It’s rare that I can remember where I was and what I was doing when I first encountered a particular book. The circumstances of reading are usually not very notable; you’re sitting in a chair, you’re lying in bed, you’re leaning in a corner of the new releases section—so what’s to remember, really, in terms of contextual specifics? One of a very few exceptions, for me, is the French writer Édouard Levé, my first exposure to whom I clearly recall as a distinct and self-enclosed experience. I was in bed and unable to sleep, until at some point I stopped trying and reached over to my nightstand for my Kindle and began browsing for something new to read. One of the things Amazon’s mysterious recommendation algorithm had seen fit to suggest was a book called Suicide by a French writer I’d never heard of. My morbid insomniac interest was piqued by the promotional blurb’s mention of the fact that, in October 2007, the author had killed himself 10 days after submitting the book to his publisher; I started reading, figuring that even if the book weren’t to my taste, a little French experimental fiction might be just the thing to finally send me off to sleep.
But that’s not what happened. What happened was that I became quickly consumed by the book’s impassive style, with its second-person declarative narration that somehow managed to be both tonally distant and uncomfortably intimate. In the opening lines of the book, the protagonist—a deceased childhood friend of the narrator, to whom he only ever refers as “you”—leaves his house with his wife to play tennis, but points out to her that he’s forgotten his racket. “You go back to the house to look for it,” Levé writes, “but instead of making your way toward the cupboard in the entryway where you normally keep it, you head down into the basement. Your wife doesn’t notice this. She stays outside. The weather is fine. She’s making the most of the sun. A few moments later she hears a gunshot. She rushes into the house, cries out your name, notices that the door to the stairway leading to the basement is open, goes down, and finds you there. You’ve put a bullet in your head with the rifle you had carefully prepared.”