Suicide Club Takes On the Tyranny of Wellness

Rachel Heng’s debut novel turns the cultural imperatives of health into commands of a totalitarian state.

The cover of Rachel Heng's 'Suicide Club' with an illustrated backdrop
Moolkum / schankz / Shutterstock / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

Wellness, we are told, is an epidemic these days, described variously as a multimillion-dollar business, a “near-religious” commitment, a status symbol, a scam. It has taken on the sheen of moral judgment that’s always been synonymous with beauty, incorporated a healthy dose of aspirational striving, and, propelled by ideals of self-empowerment, spread its stifling yet refreshingly scented miasma through daily life.

It’s timely, then, that Suicide Club, the debut novel by Rachel Heng, takes the moral and cultural imperatives around wellness and turns them into commands of the state. Healthy mind, healthy body, the characters chant to each other. Government directives with names like 477B: Facilitation of Healthful Consumption run constantly through their heads. Among myriad possible violations of the Sanctity of Life Act, offenses like deliberate inducement of cortisol generation can end careers or lead to the revocation of health benefits.

In this world—an only slightly shinier, denser, more sanitized version of Manhattan—enforced longevity is the policy solution to declining birth rates. Genetic tests separate people at birth into “sub-100s,” fated to die within decades, and “lifers,” whose life spans can be extended up to three centuries with careful maintenance and high-tech replacement organs. A government-run system metes out subsidies for experimental treatments to the healthiest and most deserving, based on a lifetime’s worth of data on their commitment to self-care. And a network of rebels, the Suicide Club of the title, protests the pursuit of immortality with secret, decadent dinners and viral videos of their own deaths.

As a portrait of desensitized consumers who find release in self-destructive violence, Suicide Club carries echoes of Fight Club, the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk. But the clearest counterpart, perhaps, is Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, which takes on similar questions about the human cost of advances toward immortality by following the early lives of clones whose organs are being raised for harvest. The cloned woman who narrates Ishiguro’s novel is a second-class citizen, considered less than fully human by the researchers who raise her. Suicide Club, however, takes the perspective of the long-lived upper class; in this novel, it’s not the basic humanity of the sub-100s that’s in doubt so much as whether the lifers—armored with SmartBlood™ and DiamondSkin™ and warned against listening to anything more stirring than Muzak—have enough flaws and experiences to their names to be considered alive. “In being robbed of our deaths,” a member of the title club declares, “we are robbed of our lives.”

Heng, who worked in private equity before she began writing short stories, situates her protagonist firmly in a culture of status and striving. At 100, Lea Kirino has an “exemplary medical and motivational history”: She meditates nightly, stretches each morning, portions her meals “to ensure optimal nutrient release through the day.” She has a high-powered job on the organ-trading market, an apartment that tracks her moods and plays white noise calibrated to soothe them, a genetically immaculate fiancé, and a clear shot at the Third Wave of experimental treatments that could guarantee immortality.

But then she catches sight of her estranged father, Kaito, whose disillusionment with immortality once cast a shadow over her childhood. Chasing him, she steps into the street and is placed on an Observation List of people at suicide risk. At the mental-health support group she’s required to attend, she meets Anja Nilsson, a musician from a country where most people still die early, trapped tending to a mother whose imperfectly enhanced body has left her unable to die. When Lea follows Anja and Kaito into the Suicide Club, she is forced to reckon with the messy underpinnings of her existence. Her renewed desire for taboo pleasures like ice cream and meat frightens and fascinates her. Impulses toward violence that she hasn’t acknowledged since childhood return. And Lea comes to realize that the life of privilege she once believed was earned is governed by a network of surveillance far more extensive than she imagined.

In this way, though its subtitle bills it as “a novel about living,” Suicide Club is more precisely a novel about control and its limits—about the fine line between power and powerlessness that is exposed by even the most successful efforts to take charge of one’s life and purpose. Beneath its dystopian trappings, the novel’s conflicts are simple and deeply personal: Lea does not want her father to have to die. Anja wants her mother’s half-life to end, so that she herself can live. Yet the setting mirrors these human struggles and amplifies them into social ones. Kaito rejects immortality after the death of his sub-100 son, Lea’s brother; he can’t bear the endless pursuit of longevity when the genetic-testing system that parcels out its odds is so arbitrary. In one of the death videos, a powerful organ investor makes a similar lament: “It’s not right that these—these numbers are assigned at birth … Who decides who gets the SmartBlood™, the replacements, the maintenance sessions?” And like others in the novel who die by suicide, he frames even this most radical act of resistance as a defeat: “We leave ourselves no choice.”

Even agents of the Ministry that governs Heng’s imagined Manhattan are far from all-powerful. So-called Observers follow Lea from work to home, noting the music she listens to and the exact color and style of her sweaters as obsessively as she used to track her own life-expectancy stats. Yet when Lea goes to visit the men charged with observing her, she finds them shoved into a crowded office, complaining of budget cuts. “Meal reduction, benefits reduction, supplemental shift schedule, space consolidation,” sighs one, who’s just typed up a detailed description of Lea’s bitten nails. “Who knows where this is going to end?”

The pursuit of longevity, meanwhile, is acerbically funny in Heng’s hands. A diner customer complains that a leaf marketed as baby wild arugula “looks like regular arugula to me.” Clinics feature juice bars, staffed by baristas with decades of medical school. Grapefruit (grapefruit!) must be placed on the bottom shelf at grocery stores to shame customers who stoop to indulge in the sugar. Lea keeps a running commentary, relayed by a close third-person narrator, on the bodies of everyone she meets. The leader of her Ministry-mandated support group has “sunken and glistening” pores in his face; a man she suspects of spying on her is safe, she decides, because “no Ministry person would be allowed to walk around with a BMI like that.” Such judgments, it becomes clear, are just another attempt to connect the observable with the inevitable, to gain the power of understanding over things she can’t control.

Heng faces the challenge of creating a meaningful narrative that’s premised on the inherent pointlessness of pursuing eternity for its own sake. For the most part, she succeeds. The pacing of Lea’s character development is jerky, at times feeling incomplete as she wavers between fascination, repulsion, and sympathy with the members of the Suicide Club. Though the formative moments of her childhood are explored vividly in flashbacks—“the oily slick of buttercream” on her hand from forbidden cake at a party; the “hot, pungent breath” and blood-streaked face of a boy she punches at school—she doesn’t reckon fully with their impact on her choices in the present day, making the transformation that leads to a final climactic scene with Anja seem slightly rushed.

For all her visceral descriptions of physical detail and sensation, Lea’s emotional vocabulary is limited; she leans on the phrase There was something about to communicate satisfaction or discomfort, and carries out internal debates with frequent interjections of Yes, but. Her feelings tend to come upon her “suddenly,” and puzzle her when they do: an “odd sense of loss,” a “surprising twinge” that she tells herself can’t possibly be regret. These verbal tics communicate a shallow self-awareness that’s realistic for her character’s background—a lifetime of following the bureaucratically worded health directives that pepper her internal monologues, of muting emotional responses to keep cortisol levels low. (“They knew how bad anger was for oxidative degeneration,” she reflects at one point of her colleagues, wondering whether she “should suggest some breathing exercises.”) In this respect, Lea is similar, again, to the narrator of Never Let Me Go, who reflects the restrictions of her society in her limited capacity for expression. Heng’s dystopia, like Ishiguro’s, values its citizens’ bodies to the exclusion of their thoughts—a subtle form of dehumanization that shows even on the level of language.

Meanwhile, Lea’s ambivalence resonates with this world, the one outside the novel—where assiduous juicing and stress-level maintenance are equally marks of status and motivation, though enforced by earnest aspiration rather than by law. Wellness, after all, is seductive—a fact acknowledged even by those who critique its excesses. If the gurus of wellness are ridiculed, it’s less because the youth and health they seek are undesirable than because their search is so obvious, their longing so exposed. Suicide Club shows the symmetry between upward striving and dark desire, how the fundamentally human pursuit of more—more pleasure, more beauty, more clarity, more life—can manifest at once as self-indulgence and restriction. The club gives its members permission for their desires, and, at their most basic level, wellness movements do too: You could have everything that you want, if only you let yourself seek it. You could stay young forever, if only you want it enough.