In Rachel Heng’s debut, Suicide Club: A Novel About Living, Lea is a “lifer”, a person predicted at birth to live a few centuries with the help of augmented artificial body parts that she must maintain with a steady diet of Nutripacks, Swimlates and visits to the clinics where her organs are kept in optimal condition. In a near future Manhattan, so sanitary and controlled that it may be Singapore next year, Lea lives her life in a series of steady repetitions: work at a high-end organ trading firm, love with a high-end fiancé, plans of a high-end future. Until she spots her estranged father on the street one day, many decades after he left his family and vanished, forever labelled an “antisanct” for having rejected his longevity and the society.

Meanwhile, there is Anja, another lifer who has to watch her mother continue to live as a shell, as her misaligned artificial organs shut down slowly one by one, leaving her a comatose, brain-dead body that is literally fading even though its artificial heart does not stop beating. There is no way out for Anja’s mother, for suicide is illegal, as is assisted suicide. In fact, it’s near impossible to even murder a lifer, given the endurance of their augmented bodies. There is, it seems, no way out of this life once you are born into it.

Anja and Lea meet at a group set up to help people with suicidal thoughts, but this leads them to the actual Suicide Club, where a group of lifers are choosing to live the way they did before this change — eating meat, drinking alcohol, finding a way to end their lives at their chosen time. It’s a dissent, a rebellion against the existing system, and Lea and Anja have to work out who they are and what they really want from this seemingly endless existence. It’s almost strange that there isn’t more of an uprising already, that there haven’t been more rebels against the system. The sheer mundanity of the world of this book should have driven hundreds of people to madness or despair or suicide. Of course, that’s where the titular Suicide Club comes in, but it almost feels like too little too late.

An attempt to explore existentialism, social pressures and the obsession with youth is let down by poor worldbuilding

Is this a story about family, about choosing how to live and how to die? Yes. Is it a story about rebelling against societal pressures and the obsession with ‘wellness’ and longevity at all costs? Yes. Is it a story about two women finding a friendship that helps them grow into who they are meant to be, while helping each other vanquish their demons? Yes. Did this narrative need much stronger worldbuilding? Also yes. This is a book that wants to be Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. It wants to be George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it wants to be Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Eventually, when it realises it cannot be any of these, it tries to be Thelma and Louise. But it isn’t capable, it isn’t whole enough.

If you suspend your disbelief for long enough, you can possibly imagine that everyone is heavily brainwashed into believing that living longer is what they truly want, which would be an apt commentary on life today. It also seems that if you get to live longer, you get to autonomically live better as well. You are a member of higher society, you have more “benefits.” How this society actually functions, though, is not very clear. What is the economy based on? How does the government operate? Who even is in the government? When Lea is placed on some sort of suicide prevention watch after she accidentally steps into the road as a car passes, she finds herself being tailed by two “Ministry” men in suits, known only by their initials, whose only job seems to be noting down the minutiae of her life. What is their purpose? Even they don’t seem to know. Is everything deliberately left blank? Is the point for us to think that the government gives people mindless things to do just to keep them occupied for 300 years?

“Did you know the latest SmartBlood(tm) clots in less than a millisecond? DiamondSkin(tm) that will withstand not just the force of a car, as yours will, but a fall of 80 floors.” ... “I could jump off right now and they could put me back together again.” — Excerpt from the book

In Suicide Club, America has figured out how to extend lifespans via a test done at birth to see who will be a lifer or not. Is this a sort of Apgar test for genes? Heng does not explain. Why does being a lifer still mean constant body maintenance and replacement of organs with synthetic ones? Is there something in the lifers’ genetic makeup that lets them get body part replacements that the “sub-lifers” can’t? Leave even that aside — why are so many lifers clamouring for immortality if all it offers is an endless entrapment in the same dead-end job while being obsessed with how youthful they look? So that they can eventually be immortal? Yes, it’s a reflection of our world today, but in Heng’s world, relationships, families, friendships — none of these things exist; just a desire to live forever.

The only people who seem to want more are the strangely stilted, supremely rich members of the Suicide Club who try to live a “trad” — traditional — life before choosing when to die. Is there a grand conspiracy of large scale societal brainwashing that makes almost everyone want to live a superficial life forever? Are they secretly being used as batteries for an alien race, a la The Matrix? It would actually make more sense if they were. It’s hard to tell if the incongruity in Suicide Club is a planned absurdism in the narrative, or just another weak link in the worldbuilding.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love & Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Suicide Club: A Novel About Living
By Rachel Heng
Henry Holt and Co., US
ISBN: 978-1250185341
352pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 25th, 2018

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