The idea, in a nutshell, was this: The woman—Tess—would inform her family and friends that she intended to move abroad to start a new life in some distant, inaccessible place. She would hand over to me all the information I would need to convincingly impersonate her online, from passwords to biographical information. Then, on the day of her “flight,” she would disappear somewhere and dispose of herself in a discreet manner, handing the reins of her life over to me. From then on I would assume her identity, answering e-mails, operating her Facebook page, and so forth, leaving her loved ones none the wiser that she was no longer alive. In this way, I would help facilitate her wish: to kill herself without causing pain to her friends and family, to slip away from the world unnoticed.
“Naturally, your immediate concern will be whether she is of sound mind,” said Adrian. “Well, I’ve known Tess for a while now, and I can assure you she knows exactly what she’s doing. Is she a colorful character? Yes. Crazy? Absolutely not.”
After that reassurance, my thoughts then turned to practical matters. As long as I had the relevant information to hand, I thought, the logistics of imitating this woman online seemed fairly straightforward: answering the odd e-mail, a few status updates a week. Adrian told me the woman was quite old, in her late thirties; hopefully that meant she wouldn’t even write in text-speak.
Rather, my worries were about the premise and the conclusion of the operation. Was this “new life abroad” a plausible move for Tess in the first place? And, vitally, how long would the project last? After all, I couldn’t impersonate this woman indefinitely.
The debate over legalized/assisted suicide is a touchy subject, as much now as it was when Jack Kevorkian was first given the label “Dr. Death.” More than likely we’ll never find a suitable middle ground between the two extremes—those on one end promoting the sanctity of life (no matter how agonizing an individual’s situation), and those campaigning for an individual’s legal right to choose, if they so desire, the time, place, and method of their self-disposal, and whether or not they need help to make it all a reality.
Lottie Moggach’s first novel, Kiss Me First, introduces us to two women: the mid-twenties shut-in and World of Warcraft-obsessed Leila, and the almost-forty, severely bipolar Tess. The two women were introduced to one another by a third party—the enigmatic, smooth-talking, manipulative, libertarian-cum-objectivist (and Ayn Rand worshipper) Adrian Dervish. Adrian is the owner and operator of the website The Red Pill, “an oasis of reason, a forum for intellectual inquiry…” The website takes its name from the film The Matrix—from the pill Neo (Keanu Reeves) takes to pull back the curtain of his own isolationist reality and expose his mind to the truth of his surroundings. The site’s name is a targeted attack aimed at nerd stereotypes—those for whom the world outside of their computer monitors is uninteresting and void of worthwhile interactions. These are Adrian’s freedom thinkers—minds he knows, due to their limited social awareness, will be easily swayed by Philosophy 101 ideas and discussions that make every one of them feel superior in some way to the sheep grazing just outside their carefully walled garden.
Following her mother’s death from complications resulting from Multiple Sclerosis, Leila finds solace in The Red Pill’s community and quickly rises to the top of the “intellectual” pile. Her posts catch Adrian’s attention, and after some time he comes to her with a proposal: to help a young woman who’s lost her will to live—to help this young woman calmly, quietly end her life in a way that will prevent any caring, loving party from ever being the wiser. Why? Supposedly to prevent her family and friends the pain of learning of their daughter’s/friend’s/lover’s demise and to instead make them think as if she’s simply cut all ties in an effort to find herself… a play that seems almost as cold, if not colder than allowing them to think it was simply suicide, as it points the finger less at this woman’s inner pain and more at the people in her life, as if to say “it’s not me, it’s you.”
This, of course, is Tess—traditionally described bombshell exterior, malignant, troubled, exhausted interior, desperate for a way to put an end to her up-and-down existence, which has worn away her resolve.
The plan? For Leila to learn and absorb every salient detail of Tess’s life—from family events, relationships, and her youth, to more private details like random sexual encounters, drug use, and arguments and dissolved friendships. For several weeks Leila interviewed Tess about her life, down to her most secreted away moments, charting all of it like points on a map so that, following Tess’s “checkout” on April 14th, Leila could then assume Tess’s identity in order to falsely prolong her life while the genuine artefact finds a discreet opportunity and method through which to end her emotionally pained existence.
Of course, not everything goes as planned.
Kiss Me First is a first-hand account written after the fact as Leila is reflecting upon her time as Tess’s surrogate—time spent crafting a life as if she were piecing together an online avatar for a game. What’s clear from the outset is that the truth of Leila’s actions have been revealed, as has Adrian’s culpability as the leader of an Internet suicide cult responsible for synching gullible shut-ins with people who wish (or think they wish) to end their lives—people with significant money to be given to Adrian prior to their “checkout”. Following rather icy conversations with some of the more important people in Tess’s life (and the police), Leila embarks on a journey to trace Tess’s final days in hopes of putting a grace note on the whole ordeal, so that she and others can move on from this mess.
What else is clear from the outset? Leila is not a likable character. Nor, for that matter, is she a relatable one. In fact, this brings up the single largest problem I had with Kiss Me First: there is not one truly likeable character in the entire book—not Jonty, the annoying if-I-knew-him-I-would-kill-him-myself roommate; not Tess, whose decision to end her life in a way that would supposedly spare her loved ones pain is actually more selfish and destructive than if she had simply put a gun in her mouth; not Connor, the former lover with secrets all his own (again, selfish to the core); and most certainly not Adrian, whose modus operandi is to prey on those who rely on the simplest of online interactions to feel as if they have something worth living for.
Leila, however, is the most difficult to like—problematic, since she’s our main point of entry into this whole sordid affair. As a character, she’s horribly uneven. Due to her mom’s struggle with MS, Leila was forced to grow up a bit quicker than most. This affords her a certain amount of sympathy, but her later interactions show a dichotomy that never feels resolved: she has clear issues with social interaction (evidenced by the rather blunt, unfriendly manner in which she sifts through potential roommates), yet she knows all the questions she needs to ask Tess in order to provide a close approximation of her identity; she has a critical mind, but is easily taken in by Adrian’s soft-spoken platitudes; she is seemingly aware of her difficulties engaging with real-life humans and approaches such things from a moderately analytical point of view, yet she becomes twisted and obsessed with Connor with so little precursor.
It’s that last part that gave me the greatest difficulty—while impersonating Tess, former-flame Connor sweeps in via email, attempts to re-ignite in Tess the love they once shared, and Leila is so quickly taken by his charm (unwarranted, given the lecherous dickwad that he is) that she begins to see herself as being responsible for what he claims he feels for her: “It was only through the e-mail exchanges, my words, that he fell for her again. It was me who had created that love. Me.” And (spoiler alert) when Leila reveals to Connor the truth, that Tess has killed herself and it’s her he’s been corresponding with, she immediately asks him out, and is then put off by his very justifiable anger and revulsion. As much of a cad as Connor is, his reaction in this scene is believable and earned; it’s far easier to sympathize with him than with Leila, who appears to have imbibed in her very own special blend of Kool-Aid. The sensation reading this part was gross and unnerving—deliberate, I’m sure, but unpleasant all the same.
More than just actions, Leila’s dichotomous behaviour is further brought to light by her uneven tone and diction. At times, Leila feels her young, still impressionable age. However, her language and internal monologue are frequently erudite in ways that feel not necessarily mature for her age (she’s not), but manicured by, well, a novelist’s hands, turning her into an unrealistically objective and well-spoken ideal that is at odds with her presentation as someone almost completely detached from reality and the impact her decisions have had/will have on others.
Moggach’s writing is straight and narrow; there’s little colour and emotion in Leila’s world, save anger (from Connor and Tess’s mother) and the discomfort that comes, as a reader, from waiting for this rickety house of lies to cave in on itself. The novel is a quick read, but does little to paint the world with anything but flat hues.
Yet… it’s difficult to criticize the novel for this, because, as previously mentioned, it’s Leila who guides us through this world. Leila, who is flat, and grey, and missing that extra little bit of humanity that tells her how to read people’s emotions and tailor her reactions accordingly. It’s Leila who is uncertain how to trust, how to socialize, how to express interest in another person as herself and not through the skin and experience of an avatar—even if said avatar was once a real-life, flesh-and-blood person. Her gamification of the world is unpleasant, but necessary for the character—someone whose imagination is limited by her already enclosed, often difficult emotional journey.
The growth Leila does experience comes not from gaining a better understanding of the world, or even who she is and whether or not what she’s done is on some level right, or completely, deplorably wrong, but from learning that it is possible to trust people, and that forgiveness is not given but earned—and sometimes it is altogether impossible. The ambiguity that ends the novel is its strongest element, because the details of Tess’s death or disappearance do not matter, nor does it matter that Leila does not receive the emotional closure she desires. What matters is that when all is cleared away, Leila has not necessarily done what she feels is right, but what she knows objectively to be right, and in doing so, by attempting to mend gulfs she herself has either created or exaggerated, she has earned both her freedom and Tess’s.
My experience with Kiss Me First was noticeably uneven. The novel is a perfect example of something being more interesting than it is enjoyable; while the story itself was compelling and kept me turning pages until the very end, the detestable nature of almost every character (save for Annie, the kindly woman from Connecticut Leila meets while following Tess’s cold trail) did its best to keep me from ever wanting to get too close to the narrative, preferring to view its outcome from a place of emotional reserve.