Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Suicide Shop by Jean Teule

suicide-shop.jpgI first heard of The Suicide Shop on Scott Pack’s Me and My Big Mouth Blog.

A coal-black comedy. (Sounded good to me.) About death and happiness. (Intriguing). From a new small publisher Gallic Books. (Fancying myself as somewhat of an outsider, I also am irrationally drawn to the idea of new small publishers.)

The first ten people to write in would receive a bound copy on the one condition that they would spread the word if they liked it.

And so, here we are.

The Suicide Shop is a curious little book. It appealed to me partly because of the reasons above (dark, involving death etc) but it also because of my love of East European playscripts where characters are more conduits of ideas than of psychology, and where darkness and surrealism reign in equal measure. Although French (and already a best-selling title in its native country), The Suicide Shop has these qualities.

Set sometime in an unspecified future we meet the Tuvaches – a family straight out of a Tim Burton film. They run a shop that sells everything you could possibly need to do away with yourself: ropes to hang yourself with, swords to commit Seppuku with, poisoned Turing apples to do the whole Turing-style self-poisoning thing with…

In a straight-forward comic reversal, into this futuristic Adams family is born Alan. He is born with something of a disability: he’s happy. Continually singing and saying sweet friendly things in his lisping happy voice, he sets about trying to cheer up his Vincent Van Gogh- lookalike brother and his miserable adolescent sister, along with the rest of his traditionally morbid family.

This book is quirky and lively and a quick, easy read, full of lovely little touches, references and jokes. However, without giving the game away, it is quite easy to see where this book is going and this is where it does disappoint slightly. For, despite the amusing line-by-line substitutions of all things death for all things life that pepper the text, the overarching story has no reversals or real twists of expectations – except for right at the very end. The ending is clever, mysterious and – yes – moving, leaving you wondering at the author’s overall message. But it comes just too late to rescue the final section of the book from a lack of drama or tension.

However, on another level, the book raises many interesting thoughts, specifically to do with the inability of human beings just to enjoy the here and now, to appreciate who they are and the way society as a whole romanticises those who have taken their own lives. (An issue so pertinent to the news right now.)

There has already been a complaint on Amazon about suicide not being funny, but this is missing the point. Full of references to famous people who have done away with themselves who are now cultural icons, if you add to this all those who are adored who died young in accidents, you start to realise it is not just the Tuvaches who have an unrealistic and morbid obsession with dying, but ourselves. Far from mocking death, The Suicide Shop mocks our romantic obsession as a society with something that really is (quite literally) a dead-end.

This book isn’t really about the whys and wherefores of suicide, but about happiness, the stories we tell ourselves about who and what we are, and our idiotic refusal just to decide to be happy.

The book does hint at current concerns, with references to a futuristic post-apocalyptic world caused by global warming and continual reference to “The City of Forgotten Religions”. At one point, cheery Alan is even send off to a suicide training camp. This sat slightly uncomfortably with me as I felt that the book should have been one thing or the other: a strong thematic fable, or saying something more concrete about present-day issues. It has been suggested by other reviewers that perhaps the author is mocking the doomsday mentality of today, but I’m not sure. Perhaps, Teulé’s message is simpler. That we can make a decision. To be happy. To be optimistic. To settle down to solving our problems rather than wringing our hands and turning a blind eye.

As I said, The Suicide Shop does not read like a novel in the conventional sense, but more like a continental film or play script: characters are more like symbols than characters and the slight stiltedness of the language adds a nice sense of unfamiliarity yet reminds continually this is a work in translation. I can’t help but wonder what nuances of meaning might be lost in English. Looking it up on the internet this morning, for example, I found several references to The Suicide Stores: a less catchy title, perhaps, but one that immediately conjured up a very different set of images (rather than visualising an eccentric shop straight out of Delicatessen, I immediately saw things on a larger scale: a suicide supermarket, death as commodity: the marketing and commercialisation of death), as well as making sense of why the characters keep referring to the mysterious “fresh produce section” all the time.

But this is probably just my over-thinking things as usual.

With a dark scenic sensibility reminiscent of Tim Burton, Edmund Gory and other gothic animators and illustrators, it came as no surprise to find out that Teulé started off drawing comics although I couldn’t help wondering if The Suicide Shop might work slightly better as a film or animation, where character development is less important.

Or, perhaps, as an illustrated book. Something dark and strange to really bring this contemporary twisted fairytale fully to life.

Final verdict: an enjoyable, thought-provoking little book, with an original quirky style of its own, although it lost some momentum in the final section. If amusing, dark and slightly surreal are your thing, The Suicide Shop may well be one for you. I will be very interested to see what Gallic Books brings out next.

200 pages. Publisher: Gallic Books (2 Jul 2008), ISBN-13: 978-1906040093

22 comments on “The Suicide Shop by Jean Teule

  1. shedworking
    February 23, 2008

    I was another of the 10 – I agree with pretty much all of the above. I felt the translation was clunky and was very disappointed with the ending (both predictable and meaningless and, I’d argue, rather unrealistic). I’m sure it will do very well though in a cultish way but would have worked better as a tighter short story (the first third is very repetitive).

  2. rosyb
    February 23, 2008

    Hi Shedworking

    Thanks so much for commenting. Interesting to get a comment from someone else who read it! I don’t think there are too many of us in this country who have yet. Hmm, is it quite fair to level a charge of “unrealistic” on such a piece? Is it going for realism? At all? :) I also have a fondness for cultish. But yes, I did have a few problems with it too, as I outlined above. Although there was many things I liked about it too. I suppose, even if I wasn’t sure it totally worked, it was different and interesting and I would really love to see MORE of this kind of thing. (Genre? Style?) You know what I mean.

  3. Sarah
    February 24, 2008

    Hi

    I also received a copy of this one and I really enjoyed it. I agree with many of the comments you’ve both made but I still think it is a fun and quirky read.

    My main query about this one is that I am not sure who it is aimed at, and where you will find it when you go into a shop.

    I speak French and I did find myself translating the language back in to the original at times and I found that this made the text flow better.

    Still it was a fun read and although not earth shattering I do hope it does well.

  4. rosyb
    February 24, 2008

    Hi Sarah

    Thanks for commenting. Great to hear from another who read the book. Interesting that you speak French too.

    My point would be – there should be a section for this sort of book in the bookshop!! Ha! No, but seriously. There should. Is everything so “genrefied” that we can’t have a bit of difference? It’s a point, though, isn’t it? How they market it? Will be very interesting to see.

    Hope to see you round Vulpes again, soon. :)

  5. sequinonsea
    February 25, 2008

    “I couldn’t help wondering if The Suicide Shop might work slightly better as a film or animation, where character development is less important.”

    May I just say, I would LOVE to see this as a film. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.

  6. Jackie
    February 25, 2008

    What a strange sounding book this is. Yet I can definitely see the appeal. I like the idea of philosophical questions wrapped so quirkily.

  7. Mhairi
    February 26, 2008

    Crikey, that sounds thoroughly bizarre … but therefore probably my sort of book.

  8. Alis
    February 29, 2008

    Sorry, only just caught up with this discussion – been away. I was also one of the ten. Not sure I would have finished it had I not specifically asked to be sent it. Scott Pack talked it up a treat but I didn’t think it deserved all that he said. For instance, I didn’t find it in the least bit funny – just bizarre. And the ending made no sense whatasoever within the emotional frame of the novel. (I say novel, it’s actually just a long short story isn’t it?) It was just too much of a classic short story ‘twist’ – as if Jean Teule couldn’t find any more satisfactory way of rounding out the book.
    All the way through I had just one thought running through my head – does Tim Burton know this book exists?

  9. rosyb
    February 29, 2008

    Oooo. Interesting. I liked the twist, myself. I just thought there needed to be more of them. It’s true that overall it felt a little stretched maybe (hence lack of tension in final part) and other people have said that about the short story feel. But I would have liked more surprises, myself. More bizarre even!

    Fascinating discussion this is generating though.

    I wonder what you mean by this though: “the ending made no sense whatsoever within the emotional frame of the novel”

    What would you say was the emotional frame of the novel? I thought the ending quite clever, but if you can say what you mean- without giving the ending away – I’d love to know.

    Thanks a lot for commenting, Alis.

  10. shedmagazine
    March 3, 2008

    That’s what I meant by ‘unrealistic’ only Alis put it much more lucidlier. I don’t think that what the central character does at the end of the book is something that said character would do – what is his motivation for doing it? It doesn’t make sense and goes against everything he has been ‘working’ to achieve. Imagine if you were the said character – would you do that? I don’t think so. If I’ve just spent an hour convincing my brother to vote Conservative, when he goes and does just that, I don’t suddenly go and vote Labour.

    Does this make any sense at all?

  11. PASSY
    May 23, 2008

    Alas! We “non-professional” biblios have to wait what seems an age before Amazon US will tell us when it will be available. All they’ll do is put me on a list to be notified. i contacted the publisher to correct this, but I guess he wasn’t persuasive enough to convince them to duplicate their sister site in the UK’s listing. I am anxious to get my hands on a copy ever since one of my fellow “Library Thingers” shared her excitement over the book with me.

  12. Stewart
    June 25, 2008

    My point would be – there should be a section for this sort of book in the bookshop!!

    I knew nothing – okay, a little, having read a recent review on the Complete Review – of the book when I saw it today in Waterstone’s. The larger of the two stores in Glasgow has a Translated Fiction table and a bunch of copies, with the white cover, jumped out above all the other books. Luckily for The Suicide Shop Stefan Zweig’s The Post-Office Girl wasn’t there, as I’d went in with the intention of buying that.

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  14. judith
    March 31, 2009

    My 18 year old daughter has been telling me about this book and both of us would enjoy reading it. Couldn’t find it at Barnes & Nobel, too much controversy for them? Where can I find a copy?

  15. rosyb
    March 31, 2009

    You could try the publishers themselves at Gallic Books, Judith, where you should be able to order direct.

    Here’s link to the page with the book on.

    http://www.gallicbooks.co.uk/?page_id=57

    Hope that helps.

  16. tanuska
    April 1, 2009

    i´m almost finish with it and i just have to say that i´ts AN INSPIRATION FOR THE DEPRESSED START ENJOING THE GOOD AND SIMPLE THINGS IN LIFE…”dont worry be happy” LOL

    Light

    chuac

  17. pansy2009
    June 13, 2009

    The end of the book is clever, yes, meaningful but it really makes me sad, I don’t know, I can’t put it out of my head. Why did Alan do that? Perhaps he is an angel and decided to leave when his responsibility had been completed? or his death like a kind of punishment which his family had to receive for all their faults in the past? They must become depressed for the death of the little lovable boy and, thus, return to their gloomy lifes. So, I wonder if it makes the meaning of the story reduced?

    Anyway, Jean Teulé was very successful in all the story, I can’t put it out of my head.

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  22. Pingback: The Suicide Shop: “Has your life been a failure? Let’s make your death a success!” « Sasha & The Silverfish

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This entry was posted on February 23, 2008 by in Entries by Rosy, Fiction: humour.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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