I’m so glad I get to start this with a slight disclaimer! I had the joy of attending a Tin House Workshop with Rachel Heng, and I thought she was great. Naturally, when you know someone even a little, you’re nervous going into their book. I’m pleased to say that Heng’s debut novel, Suicide Club, is a rich piece of futurism, frightening and moving in equal measure, and that I can happily recommend it to readers looking for a literary take on dystopia.
In a future about a century from now, Lea Kirino is living her best life, and she intends to continue doing so for at least another two centuries. Thanks to skin transplants, organ transplants, healthy living, and medical breakthroughs, some people can achieve life expectancies of three hundred years. There’s even a rumor circulating that there’s another advance just around the corner that will take even that cap off, and allow people to become truly immortal.
There are catches, however.
First, and most obvious: the only people who can pull this off are those called “Lifers”—people whose genetic code is such that the government is willing to help them stay alive. Your status as a “Lifer” or a “sub-100”—meaning you won’t even make it a paltry century—is determined at birth. The second catch is simply that Lifers go to extreme lengths to preserve themselves, eschewing meat, alcohol, refined sugar, fat, carbs, high-impact exercise, fructose, swimming too fast, art, jazz, hell, most music, movies, TV, over-stimulating books, videogames…are you starting to see the problem? Who wants 300 years if you can’t do anything with it? The third catch is that all that stuff I just listed? You don’t exactly get a choice in avoiding it. Even sub-100s are expected to avoid what is considered an “antisanct” lifestyle, and for Lifers, indulging in heretical pleasures like grapefruit can get you put on a watchlist.
The Suicide Club, which is exactly what it sounds like, grows up because people who have rounded the corner of 100 have realized that they don’t want to keep living, especially not if it means living an echo of what life used to be. They’ve recently begun posting videos of suicides online to get the word out, throwing the government into turmoil as it simultaneously tries to crack down on their activity, and prepare for the long-rumored “Third Wave”—the innovation that will allow people to become truly immortal.
Lea has heard of the Club, and sees a few of their suicide videos online, but she thinks they’re insane. Her whole goal in life is to prove that she loves life enough to be part of the Third Wave, and Heng shows us her elite world full of taut, toned people who live as blandly and pleasantly as possible, sipping spirulina cocktails and dutifully eating their Nutripacks. It’s only after she bumps into her father, an antisanct who walked out on her and her mother over 80 years ago, that she and the reader begin to see more sides of this immortality-obsessed society. Heng does a masterful job of leading us from Lea’s life in glittering future Manhattan, through all the Outer Boroughs with their increasingly poor inhabitants –Lifers who crave death, sub-100s who are forced into a poverty-level existence, and, of course, Club members, who can pop up at any level. She builds a strong, chilling future world, gradually dropping hints about what life outside of the United States looks like, and slowly introducing us to scenes from Lea’s past. She also takes us into the life of a poorer Lifer, Anja, who struggles to care for her mother as the older woman’s organs fail one by one, all while a cutting-edge mechanical heart keeps pumping life into a body that wants to quit. We drop in on a support group for people who have been caught attempting suicide, and hop from desperately gleeful hundredth birthday celebrations to clandestine barbecues.
Heng doesn’t hinge any of this on a religious angle, which I found interesting since, in today’s society, a term like antisanct would play well in some fundamentalist religious circles. If anything the closest thing to a religious leaning is displayed by the Suicide Club members. There’s no sense here of this being an outgrowth of anti-abortion groups, or anti-assisted suicide groups, which I really appreciated. I liked the idea that Lea’s world grew out of a health consciousness that coupled with scientific advancement, and gradually moved into the center of society. My only real quibble with the book also comes with its worldbuilding. There’s no sense that the climate has changed significantly in this future, so either we humans of the present threw the brakes on our current problems, or the climate bounced back. Also, most of the Lifers seem economically stable. We see real poverty among some of the sub-100s, and we do meet a few Lifers who are trapped in a dead-end gigs to try to pay for their physical upgrades, but the vast majority of Lifers want to charge into immortality with seemingly no qualms about how the hell you keep paying for things as the centuries unfold. I understand why, however—Heng is trying to wrestle with some huge existential issues, and dwelling on those two similarly huge topics may have derailed the book.
Heng only shows us the edges of the authoritarian government that looms behind her story, but even those edges are chilling. Obviously depression and suicidal ideation are strictly forbidden, and attempted suicide means being sent to truly awful support groups. That’s the other thing, though—since people have super-strength, quick-healing skin, mechanical hearts, reinforced bones—there aren’t many options left for those who want to end their lives. I would say that this is the true joy of reading this book. I’m not advocating for suicide here, but Heng’s book reminds us that honoring self-determination, bodily autonomy, or even good old-fashioned free will means allowing people to have the final say over their bodies.
This is a fairly new idea, culturally speaking. For most of human history, slavery was considered A-OK. There are plenty of cultures where forcing people to get married or have children against their will. Plenty of places where people are forced to hide or deny their sexual orientation, where people battle over women’s rights over their own reproductive health. There are very few cultures where people have the right to end their lives, and even DNR clauses can be controversial. With Suicide Club, Heng gives us an extreme version where suicide becomes the ultimate freedom after immortality is revealed to be a trap. By exploring such an extreme scenario, she created a space for me to question my own limits when it comes to choice and autonomy, and left me meditating on the book’s questions long after I’d finished reading.