Four pariahs meet
on roof. Each plans to jump, but
they get distracted.
Nick Hornby has done the impossible with A Long Way Down. He made me laugh about suicide.
My sister-in-law killed herself about six years ago. She was one of the most interesting people I've ever met, and I adored her (she also drove me crazy sometimes, but that didn't dilute the love).
Suicide is a body blow. It leaves you gasping for breath. And it hurts for a very long time. It's also contagious. If someone you love kills him/herself, the odds that you'll do it too increase dramatically, even if you weren't particularly suicidal.
Yeah. Not a laughing matter.
So when I saw this black comedy about suicide on my recommended list at Amazon, I didn't seriously consider reading it. But then I saw it recommended again at my independent bookstore, so I bought it.
And yes, it is funny. Charming and delightful and hysterically funny.
First, the characters are real and wildly original. You probably wouldn't want to spend time with them in real life, but in fiction, they're most entertaining. They bumble through life, getting most things wrong (heck, they even get distracted from the task at hand by the silliest of wild geese). If they asked you out, for instance (all them are single), you might think Loser!
And yet. By the end of the book, I felt for all of them. Maureen, the woman whose life is subsumed in the 24-7 care of her catatonic son, of course; that one's easy. But I even had empathy for Martin, the morning television host with perfect teeth who did prison time for having sex with a 15-year-old.
I was interested in what happened to them too. I wanted everything to be all right -- though another part of me really wanted an honest ending more than a happy one. When I started the book, I was sure one of the characters would go through with it before the end, and ... ah, but I can't tell you that without spoiling the ride. But I did get the honest ending I think all literature demands.
A Long Way Down is also a perfect example of voice. "Voice" is probably the hardest part of the writing craft to learn. It's not easily defined, and you'll hear at least two distinctively difference uses of the word. And it's very, very difficult to explain how to create it. But it's critical for a book to breathe and for an author's long-term success.
One definition of voice is particularly ambiguous: the author's voice. That's how you can pick up one of Faulkner's books, or Vonnegut's, and know who wrote it. Authors choose specific types of words and tend to use similar sentence structures and ... well, a whole lot of things we don't really understand but recognize when we see it. This, most authors agree, develops on its own and can't really be learned.
But the other kind of voice is what moves books, and that's the character's voice. An interesting character tends to have a distinctive way of speaking, whether or not they are telling the story in first person.
And A Long Way Down is a master example of it. Written in first person (alternating between the four main characters), this book has four distinctive voices. Although Hornby kindly labeled each chapter with the protagonist's name, he could have saved the ink because you would never mix them up, at least not past the first sentence. None of them sound alike, not even remotely.
Nor should they. An aging, conservative British woman who's been sequestered most of her life shouldn't sound like an American rock guitarist. Nor the rebellious youngest daughter of an MP sound like a TV broadcaster.
My only complaint about Hornby's book is not about the writing at all, but the social responsibility for a huge falsehood about suicide.
Martin (the TV man) says, "I was beginning to realize an important truth about suicide: Failure is as hurtful as success, and is likely to provoke even more anger, because there's no grief with which to water it down."
But he's wrong. As an author, I'd worry that someone considering suicide would read that, believe it, and make certain their attempted suicide was successful.
And that would be tragic indeed. Because grief doesn't water down anger. Grief is gasoline poured on the fire of anger. You don't know angry until someone you love has given you the ultimate f***-off, taken the last word so completely and irretrievably from you, and abandoned you in that most profound of ways.
We did "attempted" suicide with Mary. We visited her in the psych hospital, met with counselors to brainstorm how we could help, took on a $30,000 credit card bill to put her through rehab.
And then we did the "successful" suicide. We unplugged life support, planned a funeral and spent $10,000 (again, on a credit card) for a casket, a tombstone and a six-by-two-foot plot of land.
Which do you think hurt more?
The hurt we went through the year she died ... nothing can touch that pain. Not losing parents (easy for me to say -- I haven't lost mine!). Not abuse or illness or major accidents or disabilities. Maybe the loss of a child (haven't been there yet either, thank goodness, but I suspect even that only equals the pain).
Maybe brutal murder ... but you know, I don't think so, unless the murderer was also someone you love. Because the fact is, suicide feels like brutal murder, only it's done by someone who loves you. And it feels like they did it to you.
Sigh. See what I mean? It's so hard for me to speak lightly on this subject. But that's why I say Nick Hornby is obviously a genius. After all, he made me laugh about it.