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I 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