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Death Kit (1967)
By Susan Sontag
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
DESCRIPTION: Known affectionately by her fans as "The Dark Lady of American Letters," like many writers the late Susan Sontag is almost equally known for her personality, celebrity and controversial views as for her varied body of work itself. A serious academe even at an early age, who had logged in time at the University of Chicago, University of Paris and Oxford all by 25, Sontag was known as a distinctly European-style intellectual who spent her life championing the challenging countercultural writers of that continent; celebrated mostly for her heady critical essays, among other achievements she was the person to coin the word "camp" as a positive term for "so bad it's good," a virtual pillar of the entire Postmodern era, plus came up with an entirely new way for us to envision the relationship between photography and us as its subjects and viewers, an obsession that even bled into Sontag's personal life, in that this notorious bisexual was romantically involved with famed photographer Annie Liebowitz for the entire last decade of her life.
But despite all this, interestingly Sontag primarily considered herself a novelist, odd to realize given that she only wrote four of them in her long career, two near the beginning and two near the end. 1967's experimental Death Kit was the second, and only the third book of her career overall, after 1963's similarly groundbreaking The Benefactor and the essay collection Against Interpretation in 1966, considered one of her most famous books because of containing the aforementioned "camp" essay. And indeed, there's a lot to be said for one online reviewer's sum-up of Death Kit as "what Kafka would've written if he had been a '60s hippie;" after all, Sontag always saw her formative years in continental Europe as the most important period of her life, the years when she first fell in love with Kafka himself and other cutting-edge Modernist European artists, a love that would not just stay with her the rest of her life but in many ways help define her in the eyes of American audiences. A sometimes nonsensical, dreamlike tale just dripping with symbolism throughout, it is perhaps the story of a pissy corporate executive who loses his temper one evening on a delayed commuter train, manages to sneak off the stopped train, in a fit of rage kills the wisecracking employee trying to clear the tracks, and sneaks back on board without anyone noticing, spending the rest of the story in an existential cloud of guilt and deep thoughts; or maybe none of this actually happened, and what we're really watching is our unreliable narrator experience a complete snap from reality "American Psycho" style. In any case, there is also Diddy's sexual obsession with an easy blind girl to contend with, the travails of his microscope-manufacturing job, and all kinds of tangents to be had about the nature of humanity, the slippery definition of "truth," and all kinds of other Big Issues. A book almost guaranteed to go up in value as the years continue, this a must-have for those interested in the history of countercultural intellectual thought, as well as Postmodernist literary history in general.
CONDITION: Text: Very Good Minus (VG-). Manuscript itself still in good, clean, tight shape, although board edges now display a bit of fading, and with a few crinkles on both the top and bottom spine. Stated "First Printing, 1967" on the copyright page. Dust jacket: Good Plus (G+). In general still in good shape, and with the price unclipped, although all folded edges now display crinkles and small tears.
PROVENANCE: Purchased by Jason Pettus at the 30th anniversary celebration of Shake Rattle & Read bookstore, in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago, autumn 2011.