The publisher’s blurb for Travis Jeppesen’s third novel makes The Suiciders (Semiotext(e)/MIT Press) sound less experimental than it actually is, perhaps to avoid frightening off potential readers who might be averse to the experimental label. By the end of the book’s third paragraph, though, they’d have a pretty good idea of what they’re in for. The novel is in some respects a challenging read, but for those willing to step out of their habitual zones of comfort there is reward to be found for the effort.
The Suiciders tells the story of seven young men “permanently in their late teens.” Zach, Lukas, Adam, Matthew, Peter, Arnold, and Taylor are outsiders squatting together in abandoned house in an unnamed American suburb. They decide to take a “road trip to the end of the world,” a conceit from which the title is drawn and on which the plot is constructed.
The reader is quickly immersed in literary irregularity, and questions begin to form. Who is the narrator? Who’s speaking? To whom? What did this paragraph mean in relation to the plot? A few pages in, there’s a temptation to go back and re-read, to try to straighten out who’s who, a temptation that becomes less urgent after this passage:
Sometimes Matthew is Marc. At other times Peter is Marc. Then there are times when Adam is Steven. Mostly, though, we prefer Lukas. Lukas for Matthew and Peter, of course. Lukas could never be Adam. Adam is more like an invocation for Marc. Marc being the persona created by Peter.
But then the following paragraph, which begins with this equally curious turn:
Who threw out those goddamn boxes I needed those for my dead canary collection, shouts Peter, Peter coming into the room screaming at everyone like his goddamn dick got stuck in an electrical socket. Hey Peter, you can’t talk to us like that, said Adam, we are supposed to be your friends. If you were my friend, you wouldn’t have thrown out all the boxes.
A chronic reader of conventional prose will look for meaning, at the level of word, sentence, paragraph, chapter—and will be both frustrated and exhilarated. S/he fears attributing meaning to where it was not intended, but fears also dismissing such possibilities too easily. Are the boxes to which Peter referred as being discarded not literal receptacles for dead birds, but the names, the nouns, the places we put ourselves and each other?
These fears, this uncertainty, put the reader in an intellectually vulnerable yet stimulating place. Often, paragraphs are constructed of what seem to be substantially discrete sentences of baffling meaning that can sometimes be described as gibberish. And yet individually most of those sentences provoke the reader to pause, to consider; they seem pregnant with possible meaning, both in relation to the text, and in relation to the external world. From this apparent linguistic soup, a steam of apparently discernible narrative arises, which propels the reader on, to the next sentence, the next chapter.
This narrative trajectory is not expressed so much as suggested—in addition to the trope of the road trip—by a few recurring thematic patterns in which the possibility of group suicide is the most obvious, but there are also repeated references to childhood trauma in the form of rape. The teenagers are criminals, abusers, serial killers, but also innocents, victims. This is a novel that peers into dark corners, but it’s also humorous, though the humor generally comes from the style and how the reader receives it rather than from the expressions.
One would be hard pressed to identify a conventional dramatic arc in The Suiciders (not that one should be expected to try), but if there’s anything resembling a climax it’s surely the 24th chapter, “The Names.” It’s about ten pages of almost continuously absurd sex, violence, provocation, and nounfuckery involving names that had not previously appeared in the text. It’s shocking, funny, and thought-provoking.
If there’s one thing in the novel that invokes discomfort in a less satisfying way, it’s the treatment of female-identified characters. This is, ostensibly, a story about young, male serial killers, and therefore one might reasonably anticipate that misogynistic violence could be a significant component. However, the detail in the depictions of violence against female characters seemed vastly disproportionate to that of violence against males.
In a work in which the authorial voice is so apparently present, this seemed problematic. Offensive references to race—besides being much less frequent—seemed to appear in dialogue more distinctly from the mouths of characters, and thus somewhat contextually defensible. Depictions of violence against women, in comparison, seemed less clearly dialogue-originating. This could be a case in which the work’s metafictional nature draws the reviewer’s own sensitivities into the text, but this remains unclear and might well be clarified through a closer re-reading.
That issue aside, Jeppesen’s novel seems to have much in common with a piece of abstract visual art, but constructed with words. One can stand back and appreciate the work as a whole, but there is at least as much pleasure to be found in the grain. What makes The Suiciders compelling isn’t just the technical accomplishments of the artist, but that the artist has created something that allows the viewer to interact with the work in individually personal ways. At this, The Suiciders is a success.
By Travis Jeppesen
Paperback, 9781584351252, 224 pp.
(Originally published on LambdaLiterary.com)