Review by Carl Rollyson
“DIDDY the Good was taking a business trip. Diddy, his family nickname, was used (now) only by his brother and a few friends left over from schooldays.” So begins Death Kit (1967), Susan Sontag’s novel about a businessman, Dalton Harron. The tone of that first sentence is arch, a teasing way of beginning a novel that challenges the realistic mode of fiction, in which characters are given names and located in specific places and become the heroes of a narrative about their lives and times.
Is Diddy good? He later murders a railroad worker who interrupts Diddy’s journey, although that murder seems more like a dream, a demented episode in an Edgar Allan Poe story. Diddy may be hallucinating the murder since a woman he meets on the train assures him he never left the train compartment and therefore could not have killed anyone. Diddy, in other words, becomes a play on words: Did he? And Death Kit seems to be about Diddy’s own death–or at least his imagined death. To say more is to give away the novel’s ending. Suffice to say that Sontag’s fiction raises the question of the kind of world her character perceives, a world that seems unstable because his perceptions of it clash with those of other characters.
Even more difficult to ascertain is the constant use of “now” in parentheses. This “now” seems to be the novelist’s way of emphasizing how in every moment the story, so to speak, changes–as it would in a dream. As in her first novel, The Benefactor, Sontag deliberately chooses a narrator whose reliability is suspect and who fails to hold on to the world he perceives. She was greatly influenced by the French nouveau roman, a new kind of novel that influenced avant garde writers in the 1950s and 1960s who wanted to subvert the conventions of fiction and, in some cases, to undermine, as well, the conventional beliefs of readers.
Of equal importance is Sontag’s reading of Jewish novelists such as Franz Kafka, who portrayed the plight of individuals whose ordinary lives are suddenly disrupted by breaks in their sense of identity. Sontag’s experience right after World War II of seeing concentration camp photographs may inform the charnel house scene later in the novel.
Diddy makes every effort to re-enact the events that led to the murder he believes he has committed. But he seems only to trap himself in the same phantasmagoric events that made him a murderer in the first place. Although he makes a living as a businessman, he is also a failed novelist, a fact that seems a key to his self-destructive impulses. He can no more sort out his life than he can sort out his characters and complete his novel.
Implicit in Sontag’s novel is a critique of contemporary America, of individuals who fail, like Diddy, to achieve believable and integrated selves: “Diddy, not really alive, had a life. Hardly the same. Some people are their lives. Others, like Diddy, merely inhabit their lives. Like insecure tenants, never knowing exactly the extent of their property or when the lease will expire. Like unskilled cartographers, drawing and redrawing erroneous maps of an exotic continent.” If passages like this frustrate readers who want a more precise accounting of characters, other readers will be stimulated to question the principles on which society is based and whether it is possible in contemporary America to achieve an authentic self.
—Carl Rollyson is the author of AMY LOWELL ANEW: A BIOGRAPHY, AMERICAN ISIS: THE LIFE AND ART OF SYLVIA PLATH, and other biographies including, with Lisa Paddock, SUSAN SONTAG: THE MAKING OF AN ICON.