Review: The Suicide Collectors by David Oppegaard

The Suicide Collectors

David Oppegaard

St. Martin’s Press, 2008

 

The Suicide Collectors, David Oppegaard’s debut novel, is set in a near future world decimated by mass suicide via a plague dubbed The Despair.  In the ashes of this future world enigmatic men and women have begun collecting the suicide victims for unknown purpose.  Feared and rivaled by the remaining populous only one man, Florida native Norman, makes a stand to protect the body of his dead wife, killing one of the Collectors in the process.  What follows is a whirlwind trip accross the broken and barren United States to find a possible cure for the Despair and keep one step ahead of the vengence seeking Collectors.

While I have yet to finish Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,  I can stay the Oppegaards prose is perhaps the exact antithesis of McCarthy’s.  Where McCarthy often spends a lot of time on flowery descriptions and long introspection Oppegaard’s prose is direct and to the point.  The Suicide Collectors moves at a breakneck pace with little to no stops along the way for lengthy descriptions of empty landscapes the characters encounter.  That isn’t to say there are none but those we do encounter leave a lasting impression and, unlike McCarthy’s novel, are described in direct no-nonsense prose that leaves a vivid picture in its wake.  The paper plastered house  in particular is an absolutely chilling encounter that is acheived with very sparing description but leaves you with a greater understanding of the terrible weight of the Despair that has decimated the world (if The Shining’s Jack had taped his “novel” to a house instead of left a stack of papers next to the typewriter you’d have a similar effect).

The novel’s brisk pace and sparing prose works against it as well.  It isn’t clear exactly how far beyond our world that of the novel is, at least until about a hundred pages in when we learn how robot labor has replaced much of the manual workforce.  There are other tidbits here and there and in truth I am left uncertain as whether a less um…futuristic future would have had a greater emotional draw by creating a tighter link between the modern world and world of the novel.  At the same time I find myself wishing that Oppegaard had given us a greater glimpse of the world at large.  At the same time the fact that all of Oppegaard’s prose funnels directly into the action of the novel makes for a quick, compulsive read that is difficult to put down.

Oppegaard’s characters are based off familiar archetypes: the reluctant hero, the wisened old man, and the spunky young girl.  That being said they still made for good reads with Zero (the spunky young girl) being my favorite of the bunch.  The girl is put through hell in this novel and I given Oppegaard credit for giving her the strength and fortitude to overcome her challneges.  In fact I would argue that for the latter half of the novel Zero with her atypically positive outlook and unflinching demeanor is the true impetus for Norman’s quest rather than any true heroic zeal.  At the same time I find it a bit disheartening that there are no other strong female characters in the novel and hope that any potential sequels feature a mature, confident (and suitably baddass) Zero.

The Suicide Collectors is light on the science.  There is no real explanation for the Despair.  The enimagtic Source that directs the Suicide Collectors is never explained, nor descibed in detail.  The theories espoused by characters in the novel (especailly the Mayor’s negative influence from the billions dead by murder and suicide prior to the Despair) are perhaps more interesting than the real (non)explanation.  Then again the book isn’t so much about the why of things as it is about finding a means to fight back against the apathy and despair that permeates the last 10% of humanity.  Seen as such the nebulous Source, as the literal representation of human loneliness, despair, and apathy works well enough within the confines of the story.  On the other hand the lack of science, or an explanation of what created the source, is symptomatic of the novel’s identity crisis:  Oppegaard can’t seem to decide between horror and science fiction.  While the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive the oscilation between moments designed to create genuine dread and the exploration of a near future mean that neither ever works completely.

Despite its flaws The Suicide Collectors is a an absolutely stellar first novel that reveals an up and coming talent.  Brisk pacing and constant action drive the novel forward while the occaisonal breif moment allows for a greater exploration of the world Oppegaard has created.  While the characters are somewhat two dimensional they are likeable and, in Zero’s case, imply the potential for a more robust examination.   An exciting read well worth picking up for the day or two it will take you to plow through it.  Recommended.

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