“The grand philosophical question is whether suicide makes a choice of death, and the answer is yes.” A bold assertion? Maybe. But it is the conclusion Charlene Elsby’s narrator comes to after her boyfriend commits suicide in Elsby’s latest novel, Psychros (140 pages; Clash Press). Psychros is both a philosophical inquiry into the nature of existence and a psychoanalytical study of a woman looking to quell her grief through sex and violence. The death of her boyfriend causes a series of intellectual dilemmas for the narrator: how do you reconcile who a person was in life with how they are remembered in death; when we die, do we cease to exist; what does it mean to exist in the first place?
“One after the other, people were reminiscing about him and all the great things he had done, now that he was dead. They were remembering things that happened and things that didn’t. They were making him smarter than he ought to be, than I’d ever admit to. They were purifying the man of all his material worldliness to form an ideal—an ideal idea, no longer bound to the definite past and all that entails.”
Not speaking ill of the dead has long been a societal norm, but the narrator rejects this expectation. Elsby allows her narrator to wander into the depth of resentments that arise toward a loved one in their death. At his memorial she vacillates between annoyance at how he is misremembered and plotting how she will “manipulate” her deceased boyfriend’s friend, Jeff, into having sex with her. The narration remains connected to the present and little is revealed about their life together before the suicide. For a novel about grief, this choice to evade reminiscing about the past feels unexpected, as if to suggest that reality itself transforms in the moments after a person’s death and renders the previous version non-existent. This type of non-existence becomes a major preoccupation for the narrator and leads her to veer closer toward what it means to die, particularly when it is a choice.
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He acted himself to death.
I can make choices too.
I can make all sorts of choices.
Good choices, bad choices, the terms were all relative anyway.
The narrator’s choices become intrinsically tied with corporeal existence. The fixation with the body as severed from a spirit or even a definitive reality leads her to risky sexual acts, one of which includes following a stranger into a dirty public bathroom. During the encounter she feels disconnected to the stranger despite her literal, physical connection to his body. They hardly speak. He doesn’t look at her. His eyes remain closed, and she thinks about an alternative reality in which he might behave differently, more compassionately. “He could be so kind as to ask, at least, how I was doing, whether anyone I loved had died recently, and how I was dealing with the fact that I wasn’t sure at this point whether I had loved them, or whether I was trying to convince myself I didn’t, in order to make the loss less devastating.” The moment illuminates how private grief is, and the stark contrast of two bodies physically connected and emotionally detached reveals something essential about the capacity to relate outside the self. Elsby illustrates how knowledge of the self—or even the capacity to question the self—is the root for an infinite series of unanswerable moral dilemmas.
After seducing Jeff, the narrator’s appetite for sex and violence grows even more insatiable. She craves physical pain, but increasingly she ponders committing violence unto others. The preoccupation with violence is an attempt to get nearer to death without experiencing it firsthand: “Death is the contrary of want; it’s the only thing that can stop it. People say that you commit suicide to make the pain stop; I say it’s because you can’t stand wanting any longer…Death is the end of desire.”
At just over 100 pages, Elsby’s Psychros does an impressive job working through major ontological questions. While the novel is philosophical, Elsby doesn’t sacrifice plot, and she successfully anchors the abstract in the physical. The story remains close to the narrator’s interior, which allows access into the mechanics of her logic as she becomes progressively reckless and violent. But as the reader experiences her thoughts in real-time, much of the emotional processing is absent and at times this effect can distance us from the stakes of the story. Normally this might be a turn-off in a book about something as universal as grief, and yet one can’t help but think it mimics the dissociative experience of grief itself. Elsby’s style simultaneously allows access to one realm of the brain while denying access to the other. Psychros successfully and surreally captures the complexity of loss through a wholly original take on the so-called psychosis of a person brought to the edge.