A View From The Bridge of Sighs: Jesse Ball's A Cure For Suicide

on Monday, August 24, 2015
Life is a long, drawn out, torturous lesson that seems geared to teach us only one thing: it's all shit. How many times have have you wished it would end? How many times have you dreamed of starting over? If only I could have my time again... Well, perhaps you can.

A woman enters a house. On the bed is a man, waking from a deep sleep. She begins to talk to him as you might a wide-eyed kindergarten child. She is teaching him the basics: what it is to live, to communicate, to engage with the world. She is, we learn, The Examiner. He is the Claimant. He has a name, but it changes as we progress. They are in a village, "The Gentlest Village" we are told, one in an intricate system of similar villages - the "Process of Villages" - through which Examiner and Claimant will pass. Should it not work out they will begin again. That's how it is for them all. Yes, there are many others like these two. And so it goes.

In many ways, A Cure For Suicide is the pinnacle of Jesse Ball's career to date. His power has always resided in his ability to profoundly unsettle the reader, holding up a cracked mirror to our world. Or perhaps there is nothing wrong with the mirror other than it shows us an unpalatable truth. Either way, Ball has remained tethered to the familiar no matter how far afield he has wandered. Now, in A Cure For Suicide, he pulls up anchor on the ship of our reality and casts us adrift on the sea of dreams. It is a wonderful thing to behold, a reading experience quite unlike any other you will have. In time it becomes clear that this system of villages serves a crucial purpose: much like the brain wipe in Sunshine of A Spotless Mind, it gives the claimant a second chance at life. Erase everything, become a tabula rasa. Then be guided through a process of reinvention. You need not die to be reborn. Memory is merely construction and can itself be built from scratch. Two thirds into A Cure For Suicide and I was quite certain I was reading a classic.

Alas, from great heights come terrible falls. Having become completely ensconced in this strange but oddly comforting world, I was shocked to see Jesse Ball do the one thing he's never felt the need to do before: explain what's going on. It was like being woken from troubling dreams only to find I wasn't some monstrous vermin and the world was just as I remembered it. For fifty pages we are treated to a reasonably good story of doomed love that, had it been a stand alone novella written by someone other than Jesse Ball, might have been a worthwhile read but in the context of the truly beautiful confusion that is The Process of Villages made for an annoying (and in the worst sense of the word, heartbreaking) distraction. I get it: rather than killing oneself one can undergo this cure for suicide. The clue was already in the title. No need to spell it out for me. Once done, the cloak of surrealism is returned, but it is now ratty and torn. The reader can see through its holes. There is a step towards redemption with a short play, The Onion Knife, which is vintage Jesse Ball and a fantastic piece of the novel's puzzle but I just couldn't shake the disappointment of what came before it. We end up back where we started: a village, albeit one of the Potemkin variety.

A Cure For Suicide is Jesse Ball's most difficult book, both in terms of concept and execution. Like all that have come before it, it demands rereading. I suggest on the second time round you skip those fifty pages. What remains, I dare say, is Jesse Ball's masterdream, the perfect novel that might have been.