Reading The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix by Paul Sussman

This review first appeared in Interzone 257 (Mar-Apr 2015).

The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius PhoenixSussman - Phoenix
Paul Sussman, Transworld, 412pp

The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix was the first novel that Paul Sussman wrote, but it remained unpublished during his lifetime. Sussman died of a ruptured aneurysm in 2012, at the comparatively young age of 45, having published a successful series of archaeological mysteries featuring Inspector Khalifa of the Luxor police. According to his wife, Alicky, Sussman talked occasionally of returning to The Final Testimony and completing it, but never did. That it has finally seen publication is due to the efforts of Sussman’s agent, Laura Susijn, and Alicky Sussman herself.

Which places me as a reviewer in something of a quandary. Social custom encourages us not to speak ill of the dead, and there is no escaping the fact that this novel’s publication has a flavour of the memorial about it. To criticise it might be regarded as being in poor taste. Yet I find it suggestive too that Sussman didn’t finish the novel, as if he knew it was better left uncompleted, particularly once he hit his stride with the Inspector Khalifa stories.

The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix is, according to its eponymous narrator, a suicide note: it is an unusual suicide note because Phoenix is neatly inscribing it on the walls of the remote Scottish castle where he has been living quietly for the last fifteen years. Phoenix, coming up on his hundredth birthday, has realised that he is tired of living, and has determined to end his life, using a mysterious poison pill that he has carried with him since he was a small child. The Pill (Phoenix insists on that capital letter) was given to Phoenix by his beloved playmate, Emily, who stole it from her father’s pharmacy. It and the Photo, a picture of his mother, who died giving birth to him, are the only things he has kept with him throughout his long and curious life.

Phoenix is writing a suicide note not to explain why he now wishes to die but primarily to describe the ten murders he believes he has committed, one for each decade of his life. In doing so, he employs an intricate narrative style. Rather than starting at the beginning, he steps back a decade at a time, describing the circumstances leading to each death, each account overlapping with the chapter before, the decade after. Sussman handles it confidently enough, but rather as with the grandiose notion of writing an account on the castle walls, one can’t help feeling that Sussman does it because he can, not because it adds anything significant to the narrative.

As if this were not enough, it quickly becomes clear that there is something unusual about Phoenix. He leads an oddly charmed life. He consistently avoids accusations of murder, and whenever things start to become really difficult Emily appears, strangely unchanged, to steer him into the next phase of his life. And then, what about the fact that he seems not to age? We might suspect Phoenix of being an unreliable narrator, and it is something he seems to encourage, but it is clear that something else is going on.

Initially, I thought this novel might be related in some way to Thomas Berger’s Little, Big Man, or Peter Carey’s Illywhacker, and that its protagonist would offer a similarly picaresque and chronologically elastic satirical commentary of his country’s history, but apart from a few easy pops at the aristocracy this doesn’t seem to have been Sussman’s intention. As the novel unfolds, it looks as if he might be trying out other types of literary fantasy. Indeed, the main problem with this novel is that it is undermined by its own inventiveness. Sussman is so clearly excited by the possibilities that fiction offers that he can’t make up his mind which way to go. Even a disciplined narrative structure can’t deal with the fact that at least three different stories are vying for attention, and two of them have no real idea where they want to go.

The question remains as to what this novel might have become had Sussman returned to it. The more fantastical elements are intriguing, but weakly written, as if Sussman himself liked them but didn’t quite know what to do with them. His accounts of the murders he committed are much more enthusiastically written. They’re shocking yet rather funny, and Sussman handles the gruesome details extremely well.

In the end, we might shed a passing tear for a fantastic novel that never was, but I can’t help thinking Sussman knew that his vivid, direct prose and excellent grasp of narrative structure were better suited to detective stories. The Final Testimony of Raphael Ignatius Phoenix is an interesting footnote to his career but he’ll be better remembered for other things.