Young Adult author Tommy Wallach has not been having a great week. There’s a full summary of recent events on YA Interrobang, with screencaps and all that magic, but here’s the quick version. A few days ago, he made a (now-deleted) Facebook post to promote the paperback release of his second novel, which includes a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge on the cover. His comment? “That’s a damn sexy bridge right there. I could really get into jumping off it. :)”
When many people pointed out that’s not an acceptable thing to say, he responded, “Oy. Friends. I was not making a suicide joke. The whole conclusion of the book is about whether or not Zelda jumped from that bridge.”
So it wasn’t a suicide joke. It was a joke about the fact that the book ends with the ~mystery~ of whether or not one of the main characters killed herself, and slyly nodding to how fun and sexy it is that his book contains suicidal bridge jumping at all. This on top of an old blog post of his, which I won’t link, about the “top 10 literary suicides,” including jokes such as wishing that all the characters from Girls would kill themselves, and mocking Sylvia Plath for being oh-so emo.
I haven’t read any of Tommy Wallach’s novels, and I really don’t intend to now. But the blatant disregard for the impact of his words here — the apparent assumption that no one who’s ever been suicidal could be reading and be hurt by the joke, the treatment of a character’s suicide as something to wink-wink nudge-nudge about — hints at a wider problem in the representation of suicide and mental illness in fiction. Instead of telling stories to represent the perspectives of people with mental illness, it’s using mental illness as a tool to tell a different story, often about a different character. It’s used to be deep, to be edgy and literary. Because, to put it bluntly, reviewers eat that shit up.
Here’s the official summary for the book in question, Thanks for the Trouble:
Parker Santé hasn’t spoken a word in five years. While his classmates plan for bright futures, he hangs out in hotels, watching the guests. But when he meets a silver-haired girl named Zelda Toth, a girl who claims to be quite a bit older than she looks, he’ll discover there just might be a few things left worth living for.
Zelda is spending the last of her money before jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and Parker ends up sharing those adventures with her. Wallach’s words tell you all you need to know about his attitude to his suicidal character — whether he empathises with her plight (no), whether she’s a real character or a literary device (the latter), and how much gravitas he gives to the possibility of her death (none whatsoever).
And it’s part of a general trend in literary fiction where mental illness is used to represent something other than, you know, mental illness. We can’t talk about the issues head-on in real life, but we use it as shorthand in our novels for explorations of literary ideas like “the human condition.” Concepts like “how would we spend our final days?” and “is sadness worthwhile if it allows us to feel joy too?”
Often, depression in fiction is a metaphor for unhappiness, with a buzzword attached to make it sound deep. It’s why we often get that cliche scene of the mentally ill character throwing away their medication, because everyone knows the only cure for serious illness that impacts your cognitive function, physical health and energy levels, among other things, is to abandon medication and just go out and smell the roses. Mental illness is used as a literary stand-in for “I am unhappy,” and the metaphor is carried through to is natural, non-depressed conclusion for privileged but unhappy people — life is what you make of it, so take those risks, step out into the world, breathe that fresh air, and you’ll feel better. Decide to be better, and you will be!
It’s a life-affirming message, and so it’s popular with readers and reviewers alike… unless, of course, those readers actually suffer from mental illness. In those cases, it’s just another harmful message piled on top of all the other harmful messages they receive, telling them that it’s their fault they’re unwell, because they aren’t trying hard enough. This is perhaps why depressed people in novels always have a Big Reason for their depression, like My Dad Was A Murderer, or I Am Responsible For My Little Sister’s Disability. It’s regular sadness amped up to the max, so it needs an intense reason to exist. It’s probably also why no one in these books ever goes to therapy, and if they do, the therapist is annoying and unhelpful. In literary fiction, you knew all the answers yourself all along! Unless, of course, you needed a Manic Pixie Dream Girl to help along the way.
And if the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the one with mental illness, as in Tommy Wallach’s work? Well, then the quirky insight provided by her struggles can provide great perspective to the male protagonist character. Again, it isn’t a real illness, but a metaphor for some deep introspective ability. She must suffer in order to offer her wisdom on the human condition, and since she’s not really a character in her own right, she doesn’t really suffer anyway. And once the protagonist’s seen the light? Well, then she can vanish from the story. Vanish into the mists. Jump off a bridge. Whatever, right? It doesn’t really matter, because she was never actually a person. She was just a construct through which the author could explore their questions about humanity.
And you can’t make suicide jokes about a literary construct.