The last three novels I’ve read have included a total of seven suicides, five acts of self-destructive sex and immeasurable quantities of nostalgia. To paraphrase Stalin, one death is a tragedy, but a handful of deaths is a real page turner.
Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is the story of a young man who falls in love with a fragile girl whose ex-boyfriend’s suicide leads—spoiler alert!—to her own psychological disintegration and suicide. Known for his forays into magic realism, the only fantasy Murakami brings to bear in this story is the somewhat unbelievable fact that Toro, the laconic loner at the heart of the novel, somehow manages to effortlessly stumble into bed with an assortment of lovelies. (One suspects there may be more than a little authorial wish fulfillment at work here.) The book quickly becomes an overheated fugue of loneliness and suicide and mental disintegration—such a piling up of the rawest materials of literary art that it comes off a bit like cheating. And yet, as much as you are perfectly aware that you are being manipulated, I defy anyone one who reads this book to avoid remaining disconcerted for days by the book’s massively overdetermined final act.
Like Murakami, LP Hartley’s The Go-Between revolves around the kind of bad sex that leads to great literary suicide. (Personally I concur with Woody Allen’s quip that “even my worst orgasm was just right,” but then again I did not have to operate within the strict social rules of the Edwardian upper class that this book depicts.) I picked up this book after seeing its first line quoted for the 100th time: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (That line is, by itself, is worthier than Carl Sandburg’s entire oeuvre.) As with Norwegian Wood, this book is a look back to youthful events that ending up recasting the narrator’s entire life. (The novel’s beginning is framed as the reconstruction of a childhood diary.) Spending the summer with the family of a wealthy friend from school, young Leo Colston passes letters between his friend’s sister (who is being courted by a local aristocrat disfigured in the Boer War) and a local farmer. Leo serves as the go-between in more ways than one—his role as a mediator of class is especially important—as he unwittingly serves as the catalyst for the novel’s (again) gruesome end. Though seemingly a bit fussy at first, the book becomes increasingly subtle, textured and inexorable. An almost perfect novel.
My latest bad sex/suicide book is John O’Hara’s 1930 novel Appointment in Samarra. Self-destructive sex? Check. Julien English, the novel’s protagonist, drunkenly attempts hanky panky with the torch singer girlfriend of a local mobster in a roadhouse parking lot while his wife stews inside. No matter what decade it is, this is a bad move. Suicide? Check. The novel is constructed so that each bad decision, starting with the senseless throwing of a drink into the face of an annoying man English owes money to, ends up culminating in (and this might sound familiar) his gruesome end. An artful book, dense and kaleidoscopic, the more time that goes by the less it has remained with me. It leaves me somewhat cold, perhaps because it strives to be relentlessly modern and brassy instead of morose and backwards-looking—in short, lacking in nostalgia.
In the end, maybe bad sex and suicide aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.