A Cure for Suicide
By Jesse Ball
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer
Jesse Ball already wrote this book. There's nothing particularly wrong with it as a self-contained unit, no narrative dead ends or clunky prose constructions, and even if the characters seem a little underdeveloped, that's okay because Ball's project doesn't involve complex characters. He's a novelist of ideas, and he's got enough control over his ideas to translate them into novel form without seeming like he's lecturing us. If this was my first Jesse Ball book, I probably would've enjoyed it, but he already wrote it. He wrote it in 2007 and called it Samedi the Deafness, and it was a terrific mind-scramble murder mystery for book dorks, with shades of Kafka and Borges and Calvino. Nowhere near as good as the best work of those heavy names, but Kafka, Borges and Calvino's early work didn't match their later masterpieces either, and frankly, I dug Samedi more than Borges' Universal History of Iniquity or rambling early Kafka stories like "Description of a Struggle" or "Preparations for a Wedding in the Country."
Let's go through Samedi the Deafness and A Cure for Suicide step by step, so you'll see what I'm talking about. In Samedi the Deafness, our hero, James, witnesses a murder, while in A Cure for Suicide, our hero, the Claimant awakens in a village. Samedi the Deafness runs James through a number of other strange circumstances until he finds himself in a sanitarium for liars, while the hero of A Cure for Suicide learns he's also in something of a sanitarium, this one devoted to helping him readjust to the real world after a vaguely defined accident. Looking a little similar so far? Well, here's where it gets annoying: the conflicts play out in the exact same way. Both James and the Claimant are taken under the wing of a kindly but ominous caretaker, both of them start seeing weird discrepancies between the story they're told and their own impressions of the world, both meet a woman who also sees some holes in the world they're shown, and both then get reason to distrust the woman. As both James and the Claimant try to find a little reality to stand on, they're fed a series of secrets, lies and counter-lies that was all sorts of fun to piece through with Samedi the Deafness but feels like shtick here.
If that wasn't enough for you, Ball also recycles Samedi's form. Since these are the only two books of his I've read, I can't tell you if he always takes this approach, but the man favors long chapters composed of short vignettes, some of them as brief as a single line. The choppy form creates a disorienting effect, especially given how quick both books read (although this one does contain a segment composed of long discursive paragraphs that is, I'll admit, a new stylistic development since Samedi), and I'd be more down with him using the same form twice if it felt more developed this time around. Instead, this seems like Jesse Ball consciously and deliberately writing a Jesse Ball-type book, and I'd just plain like to see him change it up a little.
Out of 10: 6.5, but feel free to bump it up if this is your first Jesse Ball book. Just don't be surprised if it falls in your esteem after you check out Samedi the Deafness.