton does, cements verisimilitude. The middle ground of inserting details without supporting them is deeply unsatisfactory.
"I'm misaligned", says Lea's father Kaito, halfway through the book. "Do you know what that means? [ ] Who knows? [ ] And my mind who knows?" I'm not sure even Heng does. To compound things, an over-enthusiasm for world-building can be tempered by setting up new paradigms early and letting these play out, eventually reaping the rewards of deferred payoffs, but three hundred pages into Suicide Club we're still receiving new information about "farms" and "the Markets". All this creates is disbelief and a negative marginal utility impacting also all the elements of the world already encountered. When we return to the "four decades of medical training required to qualify as even the most basic of doctors", what first felt like simply an elongated life now provokes questions on the true state of future medical technology and future human intellect. As for all the trademarked technologies even in our world, nobody says Coca-ColaTM.
In place of story, Heng uses her novel as a stalking horse for ideas about social injustice and the meaning of life. The former aspect is studded throughout. Lea's clients have "wealth that was enough to last several lifetimes that they would not have", and her fiancι Todd "had never known a sub-100 in his life". There is the mild interest of body parts as SES indicators ("clearly he had to be further down in the Ministry, with a spine like that"; "smudged glasses"; "every liver spot and ingrown hair"; "[Natalie's] left shoulder, Lea noticed with satisfaction, was slightly lower than the right") but for the most part this is played straight. The idea nevertheless develops with sophistication when it is pegged to an authority that is somehow both autocratic and ambivalent at the same time. The sanctioned Observation of Lea is intrusive (and surprisingly low-tech), and yet it isn't hidden from Kaito, the supposed fugitive, that the Ministry has always known of his whereabouts. Lea's relation to authority is somewhat bipolar:
These sentences describe Lea's feelings towards Kaito as he pilots a boat, but cannot carry no irony about her quotidian life. When her Observers pull a bureaucracy power-play, one of them "began removing rubber bands from the ball on his desk", recalling Lea's earlier stress over her domestic arrangements and the "tightness in her abdomen. It felt like a ball of rubber bands, stretched over one another, each more taut than the other." The point is made with admirable nuance. Rather like the "unique mix of confidence and the fear of failure that only thirty-five years of elite schooling could breed", the paradox enhances the texture of reality in the novel.
This subtlety isn't quite there in the core thesis around What Makes Life Worth LivingTM. For this, descriptions have some heavy lifting to do, but Heng's are oddly uncompelling, even if (or perhaps especially if) the argument is made that Heng is deliberately defamiliarising much of what Lea encounters because she doesn't "know" it. This comes to the fore particularly with "trad food, as it was now called", or even any form of food:
It isn't just that anyone who cooks wouldn't remark on the logic of garlic packaging, as Lea "rarely cooked", but that the descriptions seem studied. If the "total nutritional value of her purchase" at checkout flags out Lea's joyless world, the opposite case is made with little fervour and indeed atavistic distaste, as conveyed through onions that smelled of "animal sweat", the contraband ice-cream whose "cloying sweetness was [ ] almost sour in its intensity", and the "charred animal scent" of "grilling contraband animal flesh" being crowbarred into sexual desire: "She imagined running her hands over the man's chest as he bit into a steak, as the juices slid down his throat. [ ] Lea watched as he extended his tongue, an alien, pink thing, to catch the drops of animal oil dripping down his wrist." The defamiliarisation feels perfunctory, and if it doesn't advance the WMLWLTM case, it leaves behind a vacuum in the new quotidian also. This seems a pity, because Heng is capable of really good description when she is focussed on it:
That last, excellent piece of defamiliarising the act of tearing may, however, be the lodestar to the nub of the challenge. Lea has forgotten how to cry, and alongside all the pains taken to avoid "deliberate inducement of cortisol generation" in full knowledge of "how bad anger was for oxidative degeneration" in a society where there is something criminal about "the old feeling humming underneath the surface", one suspects that the task of capturing an emotionless society carries with it a risk that the book as a whole ends up emotionless also, where everything unfolds according to total nutritional value, "at the recommended pace, of course."
That's where we pick up on despair again, specifically to note that the various suicides in the book display little despair but clarity in spades; one of those being filmed in the act even "seemed calmer now, happier". If anything, quiet desperation is the undercurrent of the high-SES "lifers, those smooth-skinned, long-limbed islands, whose entire beings were dedicated towards only ever skimming the surface." If Heng's novel could have done more than just that, we would not limp to the close of the novel in quite the same despair as Lea, feeling "the hollowness of the comfort, the distance between her and the stranger sitting next to her. She was very tired now, and wanted to be alone."QLRS Vol. 17 No. 4 Oct 2018