Death kit

Susan Sontag’s Death Kit (1967) is a bit of a mind-bender. Likeable, hateable, excruciatingly average Dalton ‘Diddy’ Harron dreams about wolf-boys, lives in the shadow of his thoughtless, successful brother Paul and is effortlessly good at his mind-numbing microscope sales job.

We meet Diddy the Good on a business trip. He takes the train from New York, meets a lovely blind—in contrast to his business of seeing acutely—girl, Hester, and bludgeons a workman to death in a tunnel—he believes, somewhat shakily, from self-defence—but Hester, his only witness and confidante, refuses to believe he left their train compartment to commit such an atrocity.

Sontag trips a fine line between the agonising boredom of a perfectly normal life and a brutal, violent, nauseating one, suggesting a causal link between the two. She has woven an immensely sensory work with constant references to nausea and hunger and scent and sight and blindness. Diddy is suffering a more intense existential crisis than the nausea of Jean-Paul Sartre. Diddy is dying.

‘Meaning, seriously, to kill himself, Diddy swallowed half a bottle of sleeping pills one evening; after walking the dog, who sprawls (now) before the fireplace in the living room. It’s twelve-thirty; in his bedroom, door closed, Diddy lies back and shuts his eyes. Begins to float down, softly, peaceably. Followed by an interval of undetermined length: some dark time, in which it’s hard to breathe’ (p. 6).

What follows is an intricate narrative of events taking place on a business trip, peppered with dreams and memories, and always the nausea, always ‘riding out the tide of nausea’ (p. 8). It’s explained that Diddy woke up. He hit his head, smelled something putrid by his bed, glimpsed a nurse, was carried away to hospital—‘reprieved from death … reprieved either by his own vitality or by the merest accident. … A posthumous person has certain new resources, new strengths’ (p. 7).

Hester is this new resource. Hester is Diddy’s vitality. Hester cannot see the ugliness of the world, and because she lives in darkness, she can bear to live. Blinded by her mother as a teenager, Hester experiences the world in a better dimension, and Diddy comes to idolise her sightlessness, a purifying trait that he tries to mimic by shutting himself away in darkness.

It is not that Diddy meets a healing character; rather, he descends into a strange internal world on the cusp of death and meets a new, stronger part of himself that wants to live. He speculates that Hester, this stronger part of himself, has gained some new wisdom and is now too intelligent to suffer. ‘Doesn’t the capacity to suffer depend on a kind of superior stupidity? So thinks Diddy. With his eyes closed, becoming drowsier’ (p. 207). Aching for this wisdom that will allow him to rise above his suffering, Diddy knows that Hester’s teaching him is his only hope.

Diddy and Hester marry, with plans to move to a new place, to go for walks and for Diddy to describe the scenery, smell the air as she does, read to her. ‘Diddy knows a remedy. There’s something else, rather someone else, to think about. When the spectre looms up before his retrograde vision, she comes to caress his face and to kiss his eyes. To banish the workman, to heal Diddy. She never fails to come. But always after. The workman arrives first. Diddy driven and counter-driven’ (p. 80).

The struggle is fierce. Though we meet him on a train, going into a tunnel, on a swift, dark track to death, the train is halted and Diddy and Hester have their first heady encounter. Though their marriage is full of hope, a strong, unifying decision at last, they begin to sink. They move into Diddy’s old apartment, draw the blinds and live in a dark, stifling den. Diddy becomes dependent on Hester, who takes care of all the cooking, the dusting, clipping Diddy’s toenails. The apartment descends into chaos, as filthy as the original train, strewn with cigarette butts, LPs languishing without their covers, the windows grimy with the city’s pollution. Diddy thinks of the view as that from the train window, only motionless. Diddy is returning to the place where we met him.

‘“Darling, we have to talk,”’ Diddy confronts Hester (p. 276). He has struggled; he has made his choice. As long as Hester remained to look after him, ‘death had refused his hectic, inept petition. … Diddy was afraid to die’ (p7). But Diddy (now) afraid no longer. ‘“Help me, Hester!”’ is his last plea. “‘What are you afraid of?” “I guess….I guess, I’m afraid that I’ll have to do something, something I’m not doing”’ (pp. 279-80).

Diddy and Hester return to the tunnel. A gory scene takes place, in which Diddy again splits the skull of the workman, has one last violent encounter with Hester, whom he then leaves slumped the way he left the workman the first time. Hester is defeated, now Diddy is left to explore his impending demise, in a cavernous vault of carefully catalogued and preserved corpses. The nurse reappears, and the hideous smell.

A little online research suggests that Sontag was harshly criticised for Death Kit when it was first published. At best, it was reviewed as a Kafkaesque dreamscape. And this would not be incorrect, since the entire narrative takes place within a dream, a dream laced with memories, sensations and internal struggles. Sontag constantly reminds us that it is a long moment, a lingering instant—it is always (now). It is gritty and grotesque. But it seems that it was received literally, and that readers failed to interpret it as a whole.

Sontag had written a paper three years prior to Death Kit entitled Against Interpretation. In it, she argues, ‘What is needed, first, is more attention to form in art.’ This she extends to literature, saying that modern literature and our expectation of what may be done within the literary form has become so uninspired that it is mostly undisguised news or information, or, if more loosely disguised, ‘it is still peculiarly visible.’

This is, of course, the easy to churn out pulp fiction, with characters who are simply colour-by-number cardboard cut-outs, designed for a purpose, mouths stuffed with one-liners, objects strewn like candlesticks in conservatories, lead pipes in billiard rooms, ready to be wielded for their scripted purpose. Rather than trying to be so obscure as to destroy meaning, or at the other extreme, becoming purely decorative in an effort to ‘elude the interpreters,’ Sontag proposes another way to inject meaning into work without the audience needing to reinterpret it in terms of Marxist-feminist-deconstructivist-postmodernism: ‘by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be … just what it is.’

And so she has presented us with a self-contained capsule of a work that we can swallow whole and meditate upon. It presents all its ideas, it relies on its strong internal imagery, it uses its own, specially crafted literary devices (now) with their own stipulated meanings. Certainly, you may need to read it again to appreciate the meanings woven throughout, which you had taken at face value at the outset, but you can trust it to be a complete, self-referencing, consistent work, with all the clues you need, should you search for them.

‘What is important now is to recover our senses,’ Sontag argues in the face of a swathe of books that dull our sensory experience. She has ‘selected lilacs for their scent’ (DK p. 65), and if at any time you are bewildered at the plot, you are riding a sensory rush so powerful it is hard to alight.

‘“Draw those curtains, Goldberg, will you? The light’s in my eyes,” said Reager irritably,’ (p. 83).

*Sontag, Susan. 2009 [1967]. Death Kit. Penguin Books: London.

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