Five Senses Reviews


The Stigma of Googling 'Birthday Suicide' 

after Blake Butler

I was flipping through the Burnside Review while eating a bowl of cereal when I came across a piece by Blake Butler called Birthday. Blake has a tendency to write these things that aren’t really poems or stories, but itemized lists of lines. On line 31 of this particular one he says: “Googling ‘Birthday Suicide’ doesn’t bring up much.” He is not entirely forthcoming about that. There is some stuff. Google it for yourself. On line 32, he continues by saying “Googling ‘suicide on birthday’ finds one example, from 1907…” and he quotes that example, in print. But hey, since this is online I can lead you right to it. Blake is indeed telling the truth—this is the only thing that comes up. It’s a sort of googlewhack, but not technically. It is a unique query string is what it is. I used to occupy my time at boring jobs finding googlewhacks. Googlewhacks are a piece of cake to reverse engineer. There’ll be some in this piece by the time I’m through. Now that I strung the words ‘suicide on birthday’ on this page, that other page from 1907 will no longer be a googlewhack. And neither will this page. My bet is, in time, this page will come up before that 40-year old guy who drank carbolic acid back in 1907. Fortunately I’m not competing against Blake Butler as his mention of ‘suicide on birthday’ is only in print. If it was online than he might beat me, but instead I own the string ‘suicide on birthday.’ I am the online subject matter expert, and I promise I’ll live up to that expectation during my tenure here. I might even come up first for ‘Birthday Suicide,’ if I position myself right, though I doubt it. There’s some awful videos entitled Birthday Suicide and a band from Boston called Birthday Suicide. It’s a great name for a band. Too bad they suck. Or I guess I should say he. He has that whiney Bright Eyes sound that everyone is copying. And to make matters worse, when he’s not busy whining, his harmonica playing is more annoying than Bob Dylan’s, which I didn’t think humanly possible. If I saw Bright Eyes singing like he does, in person, like on a subway platform, I’d feel compelled to slap him once. Not punch, but bitchslap like Don Corleone slapping Johnny Fontane, because that is all he is worth. Someone needs to slap some sense into him and tell him to act like a man. The same goes for Elliot Smith but it’s not cool to say that now that he stabbed himself. On the day that went down, I was working for Napster and one of my responsibilities was keeping the artist bios up to date. I had to amend Elliot Smith’s bio immediately because we knew people would be running to look it up and find out what the deal was. But we couldn’t say he ‘commit suicide’ or even ‘died of a self-inflicted knife-wound,’ much as I wanted to use that word ‘self-inflicted’ just for the effect of it. I’m not sure I like the effect of the words ‘commit suicide,’ though. The only other time the word commit is used is in relationships and acts of murder. Suicide is neither. In murder the person doing the dying doesn’t want to die. In suicide, the person doing the dying wants to die. You can’t compare apples and oranges. And don’t get me started on the illegality or illegitimancy of suicide. What a joke. All it does is make people ‘commit’ to finishing what they started so they don’t get fined or incarcerated if they fuck it up. Talk about adding insult to injury. In the end, in Elliot Smith’s case, I had to leave it as an ‘apparent suicide.’ I checked up on it every once in a while in the name of responsible journalism. But then I quit my job and I haven’t given too much though to Elliot Smith until now. I haven’t contemplated or researched whether his suicide was apparent or not. If it was ‘not apparent,’ and was indeed his whole-hearted intention, then I guess you can safely say that Elliot Smith was pretty hellbent on finishing what he started. He was committed. I mean, Jesus, what a way to go about it. And me saying I wanted to bitchslap him is a terrible thing to say in retrospect, though that’s how I felt before he died. Before Bradley Nowell died I didn’t think much about him. Only after he o.d.’ed did it occur to me that he had the voice of an angel. Maybe I never would have realized that otherwise. If someone had bothered to bitchslap Bradley Nowell or Elliot Smith, maybe they’d still be around, though I doubt it. When I google Elliot Smith now, 'they' still say it’s apparent. There are a lot of sites dedicated to this subject and I doubt this one will come up in search query results about Elliot Smith and suicide, unless somebody was wondering if it happened on his birthday (not even close) or whether it was a self-inflicted bitchslap. I do not profess to be the expert on Elliot Smith, nor do I care to be. Maybe it’s a generational thing. Some people might say Morissey whines a lot, but if I saw him singing on the subway platform, I would probably fall to my knees and kiss his feet. But he’s not dead yet so it’s different, and even Bradley Nowell didn’t commit suicide, he o.d.’ed, which is a whole nother can of worms. Some people speculated that my own brother’s death was suicide. I confess the thought crosses my mind still. He overindulged on a speedball, which is a fairly suicidal thing to be doing in the first place. From his point of view, maybe he was trying to feel more alive? It’s a pointless thing to speculate. No one living can fathom his or River Phoenix or Chris Farley’s final thoughts, if they can even translate to words, and it doesn’t matter either way. Kurt Cobain tried to express his final words and all it did was demean not only his final act, but his life before it. Speedballs and suicide are about the most private things you can possibly do. I chose to not even view his body, so I’m not entirely sure he’s dead yet. Kind of like Schroedinger’s Cat. My only regret is that I didn’t bitchslap him harder. I remember reading or hearing that when Don Corleone bitchslapped Johnny Fontane, it was not planned and he broke his tooth or jaw in real life. I’m having a hard time substantiating that rumor on google, but it’s what I want to believe. My brother comes up a lot in Marsupial: Our Mother for the Time Being, the novel I’m writing now, though I don’t call him by his real name. He goes by a few names, and then eventually I become him (the Marsupial version of him). I just performed a search in Marsupial and the words ‘suicide’ and ‘birthday’ are both used twice in the manuscript, but it’s purely incidental. In both cases the words are within a script that is within the novel. I hope I didn’t give too much away. On line 33 of Birthday, Butler says he’s not sure why he mentioned this bit about googling birthday suicide. I’m not sure about his uncertainty. I think he knows—he’s just taking shelter in poetic liberties. Maybe he just knows better than to be so expository like this. Maybe he was considering offing himself on his birthday and he was checking for availability in the google search results. Maybe he was scoping out the competition. Or maybe he was just curious, or a little bored. Or maybe he has a brother or a father who did themselves in on their birthday and he’s bummed out about their names not showing up in google, and this is his way of expressing it since he doesn’t want to come outright and say it. On line 47, Blake says his father didn’t recognize himself in a picture on his 71st birthday, but maybe he is lying? Maybe it’s fiction. The truth is I’m sure a lot of people have ‘commit suicide’ on their birthdays. A lot more than google would lead you to believe. But it’s not something living relatives or friends would want to admit. At least not in those exact words. Typically people say ‘passed away’ or ‘no longer with us,’ as if that will make it easier to comprehend. My father ‘commit suicide’ on his birthday, or close enough to it. They found his body on January 6, 1982 at 11:15 A.M. and his birthday was January 5, 1935. His death certificate doesn’t speculate on how long he’d been that way. In the ‘Date of Injury’ field there’s a question mark. The tank of the car he was in was empty, but who can say for how long. I’m just noticing now that the ‘certificate’ has a suicide checkbox to acknowledge his final accomplishment, but obituaries never mention such things, nor would they dare say happy birthday. His death certificate says his injury occurred inhaling auto exhaust fumes. Here, why butcher it trying to describe it in painstaking detail when you can see for yourself:

birthday suicide

Those x marks in the suicide box are probably what kept us from getting a settlement for his life insurance. Not that I was old enough to understand what life insurance was, I still don’t entirely get the idea, but when I think about it now suicide seems like a ridiculous exception. Death is death, and those left behind could probably use the consolation all the same. Not so much the money, but the assurance that suicide is just as valid a way of dying as, say, a tragic accident. I have life insurance now, for what it's worth, but I’d rather have a life assurance policy. Most people that know me or even kind of know me probably don’t know this about me. I hope I didn’t make you uncomfortable or that you feel less of me. That’s why I usually don’t offer up this information in conversation because it tends to make people uncomfortable. Not that this is about me, but I carry the torch so to speak. Maybe that’s why I write, though I never come out and say it in so many words. At his funeral, people were crying and acting weird towards me. I had to wear a suit with patches already on the elbows, which made me uncomfortable and self-conscious. Some people told me no words could provide consolation. Others kept saying they didn’t know what to say, which is a stupid thing to say because that’s saying something and that’s the most honest thing there is to say, though it’s better to not say it in the first place. Nowadays I say, “I’m sorry” in similar situations because it’s expected and safe and the easy way out, not because it’s what I feel like saying, which is usually nothing. I didn’t know what was worse, feeling sorry because people felt sorry for me, or feeling sorry because my father wasn’t around anymore. My father was a miserable guy so I figured he chose a happier place. What else was I to think? It was pointless to feel bad about it or wish things were different. I was too young to bitchslap my own father. I hope if you know me and see me you don’t feel weirded out by this sort of talk, which would in turn make me feel awkward and ashamed for even mentioning it. Suicides are not freak isolated incidences. Even birthday suicides probably aren’t. Or maybe they are. Googling now, I see that 1.3% of people die by suicide. I always assumed it was higher than that. Guys are three times as likely to. Living relatives of suicide victims are more likely to. There’s a lot of interesting statistics on this suicidology site. I didn’t even know suicidology was an official word. I wonder what the suicide rate is among suicidologists? There, ‘suicidologist bitchslap’ is now a reverse-engineered googlewhack. Does all this make me a legitimate suicidologist or give me street cred? Is ‘suicidologist’ an oxymoron? I mean, if you’re an expert in the field, shouldn’t you know first-hand what you’re talking about? A revealing stat is that only 1 of 25 suicide attempts is successful. Are people idiots? It’s not that hard if you set your mind to it. My father succeeded on his second attempt. His first try he was rudely interrupted. I think it was also around his birthday, which leads me to believe the birthday connection wasn't incidental. I really didn’t mean to embarrass myself like this. I was just reading Blake Butler’s Birthday piece, and was inspired to write some 1-2 sentence witty remark about it in my 5¢ense Flashes, and then I kept going, and felt compelled to own up to the combination of words ‘birthday’ and ‘suicide,’ and I know enough about search engine optimization to know ‘this’ should all live on it’s own page and that I should use and emphasize the words I want to own a lot so spiders ‘see’ them and consider me the world expert on such word combinations. Though I seriously doubt a human from google will actually ever read this to fact-check this result. To find out whether I’m lying or not about relevancy. Whether this is fiction or nonfiction. What is ‘this’ after all? Is this ‘writing’? Did I just write a ‘piece’ or a ‘work’ without knowing it? Non-required is an appropriate label for what I’m doing, filed under self-help. I woke up this morning thinking I would work on Marsupial, but instead I’m working on ‘this.’ Is this a self-deprecating exposé? Is this what blogging is? The danger in blogging is waking up tomorrow morning and reading what you wrote. Maybe that’s the point of literary magazines, to filter out the stuff that wasn't meant to be read. But then you'd rarely read anything that takes risks. Is this a confessional ‘review’ of Blake Butler’s Birthday? I can quote him a few more times to give it that outward appearance:

34: I feel mostly happy writing this all down.
35: I like when people tell me things and then know when to stop telling.


45: You’ve got to write down what you’re going to abandon.

The italics are his, but they're mine all the same. In regards to 34, sorry for telling too much. The only people reading this are googlers and surfers. Googly surfers deserve to find out. This is not something I would want to ‘publish’. At least not in some random literary magazine or a book to sell. I'd rather perish, as they say. I’m not sure what drives people to publish in literary magazines. It’s the wrong audience in most cases. I’m not sure what the point of all ‘this’ is except to give people something to read when they weigh their options for ‘birthday suicide’. If Burnside Review is anything like Pom Pom or Sidebrow, they might consider publishing this since it spins off or builds on Butler’s piece. It’s even written in the same sardonic and irreverent tone that the blogster kids in his camp employ. What is that genre and who is their ringleader? It’s the lit-hipster equivalent of Bright Eyes or Elliot Smith. It’s enough to make you kill yourself. I think I read where Tao Lin called it something that seemed to fit this stilted deadpan sadness. Googling now I can’t seem to find the exact term he used. Obviously it didn’t stick. Unless I’m the only one made of Teflon. And yes, I confess to reading Tao Lin’s blog on occassion. I have it bookmarked at work. I suspect he’s the fearless ringleader. Reading reader of depressing books is a guilty pleasure and I usually hate myself afterwards. It’s like catching yourself saying the word ‘like’ when you’re around people that say like a lot. I’m too old to come off sounding all sad-core litster. Feel free to bitchslap me if I do. Me mimicking these kids is like a forty-something year old getting his first tattoo. Shit. There’s no rewind or undo button on this thing called life. The only option is to fast-forward to the end. Call it a midlife crisis, though in my case I never advanced far enough to revert back to anything. John Olson is older than me but he’s still going strong. If I sound remotely like him, I’d take that as a compliment. He’s a pink energizer bunny with bitchslapping credentials. There are essentially three types of people that might google ‘birthday suicide’:
1. Curious or bored poets.
2. People that are contemplating suicide as a birthday present to themselves.
3. People with loved ones who commit suicide on their birthdays and are trying to make sense of it. Okay, maybe a 4th is bands seeing if the name ‘Birthday Suicide’ is already taken or the band that already has the name googling to see what shit people are saying about him (sorry about your friend that inspired the name). Either way, I imagine the type of person who would google this word combination is lonely, maybe even a little fucked up, but not necessarily in a bad way. Maybe they don’t want to be alone in their thoughts or actions and it’s not very reassuring when all that comes up is the one guy who drank carbolic acid over a hundred years ago. So if it’s any consolation, suicide is nothing to be ashamed of either way, whether you are the one contemplating doing it or the one left behind. If you don’t have the freedom to check out when you want, that’s what’s sad. Line 21 of Blake’s piece: “I didn’t do anything, after all. I just showed up.” Checking out should be just as easy and dignified. Thing is though, it’s not something you can regret. There’s no undo button. If you're contemplative and have read this far, then this would be the time to bitchslap you. Whose to say the grass is greener on the other side of the fence?

There, I said my piece. And that said, I’m alive and well. Someday I’ll write a book about it, as they say. I started to a few times before I caught myself. I’d rather self-inflict speedballs than sound all pissy and moany like the self-described staggering genius, Dave Eggers. Boo fucking hoo. Bitchslap me if I start to sound like him. Obviously I'm most critical of things closest to me. No one wants to read about your woes just like no one wants to read this. Not that I asked you to read this. You found your way to it. Sorry I’ve been going on too long. This here piece of writing started as a flash and now it’s almost a freaking novel. And I didn’t even get to the story around it. I never told you how the fish was cooked. Maybe if enough people have read this far and are still interested, I’ll turn this into a serialized novella? The opening scene would flash to where I was when I found out about my father. I was fifteen and alone, babysitting some younger kid in Guadalajara, Mexico. I think we were playing space invaders or trying to smoke cloves from the spice rack. My brother called from California to say, “dad’s dead,” in those words. That’s the pitch. From there I had to figure out what to do with this kid and how to get a plane ticket to Portland, Oregon. What really sucked is there’s some law if you’re a minor traveling alone in Mexico where you need your parent’s permission to cross the border from Mexico to the States. My mother was at the beach somewhere incommunicado and you already know the bit about my father. I explained all this to the emigration officer, but he said they needed to see the death certificate, which is how I ended up with a copy of the one above, so I wouldn’t have to go through this again. But obviously I didn’t have it at the time, so I had to bribe this emigration guy. I’m not totally sure about the truthiness of the last sentence. I’ve bribed my way out of a few sticky situations in Mexico though I’m not sure this is one of them. I remember being with my mother once when she bribed a Mexican emigration officer, but that’s a different story. Maybe this emigration officer eventually took pity on me, I can’t say for sure. Memory is not reliable in such circumstances. I was on autopilot. I just remember the self-feeding irony of it—needing something you’re on your way to get but you need it to get there. Besides, if I wrote this story it would be a work of fiction so I could say whatever I want. If I can’t take cover under the fiction umbrella I could open the one that says it’s in the name of art. And don’t be afraid to bitchslap me just because I dragged my personal matters into it. The eventual plane trip was followed by an overnight layover on the cold marble floors of LAX. What sticks out most was this guy trying to sell me stolen watches that he had all up his arm and in his briefcase. He really made an impression on me. I said I didn’t need one and that I was trying to sleep, but he saw that I couldn’t take my eyes off his glinting watches and kept insisting and getting all chummy with me, asking where I was going and I said back to Portland and he said what for and I said my father’s funeral and that shut him up. Should I go on? I’m relying on you to tell me when to stop. Or fast-forward to the end, without passing go, which is the same as speedballs or a birthday suicide.

(c) 2008 Derek White