The group read of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai ended last week, but once again I got caught up in other work, so I want to take a moment to offer that final promised post on the novel, specifically reviewing some of my thoughts on how the issues of risk come back around, especially through the novel’s rumination on suicide. One thing I want to emphasize about this novel is that, despite the feel-good ending (and one big differences of this novel from other postmodern novels is its willingness to offer good old-fashioned closure), it takes quite seriously the idea that suicide is a legitimate way out. In other words, we end with Ludo and Yamamoto (I think?) setting out on a new quest to inspire Sibylla to keep living, but despite this optimistic turn I don’t think the novel rejects Sibylla’s theories about suicide. Moreover, while Ludo’s new quest is inspiring, it doesn’t seem entirely likely to solve the underlying problems he is up against.
First, though, to quote in full a passage I enthused over several weeks ago, the following is one of the earlier indications that Sibylla, beyond feeling the drudgery of her daily existence, has been looking for a way out:
“Four hours have gone by. We have taken the Circle Line around four times. We have been to the toilet twice; L has hopped the length of the platform at Mansion House on one foot and back on the other foot; we have let the train each time at Tower Hill to make faces at the video camera & watch ourselves making faces in the banks of TVs. Or rather—you see yourself in one TV. In the others you do not appear—they show sometimes an empty platform, sometimes a platform with a few people, sometimes a platform with a train pulling around a bend. I think these are images from cameras further down the platform, but they look like glimpses into possible worlds, worlds where the sun rises and the trains run without you. There are pushchairs to be pushed but not by you, bad memories to be dodged but not by you.” (117)
I think even before we get to this last sentence, a kind of romanticism in the description suggests that Sibylla likes the idea of these worlds where she does not exist. I think there is a reference here to the idea of fiction as escapism into other worlds, but the reference works as much to distinguish what Sibylla says as it does to draw a parallel. When people talk about escaping into other worlds in fiction, they usually do so in a way that suggests they would like to imagine themselves as part of that world. Sibylla, by contrast, has no interest in being transported or transformed by fiction; rather, she really likes the idea of not existing at all.
Here we have the reason underlying Sibylla’s constant conversations with people on the tube, conversations that we only get in fragments but aren’t necessarily all that hard to piece together. The basic gist of her repeated argument is that it is better to kill someone than torture them indefinitely, and that by extension people who have a life they find unbearable should be allowed to commit suicide.
By the end of the novel, we get one body of a potential genius father figure who simply could not endure a world of trivialities in the face of extensive suffering, even though he had played a role in alleviating that suffering. His suicide prompts Ludo’s new motivation to help his mother out of her own hole. The ending here is upbeat: the novel affirms the ethics of making other’s lives worth living, and it highlights the role art can play in that ethics. Nonetheless, it hardly rejects Sibylla’s logic in favor of suicide itself, and it can’t, really, if it is to keep its high stakes.
I have to wonder, though, if Ludo’s gambit at the end can finally offer more than a temporary reprieve. He’s up against much bigger problems: not just Sibylla’s sulkiness but the forces behind it concerning risk and success in an economy that favors exploitation and the accumulation of money over concern for others and personal fulfillment. These are where all the threads of the novel come together: all these father figures ranging from the uncaring to the caring, and Sibylla’s own fear of getting trapped in a cycle of greed that will lead her away from the pursuit of better things and a more caring relation to the world. In a world of risk, how can you find a way to support yourself and live in a way that you can love? She says it best: “Once you’ve got one motel you can always get another, said Sib. And if you can get another you can’t really pass up that kind of opportunity” (512). That quote says everything about what Sibylla is running from, only to have run into a life where she has to scrape to get by and can’t pursue what she wants any more than if she went back to the U.S. and managed her family’s motel chain.
Ludo’s ending imagines that this problem can be solved by an act of love through art, but the rest of the novel betrays this ending by clueing us in to the broader forces of capitalism and the workaday world that ultimately create the choice to exploit or be exploited—misery for the those with ethical ideals either way. I don’t mean to say that I think the novel fails—far from it. What it does so well, so beautifully, and indeed so lovingly, though, is show the scope of what art can and cannot do. Absolutely art must inspire us to live, and absolutely we need other things to make us less desirous of deathly, empty platforms where no one waits for the train.
Thanks to those of you who read and commented during the group read. I hope you'll stick around!