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Book Review: Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious by Alix Strauss

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If you were a filmmaker, and had the opportunity to make a film about a supposed great artist or “legend,” would you focus on that person’s last dying moments, when he or she is in a drugged out daze, or on what made that person noteworthy to begin with? I choose the latter, but after reading Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous, and the Notorious by Alix Strauss, the book references a film made by Gus Van Sant, chronicling the “Last Days” of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain (actually, the character has a different name but anyone can see this is based on Cobain). In the trailer, the Cobain character wanders around, doped up, slurring and drooling in a dress, falling over in his depressed stupor. Ironically, the film is titled “Last Days” for this very reason.

And Strauss’ book is basically the book version of that film. In it she focuses on writers, painters, actors, musicians, and also “notorious” folk like Sigmund Freud and Adolf Hitler, all in their “Last Days.” All listed in this book have, in some way, killed themselves or attempted to kill themselves. So why write a book that focuses on these supposedly “exceptional” individuals (for reasons both good and bad) while they’re in their most pathetic state? Because the culture has this sick obsession with not only death, but suicidal death. To be fair, this book is not being marketed as anything “deep.” It is a pop cultural book that basically offers facts into these individuals’ last dying days, as well as their suicidal methods of choice. Death Becomes Them is a very fast and easy read, leaving the reader with merely encyclopedic details, rather than insights.

Although I admit to having learned facts I’d not known before, I’m not sure I can say I’m better off having learned them. The book is also larded with suicide “details” that to a depressed person, might read more like “tips,” as in how long does it take to die when a plastic bag is put over your head? (You don’t even have to tie it!) And what is the best way of slitting your wrists? Although one cannot blame a book as the source to a problem, Death Becomes Them is not a book for the sad or depressed. Or maybe it is, though I don’t recommend reading it if that is the case.

The best parts are when Strauss is not talking about artists because she tends to make the clichéd assumption that these suicidal so-called “artists” (for not all mentioned in the book are good) are therefore “visionaries” and “geniuses,” when this is not the case. For every Van Gogh or Sylvia Plath there are a thousand artsy wannabe poseurs without any talent at all. Strauss never bothers to question if maybe some of these depressed artists realized themselves they were hacks. When she speaks about David Foster Wallace’s hanging, she reuses the same clichés all the ass kissy New York Times critics said: “Some called him the best writer of his generation,” without offering any reason as to why this is the case. And maybe there was good reason for why Mark Rothko’s solid color paintings were rejected by the art world: perhaps the critics could actually see him as the fraud many today still argue him to be.

The fact that these points go unchallenged, only confirms how willingly the public receives one’s reputation when others have claimed something to be the case, and why, ultimately, societal laziness (and very often the real reasons into one’s greatness) goes overlooked in favor of the shallow status quo. (The New York Times calls so-and-so ‘The Best Writer of his Generation’ and therefore he must be). Instead, these suicidal artists are all lumped beside one another, some who are great and others who are not, with only pages dividing them, and no substantial commentary on their work is ever provided. The odd thing is that the publisher calls the book, “A private, provocative and personal tribute to these lost souls — a fond remembrance, a final goodbye.”

Well, how they can call this a “private” tribute I have no idea, since most these facts are well known and blasted all over the Internet. Also, the book isn’t really a “fond remembrance” because if it were, more attention would be given to these individuals’ moments of gladness and accomplishment, rather than their mediocrity and despair. Frankly, suicide and depression are boring. The reasons to love Judy Garland should be because of her stellar voice, not because she slit her throat and was a depressed alcoholic. Likewise, a Van Gogh painting is something that is distinct, you can see it in the way he draws his lines, uses his paint — that’s what makes him special, his work, not the fact that he was some drunk loser who cut off his ear and then decided to shoot himself in the chest.

In addition, some of the choices of subject veer on predictable: how many books have retold the suicidal stories of Plath and Sexton? Instead, a mention of Iris Chang, the talented writer and author of The Rape of Nanking, who killed herself in 2004, would have been far more interesting. For one thing, Chang contradicts the stereotype regarding the obsession of “self” in one’s work, as her books are all historical and deal with the grisly subject matter of the World Wars, and many argue that it was this very subject matter that might have done her in. Poet Weldon Kees is also known for having jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, (we think) yet his body was never found.

Death Becomes Them can offer a light, fast (though not necessarily insightful) read, and the book has no pretenses as far as depth is concerned, given it is being marketed as pop culture. (If it had real depth, likely the publisher would not have wanted it, given our dumbed down culture). Strauss’ best moments are those when she is dealing with historical figures and there is no shred of emotionalism or sentimentality. For a good exploration on “madness” I recommend Mad, Bad, and Sad by Lisa Appignanesi, and for more details regarding screwy literary lives and marriages, I recommend Uncommon Arrangements by Katie Roiphe, where the writing is much more lyrical than the at times pedestrian sounding prose of Strauss. Any competent editor should have objected to her overuse of such clichéd modifiers to describe the subject at hand: dark, chilling, tormented, tortured, etc.

Though Death Becomes Them is a good title for the book, because very often it is these individuals’ deaths that eclipse their lives and accomplishments for the lazy reasons above. Literally, it is their deaths that take over, and if one wonders why that is the case, look no further than this book.

Last Days Trailer:

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About Jessica Schneider

  • http://www.Alixstrauss.com Alix Strauss

    Hi Jessica – Thanks for taking the time to read my book. I did want to share a few notable authors that found DEATH BECOMES THEM to be both fascinating and well-written:

    “Alix Strauss’ book is dark, grisly – and completely fascinating. I almost felt guilty for so thoroughly enjoying this look at history’s most tormented souls.” – A. J. Jacobs, author of The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible

    “Every life is laid out with such humor, such style and heart, it’s hard to imagine the dead themselves would not be thrilled to come back and read what the author had to say about them. Forget the bible – this is what I want to find in a hotel drawer at four in the morning. A truly unique, compelling and strangely life-affirming work of literary investigation. The perfect book to get you through the night.”? — Jerry Stahl, author of Permanent Midnight

    “Strauss brilliantly exposes the devilry in the details and makes the profoundly moving, self-inflicted end-days of the greats a fascinating read.” — Michael Largo, author of Genius and Heroin