This week, we’re launching the Considering series, a place to focus on one particularly amazing essay or short piece of non-fiction. If you’d like to contribute, get in touch!
Picking up my copy of The Best American Essays of the Century (edited by Joyce Carol Oates – gah! She’s on Twitter!) is a risky endeavor; I can spend at least an hour flipping through, waiting for a first or last line to grab me. I’ll re-read a good essay four or five times, flipping to the first page as soon as I’ve finished the last. A good essay is a magic trick with a twist: you want to know how it works. With a magic trick, once you figure it out, you’re bored by it. But with an essay, a really good essay, the twist is this: once you figure it out, it’s even more fascinating.
William H. Gass’s The Doomed In Their Sinking is a masterpiece of the form. Gass begins with a reference that not many will know; he’s speaking, it seems, to a select group of people… people who will understand him.
“Crane went sudden as a springboard. The Gulf gave nothing back.”
Immediately, with no explanation of that enigmatic opening, he pictures his mother, in a particularly undignified attitude, wetting herself. Extraneous, internet-based research informs us that his mother was an alcoholic, in and out of nursing homes and asylums, “living the long death.” His father, a racist abusive.
It takes some time to realize the author’s intention in this essay. You’re nearly 500 words in before he mentions suicide, and even then, suicide only comes up as a counterpoint to the kind of death his mother insisted on, the kind that “inflicts your dying on those you are blaming for it.”
But have no doubt. In this essay, Gass means to look hard and very close at what is called suicide… and what suicide might really be. If it is, in fact, anything at all.
“Should a suicide be regarded as the last stage of series of small acts against the self?” he asks, wondering if alcoholism could be included in the definition, much like Vonnegut famously described smoking as the only honourable and classy way to commit suicide.
And suddenly, you’re off. Gass flicks his wand and barrages you with a list of suicides, descriptions, references, some obscure, some notorious: “Plath with pills, or Craine or Woolf with water, Plath again by gas, or Berryman from a bridge.”
Gass has only just gotten started. From wondering exactly what sort of act is encompassed by the word ‘suicide’ (Slashing your wrists, of course. But hunger strike? Or allowing yourself to fall asleep at the wheel?), the essay shifts to society’s perception of suicides, to wondering what a suicidal person truly desires, to a small-scale review of the literature on suicide. He considers varying types of suicides and notes the role of social class and theatricality.
He concludes that if a suicidal person wishes their suicide to be recognized as a suicide by those who remain, that person will need to make their intents very clear indeed.
But then, again, Gass taps his kerchief-covered tophat with a wand. He argues that trying to understand suicides as a group makes no sense. “The word confers a fictitious unity upon a rabble of factors, and the ironic thing about suicide itself, intrinsically considered, is that it is a wholly empty act.”
That any suicide who imagines their final act to hold any meaning is regretfully mistaken.
And here, Gass unleashes some of the sharpest, most unsentimental thought about suicides I’ve ever read: “Of course, acts aren’t language, and there’s no poetry at all in suicide, only in some accounts of it… Death will not fill up an empty life and in a line of verse it occupies only five letters of space.” Or, if your life is so hollow that you choose to end it, the ending of it won’t make your life matter very much. And the words that describe suicides, the words that analyse them are what give them meaning to those of who remain alive.
We get to decide what the suicide means.
He then executes another balletic turn, to the value and purpose of art and poetry and writing, which simply must be read to be appreciated. It’s stunning. It’s nearly impossible. It’s magic.
Throughout this essay, Gass keeps fine-tuned balance between cruel, painfully cold thinking and heart-rending personal storytelling. I think maybe he’s so harsh because he’s punishing himself, in a way. And it hurts.