Sontag, Susan (Vol. 1)
Sontag, Susan 1933–
American novelist and essayist, author of Death Kit. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)
It gets harder and harder to see Susan Sontag through the smoke of opinion that smolders away now on all sides of her work. Against Interpretation, her collection of essays and reviews, produced much more heat, as they say, than light…. Like the celebrity that Miss Sontag appears to court with her left hand and disclaim with her right, her critical stance somehow managed to be both matter-of-fact and outrageous: a tone that gets under the skin in much the same way that those dust-jacket photographs of her—poised, striking, vaguely sinister—either seduce or repel….
I think that Death Kit is an unusually interesting novel in its own right as well as a clear advance over her first one, The Benefactor. For one thing, it's alive. The Benefactor has next to no vitality in it: it was all literature, and could have been taken for a parody of the post-expressionist novel of moral exhaustion and exquisite nerves were it not so exhausted and nervous itself. Death Kit is worth taking seriously because it is searching, charged, meant. Though its subject, like that of The Benefactor, is self-perception—or, better, perceiving—its qualities are much more like those in Miss Sontag's better essays: those in which she succeeds in being both intelligent and audacious, instead of just one or the other. There is a great deal of creative bravura in Death Kit, Miss Sontag having struck a vein of invention which has produced an overflow of imaginative commentary on the interior life and also some genuine art. In the end, Death Kit doesn't dare or feel as much as it should as art and hence provides too much in the way of a talkative analysis of her hero's unconscious progress into death and too little formal demonstration, to use one of her favorite terms, of his slow extinction. But I'd much rather see Miss Sontag being carried away by her own invention than trudging drearily after the old avant-garde novel like a lady English professor looking for signals in Paris….
No doubt many readers by now will have found Death Kit to be a teasingly ambiguous puzzle, and perhaps among those who have solved it there will be some who agree with me that it is all too cold a pathos…. It is more figure than carpet, so that one will hang it on the wall to admire rather than put it on the floor to live with. It is miles beyond the longueurs and artificiality of The Benefactor, yet still an essentially analytic, technique-ridden work of art. But a work of art nonetheless: bold, complex, coherent in its own purpose, resolutely faithful to its own vision of "life."
Theodore Solotaroff, "Interpreting Susan Sontag" (1967), in his The Red Hot Vacuum and Other Pieces on the Writing of the Sixties, Atheneum, 1970, pp. 261-68.
From one point of view Miss Sontag's books are about how the head gets rid of the world. Whether this is diagnosed as something deplorable, or prescribed as something desirable, is left equivocal to say the least. But the energies of disburdenment—or the fatigues of relinquishment—are very evident in both her novels [The Benefactor and Death Kit]….
What I found most interesting and impressive about [Death Kit] is its pursuit of some of the ultimate implications of that cultivation of "inner spaciousness" celebrated so splendidly by many of the great American writers….
[It] seems that the only way left is to draw further and further away from the world, into the shell and down the tunnel of self. And what Miss Sontag does show, and it makes her book an important and significant one, is that in the inmost center of the house of consciousness is to be found "the house of death." The "stately mansions" have given way to the morgue, and it is in the morgue, interestingly enough, that Miss Sontag's imagination shows most signs of life. I don't suppose she would approve of my finding a moral in her book, but I think there is one, and one of some moment for American writing of our day. Namely—what shall it profit a man if he shall gain his head, and lose the whole world?
Tony Tanner, "Space Odyssey," in Partisan Review, Summer, 1968, pp. 446-51.
Death Kit is about insanity, our own and that imposed on us by others (Hester was blinded by her insane mother who threw acid in her eyes). An extended epistemological example, the novel draws its meaning from a philosophical frame of reference. Characters do not exist in and for themselves—but for Miss Sontag's ideas.
Richard Lehan, in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 9, No. 4, 1968 (© 1968 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), p. 552.