Author and journalist Joseph Rauch’s first novel, Teach Me How to Die, is an exploratory, cerebral piece covering nearly too many themes and – speaking strictly for me – leaving its reader in tears. Although short, it packs several gut-punches within its pages. Although it’s rich and meaty, it will leave you starving for answers.
Teach Me How to Die makes the reader a witness to the life, death, and afterlife of Walter Klein, a man who alternates between being lonely, persistent, curious, and resigned. The novel opens with a grim and traumatizing sequence of events before leading into a compelling, philosophical evolution. It ends with a brief commentary on the labor of writing itself and one of the most tender moments in modern literature. This book is complex enough to mirror life itself (and do it justice).
The novel will resonate on a different level with different people. At one point, a character’s mother provides advice on how to survive as a man of mixed race, saying, in essence, you can pass as white. You should do so. Although racial commentary generally falls into two camps (insensitive or irrelevant), Rauch’s is neither. It’s stated strongly, yet gently. Just enough to make its point.
Another character, Vincent, although tough to love and rough around the edges, spoke to the part of me I try to keep buried. He’s a gay man who lost his lover in a violent, homophobic act, and now spends his eternity bitterly resentful of humanity. Although the novel serves his lover’s tragic ending as an empathetic justification of his resentment, his silent sentence is clear: he’s not likely to find peace until he lets go.
Rarely have I seen an author who can so deeply empathize with the struggle I face every day: how much suffering can I endure before I lose my compassion for those who torment me? But Vincent is not a sympathetic character, a hero, nor the embodiment of a flaw.
“This man was a violator disguised as a gentleman.” – Joseph Rauch, Teach Me How to Die
Surprisingly, Rauch’s connection happened as a subconscious accident: “Vincent’s name and role are references to Virgil in The Inferno. I felt sympathy for Virgil because he was unable to enter heaven simply because he had been born before Christ. The idea of existing during the wrong time planted a seed that ultimately grew into Vincent.” I’m a little jealous of his ability to form cohesive and almost sentient characters, seemingly without intention.
Perhaps that’s the major strength of Teach Me How to Die: none of the characters are one-dimensional, each serves his or her own purpose (rather than being merely illustrative), and each has a personality, a dream, a history, a desire, and – most importantly – a downfall. No character is representative of any one theme, which allows the author to approach the complex issues plaguing our zeitgeist without feeling heavy-handed or forced. We aren’t being lectured. We’re simply looking at a wealth of themes through one primary lens: the persistent curiosity of our main character, Walter Klein.
Rauch also notes that he consciously chose the lens of morbid curiosity for the book’s exploration: “I chose curiosity because it felt similar to my experience during the worst of my depression. For several months I was in this strange state where I wanted to die but wasn’t considering suicide. Because of my subconscious longing for death, I had many nightmares where I died in freak accidents. These dreams were similar to wondering what would happen if I tried something dangerous or life-threatening. They had a spirit of curiosity.”
“A surrender is still a form of losing.” – Joseph Rauch, Teach Me How to Die
The novel’s weaknesses, for me, come in the form of questions. Although I’ve felt satisfied with a number of open endings and cliffhangers, I found myself aching psychologically with questions once I finished the book. Rauch does an excellent job of bringing the reader into his well-constructed world and you’ll find yourself suspending your own beliefs to accept his ideas as your own. When you do that, however, any of your preconceived notions of the laws of the universe go out the window. Without canon to explain the void, the idea of existence – or rather, nonexistence – becomes even more painful.
I found myself reaching out to Rauch personally to ask for answers, but true to his nature as an author, he couldn’t provide them. Hazel Grace will never know what happened to Sisyphus the Hamster.
Overall, Teach Me How to Die is an excellent novel, particularly for a freshman author. Fans of character development will enjoy the respect and care Rauch has given to his creations, while fantasy fans will appreciate the well-documented rules and regulations given to the metaphysical. Most importantly, if you’re looking for a morbid and at times brutal look at the world we’ve come to live in (as well as some brief political catharsis and divine justice for the more liberal crowd), look no further.
Teach Me How to Die is available from Amazon.com for $6.99 (Kindle) or $11.99 (Paperback).
Note: I haven’t written a book review since college, so be gentle. Also, the Amazon links are affiliate links, so I’ll make a small cut if you click and buy it.