What if You Could Live Forever?
Rachel Heng, author of ‘Suicide Club,’ on the dystopia of immortality
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Rachel Heng’s Suicide Club takes place in a near-future America, where technology has made it possible for the people to live for hundreds of years — and is approaching the point where immortality is inevitable.
In a world where the pursuit of immortality is not only considered moral, but is also supported by law, inevitably a small group of people known as the Suicide Club form.
The novel follows two women — Lea, a “Lifer” who is all but promised immortality — and Anja, a violinist who must watch her mother’s body kept alive via machines despite the fact that her consciousness has long since disappeared.
I chatted with Heng over Skype, about capitalism, the wellness industrial complex, fear of mortality, and more.
Karissa Chen: We’ve long had this obsession with living forever — and it appears in a lot of books — but the interesting twist in your book is that it’s not just about living forever but it’s about the opposite, this idea of suicide. Where did the idea for this book came from?
Rachel Heng: I’ve been obsessed with the idea of living forever since I was a kid. I’ve always been really terrified of death, both that of my own and of my loved ones, and I think a lot about loss and death and people growing older. This book was my way of facing my fear head-on, so thinking of what it would be like if that didn’t happen, and how great would it be if we could all live forever, and then taking that idea to the logical extreme and realizing, of course that it wouldn’t be that great. Particularly given the world we live in, the constraints we have, and all the inequality that already exists and that would persist under these circumstances. It was really about taking this idea to its logical conclusion and realizing that it would be not at all like what the 6-year old me would have wanted.
As for the question of suicide: in a hyper-sanitized world where immortality is within grasp and people are almost unable to die a natural death, suicide seemed like the terrible and logical antithesis. That’s where the idea came from — it came from fear of death and wanting to live forever, and then realizing that wouldn’t be so great after all.
KC: There’s a sanctimoniousness in the world of Suicide Club that I think we already see today, especially in America where being healthy is considered a moral good. Like people fat shaming because they believe that if you’re fat, it’s because you’ve personally failed at working out a lot or you didn’t eat your quinoa and kale or something.
RH: Totally, it’s that same bootstrapping mentality, like if you are sick, then you deserve it because you didn’t do the right thing. And underneath that, there’s so many layers and questions of access and classism. We have these ideas of wellness that involves things like SoulCycle and eating quinoa and organic fresh fruit. People might ask, why do people eat fast food and so on, but what some don’t realize that in many cases it’s a matter of fast food just being a lot cheaper than a $7 cold pressed juice. There’s so much inherent judgment and classism in that.
So if we lived in a world where immortality was within grasp, who would actually be able to access that immortality and how would we judge the people who couldn’t? I imagine society would see the non-immortals as bearing some kind of moral failing, because that’s so much easier than admitting to the fact that we live in a deeply unequal world.
KC: The book also becomes a cautionary story about capitalism, because not only is it about immortality being moral, but also something that people are making money off. I thought it was interesting how you chose to brand all of their skin, their blood, all of their replacements. It makes sense that in this very capitalist world that there’s this branding that is going on. I wondered if you thought this might actually happen, because I don’t feel like we’re that far off, we already have things like Restylane and Botox.
RH: Yeah, that is where I got it from. I think it already happens today, like the way that private enterprise basically controls pharmaceuticals in the US (in other countries not necessarily). Recently there was a report that was released from a Goldman Sachs investment memo that contained this line that said something like, they weren’t sure that curing patients was a sustainable model of business. It was this notion that if you cure everyone, then you wouldn’t be able to make any more money. I think, unfortunately, that’s the reality of certain types of business. When you have capitalism intersecting with healthcare, I think the outcome can be pretty dystopian.
Suicide seems like the terrible and logical antithesis in a hyper-sanitized world where immortality is within grasp and people are almost unable to die a natural death.
KC: The other thing I noticed about the book is that while it takes place in America and this is happening in America, it’s said outright that in other countries this wave of immortality isn’t happening. And Lea’s father and Anja both come from outside of the United States. As I myself am someone who splits her time between the US and Taiwan, I notice that the healthy food obsession and stuff like Soulcycle and everything is just not that big here in Taiwan, and that’s probably true of many other countries. That kind of obsession seems to me to be very specific to America, although maybe there’s other Western cultures that are also into it too. I was wondering if there was something about that that you could speak to, especially since you yourself have lived in several countries.
RH: From personal experience, I’d agree with you that I saw it most strongly in the US. But I was also living in the UK when I wrote the book and that wave had definitely come over to the UK as well. In Singapore it seems to be starting but it’s still some way behind. Like when I told my mother that I’m trying to eat more salad, she looked at me and she said, “You’re not eating meat? That can’t be healthy.” There’s a very different notion of what’s healthy and what’s not healthy in Asian vs. Western cultures. So there is that element of cultural difference.
But also I think what struck me the most about living in the US was the fact that health insurance is so expensive, and if you don’t have health insurance, you could end up in the hospital and go completely bankrupt from paying medical bills. I’d never lived in a country like that before, because in Singapore you have pretty good government sponsored healthcare, and even though it’s not a universal healthcare system, you can always get some help, so it’s never as if you’re just on your own. Capitalism hasn’t quite seeped into healthcare and affected people’s lives in such a visceral, medical way to the same degree that it has in the US. So just that level of inequality is something I have always associated with America. And to your point, that kind of whole wellness industry — soul cycle, green juicing and all of that stuff — I associate it very much with the US.
KC: Was there a reason why you decided to make both Anja and Lea’s father people who didn’t originally come from America?
RH: I think one reason was because I do not come from America, and that was my personal experience. I think the other thing, a more technical craft reason, was if they were just from America, then it would be harder for them to have an external perspective. Having them come from different places gave the opportunity to show what things were like in other parts of the world, as well as having them be outsiders and not fully buying into society’s beliefs.
KC: When did you move to the States?
RH: I came here for undergrad and I went back to Singapore for about a year. Then I was working in the UK for about five years. I just came back to the States last year to start my MFA.
KC: So what was it like for you to write about America, ostensibly from an American perspective, as someone who did not grow up in America?
RH: When living in New York, I often imagined what it would be like if I had grown up there, thinking about the kind of pressures I would face, and what being in that society would feel like. But also, it’s speculative America, so you already have to stretch your imagination quite a bit to get to Lea’s character in this dystopian world.
This reminds me, in another interview I was talking to a Singaporean reporter and she said, “Your book is set in America and your characters are American but I see a lot of Singapore in this world, such as being metric driven and the somewhat controlled life with a narrow vision of success. Those feel like themes that are familiar.” And I thought, oh yeah, that’s true. I guess that even though it’s set in America, a lot of the themes in the book are things that I drew from my own life growing up in Singapore. The book seems to resonate across cultures. When Americans read it, they seem to see it as American even though so much of it came from my own life.
KC: I was even wondering if maybe you are able to see America more clearly in some ways because you are coming from a perspective where you didn’t grow up in America. I think sometimes Americans can be blinded to the absurdity of the way things are, like having cold-pressed juices on every corner and paying $10 for it is normal.
RH: Or like paying $5000 for dental surgery. To me this is out of this world but to Americans it seems normal.
KC: Totally. So I was like wondering if maybe the fact that you grew up in Singapore allows you to see certain things for what they are in America and having a more absurdist perspective. In some ways, we’re already living a capitalist dystopia in America, but we don’t see it because to us it’s normal. I think the best dystopias allow you to see the parallels with your real life drawn to this horrible conclusion. So while reading your book I thought, I already see this. For instance, the whole fact that she’s working for this financial firm where they’re basically banking on organs and lives, and I thought this is totally something that would happen in America.
RH: Yeah, I think that’s already happening to some degree. I just wrote a piece actually, for Catapult, about the death bond market, which is this financial product that allows people to speculate on the life expectancy of individuals. And I’ve had conversations with people who believe that kidney trading should be legal because they think it would make the market efficient and it would give people access to kidneys. So it doesn’t seem that far-fetched unfortunately.
My book came from the fear of death and wanting to live forever, and then realizing that wouldn’t be so great after all.
KC: So what is your own relationship to the health industrial complex and how did that influence this book?
RH: Growing up I had always been pretty unhealthy and I never outgrew not wanting to eat vegetables. My friends make fun of me for it — literally last night I was having dinner and my friends were like, “Are you taking all the pieces of basil out of your Thai fried chicken?” and I said, “Yeah, I am doing that. I do not want to eat those pieces of basil.” Which, by the way, I wouldn’t recommend, I’m not advocating for people to be unhealthy. But I enjoy a lot of unhealthy foods and I don’t like running; I like to enjoy myself. But after I started working, there was one year where I did a health checkup and I found out I had high cholesterol at the age of 24. It was pretty shocking, and I had this revelation where I was thought, I guess I should take care of my diet and start exercising more. At the time, I was working in finance in the UK and people in that industry are really into wellness and maintaining this image of health and physical perfection. It’s interesting because you associate finance with Wolf of Wall Street excesses right? Like people drinking, doing drugs, staying up all night to party, but that’s no longer the case. Now it’s more like people comparing which Ironman they did and which Arctic Trek they’re going on next and which place has the best cold pressed juice. So it’s a very different kind of competitiveness, and that’s something I tapped into for the book. It was both amusing and slightly terrifying. I think when I got my high cholesterol result, I freaked out slightly and I thought, Okay, I need to change my life completely. So I went the other way and started doing yoga and running to work everyday and eating salads, making myself completely miserable. Thankfully my health results came back much better the next year, and then I sort of just went back to my old unhealthy ways.
KC: Yeah, I hear you. I am also someone who enjoys herself and can’t do the whole health complex thing.
RH: Yeah, what’s the point? It’s horrible! I mean maybe some people enjoy it, I don’t know.
KC: To me it’s interesting because you’re doing all this stuff for the sake of being “healthy” but is it really healthy if it’s an obsession? You know, you’re not doing it in a way where it’s natural, where you’re like, I’m eating because I enjoy that particular food and it happens to be good for me, or I go out and ride my bike every weekend because it’s fun and it’s something I like to do. It’s more like let me sit in a room with other sweaty people for an hour and go nowhere on a bike and then I feel healthy, you know?
RH: It’s almost like a self-punishing kind of compulsion, like this sense of “if it feels bad then it must be good for me.” It can be quite self-flagellating and there’s something somewhat morally judgmental about the whole enterprise.
KC: Oh and — wait, I forget the term you use for when people are cooking salads.
RH: Oh — trad.
KC: Yeah, trad, it took me awhile to understand, I kept wondering, what’s trad food? And then I realized, Oh my god, it’s just normal food, because they don’t eat food, they just drink things out of pouches like baby food.
RH: Some people are already doing that. Have you heard of Soylent?
KC: Yeah, I have.
RH: So I feel like Soylent just epitomizes so much of that kind of Silicon Valley health-obsessed culture, this Master of the Universe mentality where it’s like, I can control everything, I will optimize every single nutrient that goes into my body and because of that, I will conquer death.
KC: Yeah I was disgusted by that, I thought, these people are not enjoying their life at all, they’re just eating baby food. To that point, the other thing that I found interesting in your book was that music and the arts were somehow “unhealthy.” As someone who really loves music, I think of music as something that takes stress away. Like if we’re having a bad day, we might listen to a song that makes us happy or makes us feel things or calms us down. I thought it was really interesting that in this world, music and other forms of art are considered bad because it raises your stress levels, that people would take it to that extreme and be like nope, we can’t enjoy anything because joy makes you feel bad, joy is too good, it’s unhealthy. So I’m curious where that came from.
RH: That was quite Brave New World inspired. You know how in Brave New World Shakespeare’s banned and they no longer listen to orchestras and so on. The idea is that certain types of music are too stimulating or too cortisol-generating, because they arouse deep emotions like you say, and there’s a certain level of existential transcendence that makes you question things or makes you feel deep feelings of joy and dread and it’s too much. So in the book, they only listen to elevator music, and it’s kind of this soothing spa music, whale calls and bird calls and tinkling triangle music, but no rock, no jazz, no intense music, no Beethoven, none of that.
If we lived in a world where immortality was within grasp, who would actually be able to access that immortality and how would we judge the people who couldn’t? Society would see the non-immortals as bearing some kind of moral failing, because that’s easier than admitting that we live in a deeply unequal world.
KC: While I was reading this, I thought, okay, this all makes some sort of scientific sense to me, like raising your cortisol is maybe bad for you. But joy is also supposed to make you live longer. I thought, these people have really sad lives, they live very long lives with very little joy in it.
RH: Yeah, it’s the idea that just as much as you try and protect your body from physical harm or toxins or whatever, you create this shell around your emotional self. Like being in one of those floating pods where you meditate and you don’t feel your body at all. So I think it’s kind of that way. You don’t have this artistic stimulation that could, even though it brings you joy, also throw you off, make you think uncomfortable thoughts or make you feel uncomfortable feelings that then push you off into these existential crises. And they’d rather keep this soothing picture, like human beings sealed into plastic bags floating around in warm water.
KC: At the heart of this story is a child-parent story, both in Lea’s relationship to her father and Anja’s relationship to her mother, and also a little bit of Lea’s relationship to her mother as well. I think a lot of the emotional aspects of the story centers around that, the ways that they’re disappointed and worried and worried about disappointing their parents. There was also a relationship between Lea and her fiancé, and I think the easy thing that many people might have done would be to focus on a romantic relationship, but I think it was the smart choice to focus on a parental relationship. What do those two parent-child relationships mean to you?
RH: I think many people’s first encounter with mortality is the mortality of their parents, like everyone has that experience of realizing that one day that your parents are getting older or even when you’re a kid and you realize what death is. I remember being a kid lying in bed, freaking out and not being able to fall asleep, and thinking, oh my god, one day my parents are going to die. In a book about mortality and what it means to let go of those you love and also facing your own mortality, it makes sense to me that the relationships would be parent and child because that is the most common experience. That’s what I’m most familiar with as well, losing a parent and having your parents grow older. Actually Anja’s relationship with her mother came to me first and that didn’t change, that was a strand I knew from the beginning, that of having a parent who is technically not there anymore — she’s not able to speak or move, but she’s still alive — and what do you do? That’s one of my deepest fears for when I grow old, and I also know it’s one of my own mother’s fears. Every older person I speak to, no one wants that. So that just struck me as an incredibly heartbreaking conflict, such a sad situation to be in. It’s just so difficult to wrap your mind around. That was the image that anchored the whole parent-child theme to the book, I suppose.
Lea’s relationship with her father wasn’t as prominent in the first few drafts. It was something I found as I developed and redrafted because I realized that was kind of the main emotional thread that really resonated with me and I wanted to bring it to the foreground. My dad left when I was really young and he passed away recently, so it’s something that’s quite close to my heart, something I write about a lot, about loss and family, so on. As for the romantic stuff, I don’t know why, but none of my stories every have romantic themes to them. I just never write about romantic relationships. I guess that’s a good thing because I write about the things that trouble me the most. Family relationships are one of the things that preoccupy me the most and always have.
KC: The fact that Lea could live forever and her brother couldn’t was really poignant. It created a really interesting family dynamic where clearly she had a mother who very much believed in this way of life and her reaction to the son’s death was to become more extreme whereas her father had this complete opposite reaction which was to become more cynical about the whole thing. It becomes a very central sadness in the book. Was the relationship with the brother always in the original novel? How did you decide to put that relationship in?
RH: It was always in the novel. I needed a reason for why Lea was so committed to this lifestyle. Because, as you can see, it’s not fun, it’s not like they’re having a great time living forever, it’s pretty sterile and depressing. So I needed a reason for why she’d be so committed to that. It would make sense if you were dedicated to it because you had someone in your family who couldn’t have that and you felt that you needed to make the most of what you had. I think this can so often happen if you lose someone, that sense of survivor’s guilt, where you feel, If I do anything wrong, I’m letting down that person. So that was pretty fully formed from the early drafts.
KC: The other interesting thing was that she decides to go for this lifestyle despite the fact inherently she has some more violent tendencies. She does that thing to the bunny rabbit, which is alarming, but it’s more as if she wants to see if something can actually die.
RH: Yeah, that’s exactly what it is, thank you for putting it that way. It’s about mortality and wanting to see something die and trying to understand what a body really is because she’s so protected, because everything is so controlled.
KC: I think it comes through really clearly. She’s like, how do I pour out this rage and frustration I have that I can’t express these things, or, I want to feel something physical, so she just squeezes a bunny to death. Although you could just read it as she’s just a really violent girl at heart, I don’t think it is. I think her actions are just a manifestation of her repression, but if she lived in our world, maybe she wouldn’t be like that, maybe she would just like pick up soccer or something. It doesn’t feel like she’s going to be a serial killer or anything.
RH: Yeah absolutely, that’s exactly what it is, thanks for putting it that way. Someone else said to me that she’s just a sociopath and I said, no she’s not a sociopath, she’s just deeply repressed in a world that is incredibly constraining and controlled. She has never had like any outlets, and she has never seen anything die. Everything is so sanitized that it’s this morbid curiosity of what would happen if something did die, and how does that happen.
At the heart of every dystopia is a failed utopia.
KC: Who are some of your influences?
RH: It’s such a tough question, there’s so many — everyone I’ve ever read, pretty much! But for this book in particular… a lot of the books I loved as a teenager were dystopian, The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World, 1984, kind of the standard ones. I also loved Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler. Things in that vein, the older dystopian works, I always loved while growing up. It just really excited me to read stuff that was set in a totally different world that was so similar to our own.
The thing that always fascinated me about dystopia is that at the heart of every dystopia is a utopia, and it’s a failed utopia. It’s always so poignant because everyone is trying so hard and they want to do it well and they have this dream, but then it become this dark mirror of itself. That always struck me as very ironic and sad. I think that’s why I wrote this book in a way. I also love Michael Cunningham and 19th century novels. I also really love a lot of Japanese writers — Yoko Ogawa, Natsuo Kirino especially. I recently read a Taiwanese author who wrote this ecological novel —
KC: Oh, The Man with the Compound Eyes, Wu Ming-Yi? I just started reading it! I haven’t finished it yet but I just started it.
RH: I loved it. It’s a slow burn, but when I finished it I felt like I had been hit by a truck. It just accumulates so well and has this like amazing sort of layering ability. It’s so subtle and so beautiful and moving. So I love writers like that who do something kind of different, like it is magical realism but it’s not quite magical realism. And I love writers like Diane Cook. Her book Man v. Nature came out in 2014 — I think I actually first read her on Electric Literature, in Recommended Reading. She writes these kind of funny, sort of surreal but really dark stories that are sort of speculative. Like you never know what world you’re in but they’re usually sort of dystopian worlds that she builds really quickly, so when you get into them, you’re there right away. They’re always really strange, post-apocalyptic situations.
KC: Are there any books that are coming out soon that you’re excited about?
RH: I’m super excited about Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes. She’s also a Singaporean author, and she lives in Canada. People describe her book as Station Eleven meets The Time Traveler’s Wife. It’s essentially a love story set in a world where time travel is possible. There are companies that allow people to travel, but there’s also a flu pandemic so they allow people to travel to the future in order to pay for their medical fees in the present. It deals with themes of displacement and immigration and also healthcare, and it’s also post-apocalyptic. And then I haven’t read Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man yet but literally everyone I know who has read it has been super into it, so I’m really excited to read that. I have it on my to be read pile. I’m also hugely excited about Ingrid Rojas Contreras’s Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Ling Ma’s Severance and Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black. At the moment, I’m reading Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea, but that’s not as recent.