Set in the futuristic New York City, the premise of Rachel Heng’s debut is deceptively simple. What happens when humanity achieves near-immortality? What will be the cost of defying death? When I began reading Suicide Club, I had just found out through one of my students that there are indeed conferences devoted to “curing” aging and death. So, I was very curious as to how Heng would convincingly build onto that premise and make the readers wrestle with the question of what kind of life we must strive for.
Suicide Club definitely delivers in that regard, providing us with detailed descriptions of life-enhancing technologies such as SmartBlood™ and DiamondSkin™ that make the bodies of lifers almost invincible. Even with the enhancements, however, the daily existence of the so-called lifers are carefully monitored by the government so that they may reach their maximum life expectancy and counterbalance the plummeting birth rate. In short, it seems that the cost of youth and longevity is the pleasures of living itself such as listening to stirring music or enjoying a sumptuous meal. In a way, the future depicted in Suicide Club is the direct opposite of the pleasure driven dystopian society in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
As the title suggests, Suicide Club makes us wonder if that kind of life is worth living at all. That question holds more weight for those who are “misaligned,” which means that their organs have different expiration dates as a result of unauthorized black market procedures. Even in those unfortunate cases, the law forbids the misaligned to commit suicide or get end-of-life care and assisted death, leaving them no choice but to slowly atrophy and decay for an indefinite time at body farms. As a protest against such government, a secret network of lifers called Suicide Club releases viral videos of its members taking their own lives in front of the camera. Although the Suicide Club’s agenda seem to revolve more around individual freedom than justice as it is mostly comprised of affluent lifers, Heng also considers the issue of unequal distribution of life chances by introducing sub-100s, who are not only excluded from receiving government subsidized life enhancing treatments but also treated as second class citizens.
What I appreciate the most about recently published speculative fiction books by Asian North American women writers (Book of M, Severance, Ocean of Minutes, Suicide Club) is that each work revolves around characters of Asian descent, who are afforded complex personhood and therefore do not easily fit into the good subject / bad subject dyad.
Even so, I had a particularly difficult time dealing with Lea Kirino, one of the two main characters in Suicide Club alongside Anja Nilsson. The novel itself is immensely readable. Heng does take an interesting spin on the model minority myth by providing flashbacks to Lea’s childhood. We find out that Lea is torn between the memory of her mother, Uju, who was determined to make her daughter into an immortal and that of her alive but missing father, Kaito, who became a fugitive of the government labelled “antisanct.” In this fictional world, the upward mobility is taken to an extent that promises immortality, and brings with it more complications. Tellingly, one of Lea’s insurance firm’s clients is a Musk as in Elon Musk. However, the more I read the more frustrated I became at Lea, who seemed unbearably self-occupied and immature despite being over a hundred years old. While that would be hardly a character trait unique to Lea and quite common among lifers, I still desired more growth from her.
The dynamic between Lea and Anja, however, proved to be more interesting. Anja, the daughter of a famous Swedish opera singer whose misalignment covered the front pages of the news, turns out to be the one who came up with the idea of viral videos. Even as the new leader of the Suicide Club, she finds it difficult to decide what to do with her own life as well as that of her mother’s. Lea somehow becomes the catalyst that prompts Anja into action, leading to a Thelma and Louise-esque ending minus suicide. The ending provided a much desired relief for me though I could not help but wonder what chaos the two women might have left behind in the city. All in all, Heng’s debut was an enjoyable read and one that might also work well as a text to teach in the classroom and open up discussions.