The opening of Jesse Ball’s fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, reflects both the clinical and the enigmatic overtones of the book’s title. There’s a claimant and an examiner—more simply, a patient and a nurse—brought together in the Process of Villages, essentially a series of convalescent homes in multiple identical villages, all constructed for the same purpose.
Ball pushes the reader into the disorienting action of the book’s early pages by holding back most characters’ basic facts. The claimant, unsure whether he is alive, begins a process of relearning, restarting and recovering.
The examiner goes from explaining the objects around him—“This is a chair” are the first words she speaks to him—to patiently explaining the world in simple formations: “Muscles are the way the body obeys the mind,” “One should not live in fear of explaining oneself,” “(imagination) is a tool for navigating life’s random presentation of phenomena,” and the “feeling of longing and sadness… is part of life’s balance, to give things their proper worth.”
With A Cure for Suicide, Ball has successfully launched an intriguing sci-fi story arc while establishing a series of thematic questions: the nature of communication, the meaning behind names and the purpose of life itself. Slower to recover, this time the man is named Martin and cracks appear in his world when he meets a woman who confides that she has tried to escape several times, that things are amiss, that she has experienced terrible things.
Ball uses this revelation to amplify Martin’s growing awareness. What he knew of before as isolation is now captivity, and that shift in perspective leads to struggles with his own burgeoning free will. As the learning continues, Ball sets a poignant scene in a graveyard as Martin attempts to explain the value of his own life: “The yearning that we have to keep dead things alive—or to make unreasonable things reasonable. That is why a person should live,” he says.
After Martin is processed again, this time becoming Henry, Ball teases a return to this fractured normalcy before upsetting the narrative’s temporary calm with a revelatory detour. As the story shifts to the past, Ball at last unveils the nature of this cure for suicide.
Here, in his past, Anders/Martin/Henry is Clement, visiting “A Place You Go Last.” Ball juxtaposes the backstory of his lovelorn despair with the first explanation of how this cure functions, as a bureaucracy established not under nefarious motives, but for those who themselves chose to start over completely. The cure for suicide is the offering of a new beginning, and all the proof that’s necessary to gain the cure is that a subject lays out his existential predicament.
Ball’s prose is direct and spare, particularly in the early sections, where he best meets the challenges of his novel’s approach of purposefully withholding information. However, Ball’s wounded protagonist deepens only to a point as the book unfolds. The clearest picture that emerges of Clement is as a down-on-his-luck everyman, grieving his lost love, but not necessarily held in the clutches of depression. Ultimately, Ball handles his intriguing premise with subtlety and authority, marching his plot through the momentous consequences-unexpected and inherent-of a truly life-altering decision.
A Cure for Suicide ponders memory, identity, love, desire and choice. The question that remains is a heavy one indeed: Would you choose to start over? If pain, regret and despair reached high enough, would you actually erase yourself and walk into a new life?