“The Ex-Suicide,” by Katherine Clark


Katherine Clark

Reviewed by Daniel James Sundahl

A few brief words on this novel’s title, first of all, since it philosophically “lurks.”

We know that Walker Percy was no stranger to suicide with a good list of his family members having taken their own lives, and with Percy himself suffering from melancholy, an ailment different from depression.  But even when suffering from terminal cancer, Percy rejected suicide, prepared as he was for his own death by his Catholic faith.

Still, Percy the novelist owned an interest in suicide beyond his family history.  It’s elemental to the “modern dilemma.”  Those familiar with Percy as a philosophical novelist are also aware of the strong influences on him of Camus and Kierkegaard.  In his work, the dimensions which are fundamental swirl around the philosophical question of whether life becomes not worth living.  Such despair, such sickness unto death.

Camus rejected suicide without regard to whether individuals own a “right” to take their lives.  Kierkegaard likely perceived the whole business in these terms: whether one masters, or fails to master, the ironic circumstances of our daily living, condemned as we are to irony.

The question confronting Percy, then, was how to live, or how to keep one’s self meaningfully alive in an age that seems to illustrate a collapse of values.  Will Barrett’s father, for example, commits suicide in despair over the collapse of the Southern code of honor and virtue, much like Quentin Compson.

The point, thus far, is to arrive at the title of Katherine Clark’s novel, The Ex-Suicide, which opens with suggestive epigrams from Percy’s The Moviegoer and Lost in the Cosmos and presumes to align 37-year old Hamilton “Ham” Whitmire with Binx Bolling and Will Barrett.  There’s also a citation from Whitman, which is interesting but less suggestive and would be better if edited unless Whitman is also an “ex-suicide.”

It’s not a moot point. If the book’s back jacket is to be believed, Hamilton is “striving mainly to be an ‘ex-suicide’ as defined by Percy’s writings.”

One should be interested in this, however, because Percy was interested not only in literal suicide but spiritual suicide, the latter being that death-in-life existence of total despair.  With this provision: Kierkegaard held to the concept of achieving authenticity through self-emptying, which offers a way out of the condition of solipsistic solitude.


Well, Percy was fond of calling serious writers, including himself, “ex-suicides,” arguing that the writer begins with nothing, with “nought,” and then opens himself to “possibility.”  Characters in novels then are slight modifications in as much as they, too, are “ex-suicides” when they emerge, in the novel’s pages, from the general contemporary ethos of spiritual suicide by emptying the egoistic self and creating a bond of communion with another person and the reader.

It’s a motif.

The embracing philosophy is a bit like this:  For Camus, an ex-suicide is he who embraces active revolt against absurdity; for Kierkegaard, an ex-suicide is he who recognizes our proclivities for anxiety and despair but notes that such conflicts are between one’s ethical and religious duty.  It’s the tension between the finite and the infinite.   To escape and become a “true” self, Kierkegaard proposed passing through three stages on life’s way: the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious.

In either case, an “ex-suicide” is one who chooses to live by realizing one cannot establish meaning and continuity in one’s existence by mindlessly taking over the expectations of others, or by living a life closed in by self-absorption or self-centeredness.

In Clark’s story, an addition to her series of Mountain Brook Novels, Hamilton is a college professor, with a Ph.D. from Harvard, at an historically African-American college in Birmingham, Cahaba College, which is to say, the “other” Birmingham.  The students are more often than not in a passive mode.  Dr. Whit thus prefers the sanctum of his closed-door office where he can read pulp mysteries.

Nothing much is expected of him.  Ivy Greer is a new hire in the English Department whose gregariousness causes Dr. Whit to become dizzy and light-headed, “as if on the verge of a full-blown panic attack.”

The reader learns these narrative details from the omniscient narrator, one who is neither limited nor unreliable, who possesses a breadth of knowledge of situations and characters.  A reader should not expect such a narrator to be impartial and to that degree Clark’s narrator is not disinterested.  Pulp readers are sure to respond to this new novel as another in Clark’s sequence of satirical comedies of manners.  And in my judgment this novel owned the possibility of a better performance than the earlier All the Governor’s Men.

A possibility sadly unrealized.

There are lengthy paragraphs, here, which on scale serve a useful purpose and on other occasions do not.  Henry James referred to such paragraphs as narrative devices in which the narrator offers to the reader his central character’s “center of consciousness.”  James called it “motionlessly seeing” and noted it was apart from dramatic action, albeit such “going behind” narrative moments were also intended to throw the action forward in time, and, moreover, were preparation for the novel’s more dramatic, seemingly staged moments.  One might note that such moments also appeal to a reader’s sympathy, since they’re an invitation to share not only the character’s intelligence but also his or her innermost traits.

The danger, I would argue, is when the narrator offers to the reader a didactic if not tautological paragraph likely more representative of the narrator’s attitude than the character’s attitude.

In that early scene with Ivy Greer, for example, the reliable narrator offers a lengthy paragraph with a tautological commentary:  “Because in striving to become masters in a society that had once enslaved them, these descendants of slaves had been mainly taught how to enslave themselves.  Indeed, a few years back, the black population of Alabama had helped to elect the world’s most notorious segregationist when he courted their favor for a fourth term as governor.”

For a careful reader, such narrative is disjunctive with what follows:  “Ham suddenly felt the weight of the world thud into his bowels with the threat of imminent explosion,” such prior thinking a cause leading to the re-appearance of his irritable bowel syndrome. The commentary is also rhetorical, “indeed,”  by which I mean the writing is less novelistic and more essayistic—and intrusive.  A competent editor would or should have an aesthetic argument with the novelist at just such moments during editorial review.

I suspect a more general “pulp” reader, however, traverses such paragraphs with ease without questioning whether the novel could be made better with more sophisticated editorial help.

Let me make this point then: Clark has a gift and it’s admirable.  Her treatment of Ham Whitmire is sympathetic.  What’s evident in this novel was also evident in All the Governor’s Men:  Katherine Clark is not being served well by her editors.

And her debt to Percy, which should be present in the novel in a fine way, is not deftly realized.  What to do is the question addressed to Ham.  He had arrived only at a modest conclusion that he would be neither a master nor a slave.  The reliable narrator then adds that the ultimate implication of doing anything within his abilities in terms of its consequences for either himself or others, meant it would be far better just to sit alone in a room, like Pascal, and do nothing at all.

What to do, then, is follow the narrator’s note that Ham Whitmire is a student of philosophy, a detail mentioned in the novel, which should suggest a central character with a stronger philosophical consciousness—or conscience.

A footnote to the page referencing Pascal, which needs to be understood within the framework of Christian apologetics: All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room.  So, what’s the point?  The point is that the heart has its reasons, which reason doesn’t know.  Thus, it’s not doing “nothing at all”; such retirement and thinking are supposed to lead to right thought and, thence, to the highest truth.

What therefore should be more present in Hamilton’s character is that “thinking.” It would complicate and enrich his personality without making him into another Portnoy, who is less a character and more a clinical definition. But this is just a quibble.

I’m intrigued by the author’s genuine talent. Clark deserves only the best of editors.  I can’t speak for Max Perkins but am aware that it was his critical talent, his courtesy, and his thoughtfulness, that “made” a generation of writers.  If I could speak for Perkins, I would be willing to suggest that he would approve of the outline of Clark’s work but would also pose questions of artistic self-discipline. As an editor and a teacher he would discuss narrative time and theories regarding chapters which are something more than divisions.

Clark’s novel is, in paperback, over 200 pages long.  On scale, the first fourteen chapters proceed at a nice pace in time and in accord with a decent sense of form.  Beginning with chapter fifteen, however, and with spoiling speed, the novel veers toward an ending in a manner that seems cheaply manipulative.  My sense is that it’s a default when the narrative speeds up and becomes difficult for the reader to establish coherence. The effect is diffusive and I mention this for the precise reason that the ending needs to be like an equation, i.e., making perfect sense with the “ex-suicide” motif;  it’s not the “plot twist” so much as it is an aesthetic requirement—a much slower detailing of the narrative in the last quarter of the novel’s pages.

The book’s back-cover-suspenseful blurb questions whether Hamilton will buckle under the existential pressures “as Percy’s father famously did in the attic of what is now his parents home,” or whether he’ll  “pull himself together and live up to society (and his mother’s) expectations.”  And then this: “Fortunately Ham is one of Norman Laney’s former pupils.”

This blurb gives more credence to Laney than found in the novel that should be allowed to stand on its own.   I’m of the mind that Hamilton succeeds on his own and Laney is merely a cameo kindred spirit found in Clark’s debut novel of 2015.

But to argue for existential pressures is, again, to suggest a level of seriousness that the novel doesn’t possess.  In truth, we know only a smidgen about Hamilton’s intellectual aspirations or philosophical principles, with the exception of a scenic moment early in the novel when he comments upon Thoreau and what the phrase “lives of quiet desperation” might mean.

It should be noted that by appearing early in the novel the allusion is akin to an extended metaphor.  And it depends upon how one defines “success.”  Thoreau’s aim was to know himself, which, one suspects, is Hamilton’s aim, but then it’s uncertain whether he ever thinks of life as a marrow bone, the life inside the external structure of life.

A word I wish I could attach to this novel—success.  I with Cristian Wiman lack trust in anyone who doesn’t grow weary of hearing his own voice.  Which includes me.  Reviewers do suffer moral anguish, after all, and should never offer comments complacently.

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