Title: The Suicide Collectors
Author: David Oppegaard
Genre: Speculative Fiction, Literature, Post-Apocalypse Fiction
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication Date: December 2008
Hardcover: 304 pages
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel.
Why did I read this book: I first heard about this novel from Tia and Mulluane’s Debut Author Showcase feature over at the awesome niche blog Fantasy Debut. Once I had read the haunting premise, I knew I had to have it. St. Martin’s press was generous enough to provide me with a review copy, and I eagerly dove into this tale of life after the apocalypse of despair.
Summary: (from Amazon.com)
The Despair has plagued the earth for five years. Most of the world’s population has inexplicably died by its own hand, and the few survivors struggle to remain alive. A mysterious, shadowy group called the Collectors has emerged, inevitably appearing to remove the bodies of the dead. But in the crumbling state of Florida, a man named Norman takes an unprecedented stand against the Collectors, propelling him on a journey across North America. It’s rumored a scientist in Seattle is working on a cure for the Despair, but in a world ruled by death, it won’t be easy to get there.
It is twenty minutes in the future, and society has completely collapsed. Ninety percent of the world’s population have killed themselves after the pandemic called “The Despair” has swept across the face of the planet. Each victim killed by their own hand is stolen by a strange, hooded group called The Collectors. Humanity’s surviving ten percent try to maintain their quiet lives but are in constant fear that they too might succumb to the Despair and be ‘collected’. Such is the life of Norman and his wife Jordan, and their neighbor Pops–all three are the only remaining survivors in a marshy Florida ghost town. Norman returns home from a fishing trip only to find that his wife Jordan has taken her life, her cold body in bed with a spilled bottle of pills on her nightstand. When the Collectors come to take her body, Norman goes berserk and refuses to let the grave robbers take his wife–he shoots one Collector dead. After burying Jordan deep enough in the ground so that the Collectors will leave her alone, Norman and Pops decide that there is nothing left in Florida for them. They gather their remaining food and gas and decide to head west to Seattle, on a rumor that there are people living in the city, with a cure for the Despair. On the road they meet an orphaned twelve year old girl named Zero, and they take her with them on their trek west. Together, Norman, Pops and Zero travel the blacktop road to the Emerald City, and encounter how the other survivors have adapted to a world without rules, from the horrific encounters with feral children to biker gang law enforcement, desert suicide cults, and the landscape is constantly tinged with the desolation of despair. And all the while, the Collectors follow the three travelers with a bounty on Norman’s head.
The Suicide Collectors is a haunting tale about the end of the world, a literal and metaphorical journey into the moments of humming despair that every person has heard at least once in their life. The concept of the book is what drew me to it and remains its greatest strength–the dual force of “The Despair” plague and the intrinsic creeping wrongness of the Collectors, stealing the dead so that there is no closure or rest for the deceased and his or her survivors. One question I asked myself, provoked throughout this novel, was what truly was the nature of “The Despair”? Norman describes it as beginning in a mass suicide in Japan and then subsequently people begin taking their lives for seemingly no reason. But at the same time, there seems to be absolutely nothing wrong with Norman or Pops–or even, for that matter, Jordan from Norman’s memories. Is “The Despair” really an epidemic? Or is it a form of mass hysteria, some perversion of the placebo effect where people see all the death around them and succumb to the senselessness of despair? I tend to think it is the latter, but there’s no question that something other and sinister lies at the heart of this story with the shadowy force of the Collectors taking the dead bodies to “the Source”. When we finally learn just who and what the Collectors are, and what their purpose is, it’s a very interesting concept and well executed plot point. Norman’s encounter with the Source is gripping, terrifying, and I’m happy that Mr. Oppegaard chooses not to try to explain everything point-blank, leaving enough room for personal interpretation and vagueness (i.e. I’m very happy that The Source does not turn out to be a malevolent entity from outer space, ala Stephen King–though I do love King’s work too).
This is also a traveling story, in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but with the blend of naivete and horror of Lyman Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. In The Suicide Collectors the yellow brick road is the crumbling asphalt of a deserted highway, and the Wizard does reside in the Emerald City, but he is nothing more than a mere man behind the curtain. As with Dorothy and her motley crew of friends, Norman, Pops and Zero encounter wondrous and terrible things along their journey to hopeful salvation. Some of these encounters and plot twists are somewhat predictable and cliched–the bikers per Mad Max, the obligatory cultists with their religious fervor, the feral children per Lord of the Flies. That’s not to say the plotting or writing is poor, but these are pretty standard tropes in apocalyptic fiction. I did like the ultimate discovers Norman makes in Seattle and how the story ends–one thing i will say for The Suicide Collectors is that it is paced excellently, not falling into the trap of over-writing scenes, and it ends perfectly.
Character-wise, The Suicide Collectors does a basically decent job. Norman is your everyman hero. He’s a working husband with a sense of honor, but not infallibly so. There were many ‘happy coincidences’ with Norman in this novel and a few deus ex machina types of devices where he gets out of some hairy situations, but for the most part Norman is simply, reassuringly Normal. He’s not exactly the most engaging or compelling character, but I think this can be attributed to Mr. Oppegaard’s intent–Norman is not supposed to be completely endearing or overly heroic. Still, he comes off as a bit flat, a bit bland as a result of being this everyman. The other two main characters have more color than Norman, though still fall a tad shy of ever feeling like truly full, dimensioned characters. Zero, the young girl, is a quiet and somber child who does a lot for this story. My only complaint with Zero was that she tended at times to sound like Norman–that is, not like a twelve year old. Pops injected a vitality to this novel, boldly painting color over Norman’s blandness, and is probably the best drawn character of the bunch. Ultimately, the strengths of this novel lie in its ideas, however, not so much in the plotting or characters.
The Suicide Collectors is an engaging story and a quick read, but tackles some hefty and lingering issues. While not without its flaws (most notably the implausibly in tact infrastructure after 5 years of disuse, and the characters that never really felt more than two dimensional letters on a page), this is a wonderful debut novel and a strong entry in the literary apocalypse genre. I look forward to reading more of David Oppegaard’s works in the future!
Notable Quotes/Parts: One of the most revealing and poignant passages in this book:
Sometimes a man wakes in the middle of the night.
Sometimes a man, even a blessed, happy man who loves his family and has felt only a vague twinge of depression his entire life, wakes in the middle of the night.
And sometimes that man slowly gets out of bed, careful not to wake his loving spouse, and slips on a bathrobe and shoes. He reaches into his nightstand, pulls out a gun, and goes downstairs. He leaves through the front door and, in his reverie, forgets to close it behind him. He goes on a late-night walk, perhaps through a forest, or a deserted city park, and at the end of the walk he sits down, places the gun’s barrel in his mouth, and pulls the trigger. He does all that, and in the morning his family wakes to find the front door wide open and their home emptier. The man’s family can spend the rest of their lives scouring their minds, memories, and medical records, but in the end they still won’t totally comprehend what drove their loved one to kill himself, to leave them behind stumbling through a world that no longer makes much sense.
Norman knew about waking in the middle of the night and considering all your options. He also knew that sometimes, no matter how hard or far you searched, rational explanations for some occurrences simply couldn’t be found. That was why the Source, and that he was about to die without any concrete answers regarding it, didn’t surprise him.
He’d seen this sort of light before.
Verdict: A solid, engaging debut from new author David Oppegaard. Definitely recommended. I’m eager to see what David Oppegaard writes next!
Rating: 7 Very Good
Author David Oppegaard has graciously agreed to an interview and giveaway tomorrow! We have five copies of The Suicide Collectors available for giveaway for five lucky winners. To enter, leave a comment either here today or in tomorrow’s interview. The contest will run until Sunday at midnight PST. Good luck!