Tag Archives: suicide

Joyful: Robert Hillman

“You see how the powerful in purpose trample the lives around them, like titans at a picnic.”

Joyful from Australian author Robert Hillman follows the paths of two grief-stricken men, both “mortal wreckage, washed up on the same beach.” Through these two characters, who descend into madness, the book examines some fundamental questions about the nature of love and grief.

Joyful begins with the death of Leon’s wife Tess, once a beautiful woman, but now all of that beauty has been stolen by cancer. A Catholic priest hastens to her deathbed, and Tess’s husband, a seller of rare books and a man of wealth finds himself wondering if the vigorous, handsome Father Bourke was yet another one Tess’s lovers.

joyfulLeon first met Tess at his bookshop, when she was married to a Turkish man, and a friendship ensues between Leon and Tess with Tess gradually opening up and confiding about her many sexual exploits. Leon, who worships Tess as an object of beauty, and not as a potential sex partner, then invites her to his home where he has stored a remarkable collection of stunning gowns along with shoes and jewelry. Tess goes through a rapid corridor of emotions: first she thinks Leon wants an affair, then she thinks he’s a crossdresser, so she has to modify her emotions considerably when she understands that he wants to dress her up in these clothes and watch her in various poses.

She was about to speak but Leon held a finger to his lips. Tess raised one eyebrow for a second, then submitted. Leon walked around her in an arc, taking in every feature of her form. He stepped back three paces and asked Tess to walk across the room, past the Ungaro, returning to her position by the windows. He asked her to turn her back to him and gaze out the windows. He found a pale grey silk scarf in the wardrobe and suggested to Tess that she wear it across her back and loosely draped over each forearm. Then he asked her to walk across the room again, taking more care with posture.

‘In what way?’

“More erect, but not stiff. Let your shoulders hunch just a fraction. As if the weight of your breasts burdens your shoulders, but only slightly, as if you’re resisting.’

When Tess had crossed the room, he asked her to do so once more, without smiling.

‘I wasn’t!’

‘I’m afraid you were.’

Tess crossed the room again.

‘Can I ask you to try the Bill Blass?’ said Leon

Freud would have had a field day with Leon. Later on we learn that Leon’s lack of sex drive is related (unsurprising) to his first exposure to sexual desire, which in his case, morphed into a distant sexual worship. Tess is the only woman who can match up to Leon’s memories, and so they marry with Tess becoming, to Leon, a fetish object. Since Tess is a woman of strong sexual passions, she has an agreement with Leon–one surely destined to bring unhappiness. She is free to “roam,” and have “adventures,” while Leon doesn’t ask questions.

Her persistence in holding Sunday sacred to her needs was backed by potent reserves of willpower, and the knowledge that she was morally in the right. It had been agreed she would roam. Her husband had conceded the necessity.

After Tess’s death, Leon discovers letters and emails sent to a lover–no shock there, but then he learns that Tess intended to leave him and that she has deposited her Polish lover, Daniel, in Leon’s unseen country property, Joyful. Leon, overwhelmed by grief, and loathing Daniel, travels to Joyful to confront the man he sees as a rival.

The book blurb focuses on Leon as the grief-stricken, jealous husband, and that’s the trajectory of the plot for a good portion of the book, but there’s a second trajectory, also concerning grief, but in this case it’s the loss of a daughter. Iraqi Professor Emmanuel Dalli’s daughter, Sofia commits suicide, and with the earlier death of her brother that leaves the professor and Daanya, his doctor wife, now childless. While Daanya returns to religion, Emmanuel plummets, like Leon, into madness. His grief turns to anger and hatred and his behaviour becomes more and more bizarre.

There is a comic element to the behaviour of both Emmanuel and Leon, but it’s tragicomic. Leon retreats from society and attempts to purge the memories of Tess from the lives of other people while Emmanuel makes a public spectacle of himself. At one point he visits his wife’s clinic and complains loudly at the reception desk that he has a pain in his penis, but then he becomes the town nuisance obviously trying to provoke someone into violence–violence that will perhaps end his suffering or at the very least convert his tortured mental state into physical pain.

While I began the book thinking this was the story of Leon, it gradually became the story of grief–arguably the inevitable end of love. We all grieve in different ways and who is to say what is enough, appropriate or over the line, yet in Emmanuel’s case his grief verges on self-indulgence. The relatively minor character of Emily, the owner of a drab second-hand shop wistfully named Enchanted, is another character who like Leon, loves someone unsuitable for her. Through Hillman’s characters we see how some people destroy with love and how others are destroyed. Sofia is one of those destroyed by love–too frail to withstand life’s stormy waters, and according to Sofia’s mother, “love shook the sense from her.” We are told that love and hate are in natural opposition, and while that’s true, Joyful argues that those we love leave us–either by death or by design, so love and grief go hand in hand in a world in which we seek the elusiveness of perfection.

Joyful appears to have a certain lack of focus. Initially this seemed to be Leon’s story, but then it became Emmanuel’s story. Both Professor Dalli and Leon connect over the issue of Joyful, a house that, as it turns out, was a social experiment, a Utopian society established by Leon’s ancestor, his maternal-great-aunt back in 1942. The journal entries written by Leon’s ancestor great-aunt were a distraction, but by the novel’s conclusion, the plot’s seemingly split trajectory drew focus and a powerful message. I appreciated that Leon, a member of the Thomas Hardy Society, had a wife named Tess–as wild and passionate a character as one could hope to find within the pages of a Hardy novel.

Review copy.

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Filed under Fiction, Hillman Robert

The Empty Glass by J.I Baker

Excerpt from a CIA memo dated August 3, 1962

“2. Subject repeatedly called the Attorney General’s office and complained about the way she was being ignored by the president and his brother.

3. Subject threatened to hold a press conference and would tell all.” (from The Last Days of Marilyn Monroe by Donald H. Wolfe)

About 1/3 of the way through The Empty Glass, a debut fiction novel written by J.I Baker, almost unable to grasp the significance of what I was reading, I put the book down and started reading about the recorded events surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s death. Marilyn had just been dumped by Robert Kennedy and she told Robert Slatzer, a former lover,  “If I don’t hear from Bobby Kennedy soon I’m going to call a press conference and blow the lid off this whole damn thing. I’m going to tell about my relationships with both Kennedy brothers.The Empty Glass is narrated by Ben Fitzgerald, a deputy LA coroner, who has the misfortune to be called to Monroe’s house on August 5, 1962, and the book details the mysteries surrounding this bizarre case. As I read the book, I asked myself if this was true–how much of this incredible stuff that I was reading was made up? Was this a figment of the author’s imagination? To my surprise (well, shock, really), I discovered that not only has the author very carefully reconstructed the events and the names of that night, but he also included some portentous events from both JFK’s and Marilyn Monroe’s life. The interesting thing here is that we will probably never know for certain what happened that night at Monroe’s home. We can speculate all we want, but by writing a fiction novel, the author effectively steps into a sequence of events in which the outrageous details were hijacked and an alternative narrative created by the people who…yes, I’m going to say it.. by the people who wanted Marilyn Monroe dead.

I have a vague childhood memory of hearing my mother discuss Marilyn Monroe and agreeing with the consensus opinion that she committed suicide as she was aging and couldn’t handle the knowledge that her looks were fading. Anyway, Monroe was a well-known loose cannon, so the suicide fit with that tragic star image. Author J.I.Baker shows that if the story fed to the public for the first 24 hours sails unchecked, then it’s virtually impossible to change the accepted narrative without invoking that nutball, dismissive phrase ‘conspiracy theory.’ What’s so very interesting here is that the author, using fiction as his venue, presents this story bolstered with the very-real facts as told by a fictional character. By using this approach the author effectively strips away the official story of Marilyn Monroe’s suicide which some (including me at this point) would argue was fiction presented as fact. And this novel is perfect timing, by the way, as this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death.

The novel begins with the information that something has gone horribly wrong in Ben Fitzgerald’s life, and then the story segues to the night of August 5, 1962 when Ben is rousted at 2:15 in the morning from bed at the cheap hotel where he rents a room. He’s told to go to 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood to the home of Marilyn Monroe as she’s committed suicide. Upon his arrival, Ben notes that the whole suicide story doesn’t fit the scenario:

Her fingernails were blue. The cause of death seemed obvious: an overdose. Except–Except the body was in the soldier’s position: legs straight, head down.

“I don’t have to tell you what that means, Doctor,” I say.

“Yes,” you say. “You do.”

“Well, it looked as though she’d been placed.”

“What?”

“Placed,” I say. “People who overdose don’t drift happily away. There are usually convulsions. Vomiting. They die contorted. And she was clutching the phone.”
“So?”

“A person dying of barbiturate overdose would not have died clutching a phone. She might have answered it. But a person dying of a barbiturate overdose would have gone limp before the convulsions began.”

Curiouser and curiouser, Marilyn’s housekeeper, doctor and psychiatrist have timelines concerning the events of that night, but within a few hours, they all change their stories. And then Ben discovers Marilyn’s diary, her “book of secrets” which for the record was never found–even though memos from both the FBI and the CIA acknowledged an awareness of its existence. He doesn’t grasp the significance of this find and in hindsight admits:

I had no reason to believe it would jeopardise my own life or that of my family. So you ask: If I had known, would I have just walked away?

Sniffing that there’s a lot wrong with Marilyn Monroe’s “suicide,” Ben takes the diary and begins doing a little freelance investigation of his own. Big mistake.

Some factors about the autopsy strike Ben as odd and inconsistent with suicide. Marilyn’s stomach was empty, so how did the overdose occur? He’s told in no uncertain terms that ‘s not his job to “speculate,” but his curiosity leads him into a nightmare existence of surveillance and threats–an existence in which Ben becomes increasingly paranoid and powerless.

The Empty Glass is a fast-paced read, full of short, sharp sentences that match the novel’s subject. The novel covers the weekend before Marilyn’s death when she travelled to the Cal-Neva resort, and also includes the JFK-Florence Kater-Pamela Turnure affair, along with fictional diary entries in which Marilyn Monroe mentions “the general.” The diary entries didn’t ring true for me–perhaps they just didn’t sound like Marilyn’s voice. On the down side, I doubt the novel will appeal to readers unless they have an interest in Marilyn Monroe. On the positive side, the author did some phenomenal work with the facts and effectively deconstructed the official story.

Wikipedia has a very interesting page devoted solely to the death of Marilyn Monroe. And here for the author’s web page for additional information about the life and death of Marilyn Monroe.

review copy from the publisher.

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Death in Paris: A Sobering Thought

I recently read Death in the City of Light: The Serial Killer of Occupied Paris by David King. Since writing the post, I’ve been dwelling on a passage that I didn’t add to the review. It’s a sobering section of the book that gives a sense of the desperation of the times, and it’s important enough to merit a post of its own. In the chapter, German Night, David King describes the atmosphere in Paris when the Germans arrived:

For years before, many of Paris’s richest and most privileged residents began fleeing the capital. The Duke of Windsor; Prince George of Greece, Princess Winnie de Polignac and her niece, Daisy Fellowes, the heiress to the Singer sewing fortune, had all departed. The Aga Khan set out for Switzerland. Peggy Guggenheim stored her art collection in a friend’s barn and drove away in her Talbot, in the direction of the Haute Savioe ski resort of Megève.

Not far behind were a number of writers, painters, and artists who had turned the City of Light into what the New York Times art critic Harold Rosenberg called “the laboratory of the twentieth century.” James Joyce left for a village outside Vichy before continuing into Zurich. Alice B. Toklas departed for Culoz, near Annecy. Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse, Réne Magritte, and Wassily Kandinsky headed south. Vladimir Nabokov secured the last ocean liner to New York. Walter Benjamin hiked across a mountain passageway into Spain, but made it no further than Portbou, where he committed suicide at age forty-eight.

A mass exodus started in May 1940, and King tells us that “of France’s forty million people, an estimated six to ten million inhabitants clogged the roads” in a futile attempt to escape from the ever-advancing German army. On June 14, 1940 the German army was  “goosestepping … down an otherwise silent Champs-Elysées.”

At least sixteen people in Paris took their own lives that day. The neurosurgeon and head of the American hospital, Comte Thierry de Martel, stuck his arm with a syringe filled with strychnine. Novelist Ernest Weiss, Franz Kafka’s best friend, swallowed a large dose of barbiturates, but when this overdose failed to have its intended effect, he slashed his wrists, dying twenty-four hours later. The sixty-four-year-old concierge at the Pasteur Institute, Joseph Meister, shot himself in the head rather than obey the German invaders–he had been the first person cured of rabies by Louis Pasteur.

King’s powerful, amazingly visual, chilling  descriptions capture the desperation of those who understood the consequences of the German army’s arrival.

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