Once upon a time, not so long ago, there lived a fellow named Albert Camus who speculated that the most fundamental question any thinking being would ask itself was: Do I kill myself or not? His answer was, I guess, a kind of transcendentalist one — better not to say Yes or No, but instead to live in such a way that your whole mode of living says I'm Beyond Such Things Now. Instead of sitting around debating it, he argued, get your butt out onto the street and embody the No (to suicide) that is really a Yes (to life). If life was absurd, then make absurdity part of your life as proudly as you could.
And if it's absurdity you want, consider that I'm typing this while I have twenty pounds of extremely affectionate, half-sleeping cat shoved into chair behind me in the space between my backside and the cushion. It's a delightful feeling; I just have to remember not to lean back.
Flash-forward about twenty years. Enter Richard Hell, as dissected along multiple axes by Lester Bangs.
... it seemed to me then [on my first exposure to Richard Hell], as it does now, that the only questions worth asking today are whether human are going to have any emotions tomorrow, and what the quality of life will be if the answer is no. If the seventies are really going to be remembered as the decade when, like a character in Margaret Drabble's The Ice Age, people actually welcome depression as a relief from anxiety, then the seething anxiety of Richard's music and his disturbing pessimism about the ultimate value of life are crucially important. [p. 262]
I'm becoming convinced these two questions are joined at the hip, and possibly at the head. If you are not sure there's no good reason to not kill yourself, maybe a big part of that is because life has become such a brutal emotional minefield that the idea of being dead is better than being numb.
How things can get that bad was, now that I think about it, the subject of a novel I wrote and subsequently shelved. A lot of why I ditched it revolved around how I treated the problem: you can't just talk about something that crushing by simply showing someone emotionally crushed. For one, it doesn't tell you anything useful about their condition other than "look at the poor sap"; two, it makes for a monumentally depressing and boring read. People like Céline and Selby were able to write about those states of mind and make them riveting, because they had something personal to bring to the table and because they had more in mind than just showing you how bad it could get.
I've since come back to the same subject, if only tentatively, for a future book. The idea I have in mind is a) give us someone who's faced with that choice and b) follow the whole thing with good (if also mordant) humor and insight, not just a drab spiral plowing into nothingness. The guy's been smacked around by life, and he feels like it's all come down to a choice between feeling nothing and feeling despondent — 'cos the minute he feels happy about something (himself included), he immediately feels guilty for it. Can't get too happy now, 'cos if people see me smiling while things are falling apart, they're gonna wonder what the hell's wrong with me. (Yeah, his perceptions are out of whack, but that's how drama happens in the first place — when people see things that aren't there and act accordingly!)
The hard part isn't writing such a story, but making it into something that people will willingly subjective themselves to. Hence, funny — rather, funny in the "Yes, I was there too" way, not the "You poor sap" way. You laugh out of empathy, an arm around the shoulder, not because you're pointing and snickering. I keep thinking the more we foster the first kind of laughter, the less we are likely to feel like our choices boil down to feeling bad and feeling nothing.