One of my favorite pieces of art is the assisted suicide machine at MONA in Hobart.
It’s disturbing, fascinating, repellent—and outside of an art gallery, deadly. A black box and a laptop sitting on a table forms the Philip Nitschke-designed suicide set-up he called ‘Deliverance’. It’s an old-school laptop hooked up to a case containing a lethal barbiturate cocktail. At MONA, you can undergo the process of administering it to yourself, though without the needle in the arm, of course. A series of instructions appear on the screen, and you must click to acknowledge that you understand and agree to these as you ready yourself for the administering of the drug. The process begins with the words ‘In 15 seconds you will be given a lethal injection’ and ends several minutes later with the words the genuine users of the machine are never meant to see: ‘You are now dead.’
I played along, pressing the ‘Yes, I’m sure I’d like to die’ button, oh yes, I’m very sure. Ha, art! But in those last few seconds, I panicked for real, my heart started racing and my mouth went dry.
In that moment my entire existence leapt into my throat. Every kiss, every harsh word, everyone I hadn’t forgiven, every leaf I’d watched fall from every tree, every animal I’d loved, everything I’d left unsaid flashed across my heart like lightning. It was horrifyingly thrilling, it was disturbingly wonderful. And it changed my attitude to art forever. From that day on I wished to make things that made people’s lives erupt instantly in their throats. That, I decided, is what art is for.
Which is why I think Steven Amsterdam’s The Easy Way Out is one of the most important, relevant and incredible books of the decade.
For a couple of weeks I lived inside it. I took naps on the chapter breaks, I digested it, breathed every sentence in and out like yoga, and let it take me over. And it was bliss. For a book about sickness, decay, disease and mortality, it’s really, really funny. I LOLed and guffawed and at one point on public transport a little bit of lemonade shot out of my nose.
Amsterdam writes with such frankness, such beauty and such natural charisma. On the first page you immediately trust his narrator, Evan, a palliative nurse training to assist people choosing to euthanise. Evan’s rare and not easily explainable sense of humor is addictive and you want to be with him at all times.
You fall in love with the characters the way siblings do with each other.
Evan’s wild mother Viv is suffering from Parkinson’s. The story is set in a near future with advanced medical techniques and Viv has a newly inserted implant in her brain making her a potent presence—her personality fades in and out of focus like a kaleidoscope in fluorescents. I think the moment that best represents Viv is when she and Evan are strolling through a park and they come across a pair of lace knickers and a condom in the grass. Instead of being disgusted as many mothers might, Viv remarks, pointing at the condom, ‘a lot of sensible women come here.’
Evan’s mysterious, suicidal father and candid descriptions of childhood weave a thick tapestry that consciously and subconsciously informs his choices, his motivations and his calm demeanour. It is this combination of factors that will eventually will challenge his boundaries.
All the characters crept into my subconscious so effortlessly that I sometimes found myself thinking, ‘I wonder how Viv is doing—I hope she’s okay.’
Evan’s lovers Lon and Simon drift past like family members I have been meaning to write to. I want to know them, I want to be their friends. And I wanted them to understand Evan. Evan has to keep his real work clandestine, as it can be confronting and scary for some. So he tells them he works as a counsellor for the suicidal. ‘Even that shocked Simon, who couldn’t imagine regularly talking to the suicidal (and he designs open-plan offices).’
The way the love scenes are written is a prose-shaped rose. There’s so much poetry in them. Not so much Coleridge—more Bukowski, in that it’s unabashed, truthful and liquidy.
Everyone who dies in this book is just as important, described with tender truth. Each one is strikingly realistic. Each death is precious like a birth.
Our narrator is for euthanasia, but this is a probing novel, and it doesn’t judge.
Evan is told by his superior at work early on:
You are, in the most demeaning sense, an assistant, nothing more… Whether you’re… feeling weepy that day is irrelevant. Whether they’re ready or not is irrelevant too… Scale back on the empathy or you become a player. You are a step behind, supporting. The words do the work for you.
I think Evan’s job description is also Amsterdam’s understated brief. Amsterdam is a gentle assistant to this discussion, proving a non-invasive presence throughout the story—a remarkable and rare feat in a book seeking to tease out the significance and ethical weight of an important issue. Evan’s even tone is almost—he is able to present the tremendous horror and terror of the unknown and yet laugh at the beauty, misery and wonder of death.
Amsterdam has this marvellous skill of making us feel as if we’ve been working in the medical world for years. Even though he is himself a professional in palliative care he doesn’t nursesplain technical details. Rather he treats us like we already know the way it works, never boringly spelling out anything.
The Easy Way Out is a poignant, beautiful read and it’s a gentle reminder that, as Evan puts it, some of us are ‘the oblivious healthy’. Some of us are still walking miracles; we’re not thinking about our deaths, or sickness, we’re thinking about the roti and Malaysian curry that we’ll have when we get home.
As Evan watches humans dithering about, stealing each other’s backpacks, not listening to each other and watching shit TV, he reminds us to feel lucky—to acknowledge that we are blissfully unaware of the crippling assault of disease happening behind closed doors, the torture of being a prisoner within one’s skin. And he washes us with empathy for those who are.
We tend to sweep death under the carpet. The elderly are hidden and treated like toddlers, the lonely are left to fade with fistfuls of regret, the unloved are forgotten, the loved are mourned by rote. We don’t accept death. We don’t just deny our own mortality, but also that of others. We shy away from it. So when an end is reached for some, death is something we certainly won’t offer when it’s asked for.
This work forces an emotional response from a society that hides so much under the collective carpet.
Emilie Zoey Baker is a multi award winning poet and spoken word performer. She is the creative director of OutLoud Australia’s first teen team poetry slam as part of The Melbourne Writers festival and Australian Poetry LTD.