Commentary Magazine

Death in Life

It gets harder and harder to see Susan Sontag through the smoke of opinion that smolders away now on all sides of her work. Against Interpretation, her collection of essays and reviews, produced much more heat, as they say, than light: almost every reviewer seemed compelled to stand up and be counted as to whether Miss Sontag was a cultural hero or villain, the lovely, brave Virgil of a genuine new underground/avant garde or the glib bootlegger of the latest wave of French modernism, East Village Pop, and other modes of the higher unseriousness. Like the celebrity that Miss Sontag appears to court with her left hand and disclaim with her right, her critical stance somehow managed to be both matter-of-fact and outrageous: a tone that gets under the skin in much the same way that those dust-jacket photographs of her—poised, striking, vaguely sinister—either seduce or repel. The result was that the ideas there were in Against Interpretation went mostly by the board. Now, along comes Death Kit,1 her second novel, to much the same apparent effect: so far, the book has either been wildly touted as the second coming of the modern novel or taken as firm evidence that Miss Sontag has little or no talent for fiction at all. Rather than let Death Kit drive us up the wall of such ultimate and exaggerated claims, it would be well to try to understand what the book is intended to do; indeed to interpret it: a procedure the book requires virtually every inch of the way.

Not only requires—despite Miss Sontag's theories about interpretation—but also deserves. I think that Death Kit is an unusually interesting novel in its own right as well as a clear advance over her first one, The Benefactor. For one thing, it's alive. The Benefactor had next to no vitality in it: it was all literature, and could have been taken for a parody of the post-expressionist novel of moral exhaustion and exquisite nerves were it not so exhausted and nervous itself. Death Kit is worth taking seriously because it is searching, charged, meant. Though its subject, like that of The Benefactor, is self-perception—or better, perceiving—its qualities are much more like those in Miss Sontag's better essays: those in which she succeeds in being both intelligent and audacious, instead of just one or the other. There is a great deal of creative bravura in Death Kit, Miss Sontag having struck a vein of invention which has produced an overflow of imaginative commentary on the interior life and also some genuine art. In the end, Death Kit doesn't dare or feel as much as it should as art and hence provides too much in the way of a talkative analysis of her hero's unconscious progress into death and too little formal demonstration, to use one of her favorite terms, of his slow extinction. But I'd much rather see Miss Sontag being carried away by her own invention than trudging drearily after the old avant-garde novel like a lady English professor looking for signals in Paris.

The “story” in Death Kit should be well enough known by this time for me not to have to rehearse it here. What may still need pointing up is Miss Son-tag's device and design, at least as I read the novel, and I see no other way of reading it. Put briefly, the novel is precisely what the title says it is: the material that Dalton Harron, “Diddy,” carries into death with him and assembles in death. He does not go to Buffalo: his “business trip” is the business of completing his death, following his successful suicide attempt at the beginning of the novel. He does not twice murder Incardona, the railway worker: he twice reenacts the murder of himself. He does not fall in love with and live with Hester: he invents and invests her with those qualities that express his desire, powerful but doomed, to be “reborn.” In sum, the action takes place in the conscious and subconscious mind of a dead man: quite literally, in his after-life. This is the basic conception of the book and its major source of power.

Since the book has been badly misjudged because badly understood, it seems best to clear up its supposed obscurity, which has generally been taken as pretentious obscurantism. Obviously, Miss Sontag does not want to give the game away: the point of Death Kit being that Diddy's after-life is mainly a continuation, raised to a second power of purpose and perception, of the life he had lived. The tone, atmosphere, quality of his life-in-death are intended to resemble, though in a purer and more potent form, the death-in-life of this former decent, well-behaved Madison Avenue type WASP, the typical unsolid citizen of our day who, “not really alive,” merely “inhabited” his life. That is to say, Diddy alive or Diddy dead merely makes a distinction, not a difference.

Faced with this point to make—as art, not as another banal statement of modern deadness—Miss Sontag perforce has to write her novel in a double-speaking way. Thus Diddy, still alive, is compared to a “failed amphibian.” In the passages that open the novel, Miss Sontag describes his malaise as a contamination of the existence he has inhabited, a dissolution of the dense amniotic-like fluid that has been his element or “medium”: “the soft interconnected tissuelike days are unstrung. The watery plenum is dehydrated, and what protrudes are jagged, inhuman units. The medium steadily evaporates; the teeming interlocked plenitude is drained of its sustenance. Dies.”

Diddy's actual death is similarly and properly equivocal: “Diddy's guts dried out with humiliation; in three days he was discharged from the hospital minus twenty pounds of substance. . . . Knowing one has a life induces the temptation to give it up. One is dead. Therefore, one wants to die. Equally, one wants to be born.” Diddy's after-life, though described with more or less naturalistic, everyday details and probabilities, is everywhere pervaded by an underlying feeling and vision of mortality. This comes to a climax, of course, in the final journey from the tunnel where he kills Incardona once and for all and enters the charnel house which contains his final “inventory of the world.” But this merely makes explicit what has all along been variously and intricately suggested. Certain items are fairly obvious: his hotel room that is likened to a coffin, the company car to a hearse. Even a dilapidated train station quickly takes on the character and import of Diddy's situation:

Diddy can't help marking the steady deterioration of the surfaces and furniture of this station. . . . Not only mere negligence is at work here, surely. A question of policy or principle. Only a matter of time before the wrecker's ball gets around to undoing this generous space. . . . But isn't there a good deal to be said for keeping a doomed place clean and in decent repair? Especially since nemesis is proving to be somewhat dilatory in paying its anticipated call.


Miss Sontag is not being merely arch, arbitrary, “literary” in her symbolic rendition of Diddy's journey between life and death. Though she has ended by putting on her literal-minded readers, her analysis of Diddy's progress into his new realm proceeds along fairly obvious Freudian lines, as well as the more arcane ones of the European phenomenologists, notably Bachelard. Whether one regards Death Kit as the content of Diddy's coma (there is some basis for this reading, though I don't think it adds up) or as a supernatural account of his after-life, the basic strategy of the book remains the same: the strategy of the unconscious in fantasies and dreams. Miss Sontag, indeed, comes very close to giving the game away at one point. Diddy has taken Hester away from the hospital to live with him and finds that his morbid guilt about murdering Incardona is gone. “He can't imagine ever, in Hester's company, being frightened of Incardona. . . . Because he no longer has to think only, or even mainly, of himself. Hester is here, interposed between Diddy and himself. Unable to see. Refusing to acknowledge the doubling of the self in dreams.”

Just as the spatial phenomena of Diddy's “world” are usually informed and colored by his concerns and feelings, so is the divided self that has undone him bodied forth sharply in the figures of Incardona and Hester. Incardona, the surly, devious, lascivious worker that he twice murders is an image of the dreary workman in himself, of his baffled masculinity, his repressed animal nature. A more benign, because earlier, version of Diddy's instinctual life is the Wolf-boy, a fantasy of its fugitive and fearful privations that he had tried to exorcise in a college novel. Incardona arises from a further and more complete splitting off of the animal in Diddy, a more pernicious stage of repression that Miss Sontag at the outset likens to the “monstrous malfunctioning” of a generator in the basement of a house, one that has “gone amok” and sends forth a “torrent of refuse that climbs up into Diddy's life, . . . befouling Diddy's world and rendering it unusable. Uninhabitable.” The brutal Incardona, smashing away at the barrier in the tunnel that has stalled the train, is Diddy pushing against the limits of his character and finally aiming his baffled fear, rage, and dismay back at himself. (Diddy reenacts his self-destruction as a self-defense, but when it comes to murder, it probably doesn't matter very much, emotionally speaking, which way the gun is pointing.)

If Incardona is Diddy's death-wish, Hester, of course, is the opposite. She is a much more complicated and unconventional figure than Incardona since she functions as an aspect of the theme of perception (which generally overloads the novel with extraneous detail), as well as Diddy's life force, feminine nature, and self-idealization. With all of these tags of significance clinging to her, the blind Hester moves less adeptly in the dark of Diddy's “world” than Miss Sontag says she does. As a character she is spectral—inadvertently so, I suspect, unlike, say, Incardona's wife—and as a psychological embodiment she is abstract, unlike, say, Hester's aunt, a subtly wrought version of the housekeeper who raised Diddy. But if Hester seems more her author's creature than Diddy's, and if she makes him seem more androgynous than Miss Sontag apparently intended him to be, still Hester serves well enough to carry out the elaborate and beautifully integrated pattern of Diddy's dreamwork, which, through his affair with her, both extends and reiterates the meaning of his life-in-death, death-in-life.


As with dreams, Death Kit is situated in the borderlands of consciousness where art and psychology cross. The intense formalism of the novel—each detail held in place by the pattern, each event shaped by the underlying logic of Diddy's intentions—is not only another demonstration of Miss Sontag's faith in the hegemony of form but also a heuristic method of mapping the interior life. One of the reasons that psychoanalysis is an art is that the unconscious is an artist—an endlessly cunning metaphysical poet which transmutes feelings into images, disparities into structures. Thus, to the extent that one is in touch with himself, life can be said to follow art, indeed to be art. At the same time, the realities of this life are deeply at odds with what we say and do as socialized beings: the poetry of our nights being a muted or screaming protest against the dissimulating “sensible” prose of our days. Or, as Miss Sontag puts it:

When Joan (Diddy's wife) left, Diddy became wiser. . . . He hadn't been watching the wrong play for thirty years. But he'd been watching it without understanding the theory behind its staging—assuming naturalism of script and staging. In retrospect, a naive error. The script is intricate, and charged with obscure references; and the presentation concocted by the director, set designer, and lighting technicians is fanciful and stylized.

Though Death Kit is an autonomous work that generates its own terms, much of it is anticipated by Miss Sontag's recent essays on style as well as her studies of “formalism” in contemporary French thought and art, especially the cinema. Like the artists of the nouvelle vague, Miss Sontag holds, to use her phrase, “a dedicated agnosticism about reality itself,” and Death Kit is a demonstration, as she would say, of the unreliability of our practical reason (a view that has been borne out, I'm afraid, by most of the reviews it has received). By the same token all the usual trappings of the realistic novel (the literary form most attuned to practical “reason” and hence Miss Sontag's aesthetic bête noire) are not so much ignored as subverted, tilted, turned inside out—both to bring out their inner lie and to facilitate what Miss Sontag would call the purely formal exploration of the structure of Diddy's “kit.” Thus the conventional third-person point of view abruptly shifts to the first person plural, the author's commentary fades in and out of Diddy's meditations, and the overall tone is highly stylized to provide the mixture of intimacy and detachment, pathos and coldness, that Miss Sontag admires so much in the films of Resnais, Godard, and Bresson. Indeed, her description of the “formula” of the new French formalists—“coldness enclosing and subduing an immense pathos”—is a precise definition of the method and mood of Death Kit.

No doubt many readers by now will have found Death Kit to be a teasingly ambiguous puzzle, and perhaps among those who have solved it there will be some who agree with me that it is all too cold a pathos. I followed Diddy's progress with fascination but without ever quite believing in him: like Hester, he is too much an object of predication, too little a distinct and distinctive man, an experiencing subject of his own plight. As a result, my attention was often deflected from experiencing the book to interpreting it, unlike, say, Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyitch, a study of deadness which to feel is to understand and vice versa. Except for the two scenes in the tunnel and the trip through the house of the dead at the end, Death Kit lacks impact; its narrative writing is competent as well as intricate but Diddy's journey doesn't stay in the mind, stick to the bones. It is more figure than carpet, so that one will hang it on the wall to admire rather than put it on the floor to live with. It is miles beyond the longueurs and artificiality of The Benefactor, yet still an essentially analytic, technique-ridden work of art. But a work of art nonetheless: bold, complex, coherent in its own purpose, resolutely faithful to its own vision of “life.”


1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 311 pp., $5.75.

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