A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball
It is better to consider Jesse Ball a text-based artist than simply a novelist: his books are far from traditionally fulfilling narratives but instead captivating volumes of expressive, theoretical exploration. Dialogue-driven, A Cure for Suicide reads like a film script that could only exist on paper. Scenes unfold like a “maze of hallways,” progressing somewhere but never forming a definitive structure. Ball writes like an abstract expressionist, discovering motifs as he puts them to the page, working towards transitioning from a broad conceit towards something finitely meaningful. In the words of one of his characters, this is a book, and a book “is one of our ways of codifying and keeping human knowledge. When it cannot be kept in a person’s head, this is one method of keeping it safe. It is a good way of moving ideas from one head to another…”
A Cure for Suicide is a boldly meditative text about our intrinsic leanings towards depression. Set in a futuristic medical utopia, a person on the brink could enroll in a sort of reverse-Kevorkian assisted rebirth: with a simple injection, the brain can be rebooted and memories erased. With the help of a full-time examiner, the suicidal patient (known as “The Claimant”) can relearn the world in a course-corrective way that lets them keep their distance from the all-too-nearby darkness.
The novel follows the treatment of one claimant through what is known as “The Process of Villages.” The Claimant wakes to find himself living with The Examiner in a calculatingly minimalist house, one of many in a calculatingly minimalist town. The Claimant knows nothing about the world around him, and The Examiner teaches him how to live using the few concrete concepts available to her. “Come, let us eat. We shall walk to the kitchen, and there we will get the things we shall eat; also, we will get the things on which we shall eat, and the things with which we shall eat.” The plot of A Cure for Suicide unfolds like how a language textbook is structured: once a selection of vocabulary words and verbs are taught, the duo moves to another similar village where they can work on conversation, new ideas, and new tenses.
It feels as if A Cure for Suicide began with its central philosophical idea and that the novel was written to explore the complications that would result if that idea were a reality. Ball is not overly didactic in his prose and maintains a sense of wonderment and confusion throughout the novel in a way that allows him to evaluate The Claimant along with us; one does not get the impression that the events in A Cure for Suicide were plotted in order to lead to some revelatory denouement. This contributes to a spellbinding read, but also one that feels like it was made up as it was written. This makes A Cure for Suicide (and most of Jesse Ball’s novels) a tricky sort of book to recommend: a perfect weekend diversion for the constant reader, but not the best pick for someone looking for one perfect bildungsroman to get lost in each season. It is a book of ideas, a book for reflection.
Towards the end of A Cure for Suicide, Jesse Ball steps back in time to The Claimant’s application where he recounts, in blocks of dense text, the emotional weight that led him to seek experimental treatment. The previous script-like pace of A Cure for Suicide is abandoned here and the novel slows down dramatically, its vibrancy suddenly sucked from the pages. It’s terrifying to realize that it is the clutter of emotion and memories – a surplus of words – that has dragged everything down. Underneath its verbosity, The Claimant’s story is as sad as it is hard to read, and with effortless composure Jesse Ball shows us that a treatment might not be such a bad idea.
But will it work? Is it possible to rewire human experience to discover a better outlook on existence, or are some us hardwired with melancholia? And where does that comprehension shift away from enduring life’s hardship to simply wanting out? While A Cure for Suicide doesn’t solve these mysteries, it investigates hypotheticals, creating an existential patient-study for us to ponder.