Greg's Reviews > The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides: Dead Letters

The Dedalus Book of Literary Suicides by Gary Lachman
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's review
Apr 16, 2011

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bookshelves: anthology, books-about-stuff, biography, life-is-shit
Read from April 16 to 24, 2011

I should, many a good day have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given great pleasure to my mother-in-law; and, even then, if I could have been certain to haunt her - but I won't dwell upon these trifling family matters.

--Lord Byron

David Foster Wallace's short story "Good Old Neon" begins with the short declarative sentence, "My whole life I've been a fraud". I know one isn't supposed to read the author into the narrator of a story and all of that shit our high school English teachers blabbed on about but I'm fairly sure that DFW felt this way at times. I don't know if anyone can be extremely introspective and self-consious and not come to some similar conclusion. At another extreme I strongly doubt that someone like Donald Trump ever feels any cognitive dissonance or feels like he is a fraud even though half of the garbage out of his mouth (at least on his reality TV show, which for a couple of years I took a perverse pleasure in watching but then I stopped and now I'm not even sure if it is on anymore, now I only watch people punch other people in the face for reality TV) were superlative lies.

I think that Socrates dictum of "Know Thyself" can be fucking lethal.

Like in A. Alvarez's The Savage God (shameless plug to go read my review for the book), this book starts with the question of why does it seem like so many writers end up killing themselves? Alvarez as a fellow-traveller of the suicidally inclined writers (tried to kill himself, friend of Sylvia Plath and one of the last people to see her alive) had tried to unearth an answer. Gary Lachman appears to be curious about this too but his book devolves into a freak show mucking around in the gossipy underbelly of great writers lives while hoisting up contemptible writers as being unfairly misunderstood. I think the different approaches to dealing with the same topic is due to temperament. I don't know anything about Lachman as a person but I'd guess that he's never had much of a problem with depression, or if he has it's been of the wearing all black and brooding about existential questions style (I'm not being dismissive, I get this idea because he is a grown man who seems really really excited still over existentialism and by his point and laugh style of writing aimed at writers who have some serious issues at living day to day lives without falling to pieces). A quick look at the titles of his other books, which deal with the occult and conspiracy theories and I can't help but think of him as someone who still gets an adolescent tickle out of trying to shock people in (I can't think of a better word, all I can do is picture the way some of my friends and I acted when we were younger) 'angsty' ways.

I'm being a bit unfair though, two-thirds of this book is quite good, it's mostly when Lachman deals with the Manic-Depressive Suicides (Woolf, Plath, Sexton (I know you tried to defend yourself against charges of sexism by picking three women, but the defense was weak, and all three descriptions were pretty much boiled down to hysterical-woman)) and similarly with what seemed to me any of the anxiety-based suicides. In these parts of the book it felt like Lachman was trying really hard to get the reader to laugh at the ineptness of the subjects. Walter Benjamin is especially put through the wringer in a way that makes me think that Lachman had been badly treated as a young man by one of Benjamin's essays, or maybe it was an over-compensation because he has some kind of hero-worship of Benjamin..... I just had the realization that a lot of what I didn't like in Lachman's writing could be an overcompensation for not wanting to take the easy or obvious position. It's very easy to gloss away all the imperfections of person and see a writer as a genius who life treated unfairly, and a book of all adoration to writers who killed themselves would be off-putting and macabre. Similarly it is very easy to be dismissive of someone like Otto Weininger, but maybe in his case it's justifiable and attempts to make him be a misunderstood genius just don't work, no matter how many other intellectuals found some of his work enticing.

I don't know why the tone of the book is so uneven and that is my big complaint. I think I wanted more from this book, I don't know what, maybe I wanted Lachman to have some big answer for me, but this isn't a book with big answers, it's more of a darkly entertaining collection of stories about authors and a selections of short works either about suicide or by writers who ended up killing themselves.

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

--Dorothy Parker
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Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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Greg Elizabeth, this book would anger you by the dismissive approach to Virginia Woolf.

Greg I'm going to keep slogging through this. He's pretty dismissive about most of the people he writes about with a couple of strange exceptions.

message 3: by Jasmine (new) - added it

Jasmine neat.

message 4: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy Is Mishima in there?

Greg Yep, he's there. He even got to grace the cover in a picture of him posing as St. Sebastian.

message 6: by Jimmy (new)

Jimmy I thought that might be his finely chiseled torso. Sounds like an interesting book.

message 8: by Jasmine (new) - added it

Jasmine the apprentice is still on but it's mostly celebrity ones now. marly maitland (sp) is on now. and star jones

Greg My train of thought kept wandering while I wrote this review. He dealt with Virginia Woolf as basically a hysterical woman who needed constant attention and went more into detail about possible gossipy things (incest and lesbianism mostly) in her life than her work, which mostly he just said that he agreed with one critic who attacked her writing. If I didn't know anything about Woolf, and I just read the section on her, I'd think she was a dilettante writer who people patted on the head and told her she was doing a good job just so that she wouldn't act up. Leonard Woolf was portrayed as a saint for being with her. He takes some further pot-shots at the Bloomsbury Group throughout the book.

Of the three depressive women he deals with Plath gets the nicest treatment but that is because the author spends more time being interested in the 'conspiracy' of her lost final journal and the way her husband had control over everything written about her, and possible interests in the occult that her and Hughes had than dealing dealing with her work.

Anne Sexton's section is mainly about how much she slept around and was unable to do anything domestic.

message 10: by Greg (new) - rated it 3 stars

Greg Jasmine, I kind of don't want to know that I now might be tempted to search out the episodes and watch them.

message 11: by Greg (new) - rated it 3 stars

Greg The eating disorder wasn't mentioned, but the incest was.

message 12: by Jasmine (new) - added it

Jasmine sorry greg.

message 13: by Paquita Maria (new)

Paquita Maria Sanchez Love that poem at the end.

message 14: by K.D. (new)

K.D. Absolutely Dedalus of James Joyce. Cool.

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