Jason Pettus's Reviews > Death Kit

Death Kit by Susan Sontag
Rate this book
Clear rating

by
147289
's review
Jul 25, 12

bookshelves: postmodernism, hipster, weird
Read in July, 2012

(As of summer 2012, a first-edition copy of this book is being sold through the rare-book service at the arts organization I own, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks]. Here below is the description I wrote for its listing.)

Known affectionately by her fans as "The Dark Lady of American Letters," like many writers the late Susan Sontag is almost equally known for her personality, celebrity and controversial views as for her varied body of work itself. A serious academe even at an early age, who had logged in time at the University of Chicago, University of Paris and Oxford all by 25, Sontag was known as a distinctly European-style intellectual who spent her life championing the challenging countercultural writers of that continent; celebrated mostly for her heady critical essays, among other achievements she was the person to coin the word "camp" as a positive term for "so bad it's good," a virtual pillar of the entire Postmodern era, plus came up with an entirely new way for us to envision the relationship between photography and us as its subjects and viewers, an obsession that even bled into Sontag's personal life, in that this notorious bisexual was romantically involved with famed photographer Annie Liebowitz for the entire last decade of her life.

But despite all this, interestingly Sontag primarily considered herself a novelist, odd to realize given that she only wrote four of them in her long career, two near the beginning and two near the end. 1967's experimental Death Kit was the second, and only the third book of her career overall, after 1963's similarly groundbreaking The Benefactor and the essay collection Against Interpretation in 1966, considered one of her most famous books because of containing the aforementioned "camp" essay. And indeed, there's a lot to be said for one online reviewer's sum-up of Death Kit as "what Kafka would've written if he had been a '60s hippie;" after all, Sontag always saw her formative years in continental Europe as the most important period of her life, the years when she first fell in love with Kafka himself and other cutting-edge Modernist European artists, a love that would not just stay with her the rest of her life but in many ways help define her in the eyes of American audiences. A sometimes nonsensical, dreamlike tale just dripping with symbolism throughout, it is perhaps the story of a pissy corporate executive who loses his temper one evening on a delayed commuter train, manages to sneak off the stopped train, in a fit of rage kills the wisecracking employee trying to clear the tracks, and sneaks back on board without anyone noticing, spending the rest of the story in an existential cloud of guilt and deep thoughts; or maybe none of this actually happened, and what we're really watching is our unreliable narrator experience a complete snap from reality "American Psycho" style. In any case, there is also Diddy's sexual obsession with an easy blind girl to contend with, the travails of his microscope-manufacturing job, and all kinds of tangents to be had about the nature of humanity, the slippery definition of "truth," and all kinds of other Big Issues. A book almost guaranteed to go up in value as the years continue, this a must-have for those interested in the history of countercultural intellectual thought, as well as Postmodernist literary history in general.
5 likes · likeflag

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Death Kit.
sign in »

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

dateDown_arrow    newest »

message 1: by CD (new)

CD I've seen this book and looked at it, but never read it cover to cover.

As for her being the Dark Lady etc. her 'death portraits' by Annie L. added the final touch to that title!


Jason Pettus I won't lie -- it's a challenge to get all the way through this, just like Sontag designed it to be. But as a cultural object, I find it a lovely little thing to actually own.


Joann Oh wow! I didn't know. This book has been sitting on my shelves for years. I read it once a long time ago and enjoyed it. I was born a surrealist and guess I wasn't searching too hard for all the Hidden Significance, or it just struck me as normal. Of course I'd heard of Susan Sontag, and think I read a few things by her, but had no idea she had only written four novels. Well, live and learn. Cheers.


back to top