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The Suicide Shop, Jean Teule

September 21, 2020

I read about The Suicide Shop, by Jean Tuele, at Madame Bibliophile. She says, “there’s plenty of people who adored this story and I’m not entirely sure why I’m not one of them.” I, however, am entirely sure; it’s the last three words.

If you’re amused by The Addams Family, you’ll be amused by this book. The proprietors of the shop sell suicide supplies: poisoned sweets for children, poisoned apples for those who want to die as they claim Alan Turing did, by eating a poisoned apple after painting a picture of it, or devices like a cement block with a ring attached “it comes with a chain, which you padlock to your ankle. You stand beside the river. You throw it in front of you and—splash! You’re dragged down to the bottom and it’s all over.”

The husband and wife proprietors have three children, a son named Vincent, a daughter named Marilyn, and a younger son named Alan. Alan is the one who most people would consider normal. His mother scolds him, saying “Alan! How many more times do I have to tell you? We do not say ‘see you soon’ to customers when they leave our shop. We say ‘goodbye,’ because they won’t be coming back, ever.”

The time period is some undetermined future point rife with “regional wars, ecological disasters, famine” but when Alan watches the news he reports that “we saw those pictures again of the Dutch dykes that exploded during the last tidal wave, and the beach that now extends as far as Prague. They showed the emaciated inhabitants of the German provinces crying out and rolling naked in the dunes. If you narrowed your eyes, the shining grains of sand mixed with the sweat on their skin looked like little stars.”
If you’ve ever seen the musical The Fantasticks, you’re probably familiar with this concept. If you see something you don’t like, just narrow your eyes and put a mask on so you can whirl “Round and Round” until you forget you’ve seen someone suffering. The Fantasticks was especially popular in the 1970s and this novella has that early seventies feel although it was published in 2007.

Alan’s sunny outlook eventually wins over his family and the shop turns into a kind of joke shop with refreshments. This is played for both laughs and sentiment, as we see Alan talking an ugly woman out of killing herself by holding up a mirror and giving her a pep talk: “Look at her, this person in front of you. Look at her. Don’t be ashamed of her. If you met her in the street, would you want to kill her? What has she done to be hated so much? What is she guilty of? Why isn’t she loved? If you start to feel friendly towards this woman yourself, maybe others will follow suit!”

Instead of the motto “Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success!” their new motto is “Kill yourself with old age!” They install a table “where the customers meet to think up solutions for the future of the world” and we see that Alan is “sitting at the end of the table in an Aladdin costume” saying “there’s always a solution to everything. We must never despair.”

All of this would add up to something, would be more than an extended shaggy dog story, if it weren’t for what Alan does once he sees that everyone is happy and has faith in the future. “His mission is accomplished,” we are told. And then he does something that completely negates everything he stands for and will destroy everything he has built. It’s a real downer of an ending, and if you’re like me, the last three words will make you feel foolish for having read anything that came before.

Have you ever read a book that made you feel foolish for finishing?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. September 21, 2020 3:35 am

    I can guess, but I won’t.

    I think when there has been suicide in the family, people get unhappy when it is made a joke or not treated with respect, given the pain and guilt survivors have to deal with.

    I would think few people don’t have some experience with it any more. So your target demographic gets smaller and smaller.

    I usually escape such books early, often by deciding I don’t enjoy the journey with these particular characters, and then skipping ahead to see if the end sounds as if it would justify reading the rest of the book. I need to identify with someone, to see something positive happening, to find some happiness. Possibly it’s because I’m much older than when I read everything I could get my hands on in English. Possibly because I’ve been involved, for twenty years already, in creating a story that has a very hard-earned happy ending – with a worry about the future built in. Changes your perspective.

    • September 24, 2020 1:27 pm

      The topic of suicide is not merely a joke in this novel; as I say in the review, it has both laughs and sentiment. It really does remind me of the 1970s, with the Addams Family tv show and other shows like Laugh-In and SNL making jokes about things people would never joke about today.

  2. September 21, 2020 7:47 am

    I have a theory about what the last three words are, and I do not care for it if I am correct. But then I think this book probably wasn’t going to be for me anyway, since I don’t love jokey stuff about suicide — even though it sounds like this is mostly rather sweet.

    • September 24, 2020 1:29 pm

      Mostly. But sweetness is unsatisfying if nothing comes of it. I was trying to explain this to my daughter about the tv show Schitt’s Creek. It doesn’t seem like a show we would like, and we did kind of suffer through the first few episodes. But then it got sweet, and it just keep getting sweeter and sweeter. That’s what I wanted from this novel.

  3. September 21, 2020 9:10 am

    This is one of those times I’m extremely glad for even a vague spoiler, because (like Jenny and Alicia) I can guess what Alan does and I think that kind of irony would be too much of a gut punch. Like a therapy session gone horribly wrong.

    I’d rather just benefit from the parts you quoted. Especially this:

    If you met her in the street, would you want to kill her? What has she done to be hated so much? What is she guilty of? Why isn’t she loved? If you start to feel friendly towards this woman yourself, maybe others will follow suit!

    It’s a beautifully blunt variation on what my therapist has been telling me whenever I’m overly self-critical or deep in despair.

    • September 24, 2020 1:32 pm

      I do love that part I quoted. It reads like a variation of a really common exercise in books about weight loss, how to love yourself enough to want to treat your body nicely enough to let it find its natural shape, rather than stuffing or starving it into submission.

  4. September 21, 2020 10:41 am

    Having tried three times to end my own life, I’m absolutely baffled by the premise of this book, that suicide methods are jolly or entertaining. Hard pass.

    You asked if we’ve finished a book and regretted it. Sure, years ago. These days, no. I don’t want to waste one iota of my brain space on a book I find deplorable for any reason.

    • September 24, 2020 1:35 pm

      It’s not the premise, but the joke of the book, that suicide can be “jolly.” The point of the book is that it’s not, no matter how you dress it up. I just think that message would have been conveyed with more artistry had the author resisted a final poke.

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