New novel 'Death Watch' uses sci-fi, horror and drama to critique late capitalism
Would you buy and wear a high-end designer watch that was capable of killing you at any moment?
In Stona Fitch's new novel, "Death Watch," that's what an enigmatic, avant-garde artist and provocateur named Watanabe says he and a Japanese team of engineers have developed and put on the market. Each watch – called the Cassius Seven - is individually programmed to potentially thrust seven small, hyper-sharpened knives into the wearer's wrist. The knives can spin and sever the ulnar artery, causing rapid exsanguination. In theory, at least.
It could happen at any point in time. Or not at all. The activation of the deadly knives is controlled by an algorithm.
"It's sort of the Damocles on your wrist," says Fitch, on the phone from his Concord home. "You never know when it's going to fall or if it's going to fall. It's always there, reminding you that you could die at any minute." And it can't be removed once strapped on. If tampered with, here come the tiny knives.
Unless it's just a macabre art project/hoax and Watanabe is trying to make a point about rampant consumerism, conspicuous consumption, ostentatious risk-taking, or, maybe even what depths clinical depression can drive one to. "My books are more about questions than answers," Fitch says. "I want the reader to figure it out."
The novel's protagonist, Coe Vessel, is the son of a late famous advertising whiz, and Coe's an ad man himself, running a small shop in New York City. He's asked to take on the death watch project to sell this preposterous, potential killing machine to the public. He's intrigued, believing this watch must be, has to be, a faux death watch — an absurdist prank only a few leaps from some of Watanabe's previous out-there art projects.
Coe and his team are persuasive, selling this watch to rich depressives, "new nihilists," as Coe calls them, status seekers, ironists and even Hollywood actors with self-esteem issues. It's a (slightly) sci-fi horror story and a highly dramatic one. There are several fascinating sub-plots, too, about interpersonal relationships — romantic, platonic and work-related — that build or unravel during this rollout of the watch and the attendant ad campaign.
Vessel becomes Wearer No. 1, the first to strap the watch on, which he's assured is benign, a dummy model. But is the person reassuring him of that — Watanabe's right-hand man — telling the truth?
Fitch wrote most of the novel during the height of the pandemic; in a way, it's a metaphor for that time. "Ultimately, it's a book about mortality. During the early pandemic, we had to wash our mail and our tomatoes. There was this absurd idea that something so ordinary could kill us," says Fitch.
"Ultimately, it's a book about mortality."Stona Fitch
Fitch took it a step further. "What about a high-end accessory that could kill us? Something as ordinary as a watch. Once I put that together, other elements fell into place." Next, the author had to figure out who would sell such a thing, who would buy it and who would wear it.
The watch runs $50,000, and as the plot unfolds, we learn that after an initial roadblock, Vessel sells thousands of them. "It is a bit far-fetched," Fitch admits, "but there are all kinds of things [people enjoy] that are dangerous — they base jump, they smoke cigarettes."
Fitch, who is 61, graduated from Princeton and took writing courses from Joyce Carol Oates and the late Russell Banks, who became a friend and mentor. ("Death Watch" is dedicated to him.) Fitch has written five books under his name and two as Rory Flynn. Put most simply, Fitch says, "The Rory ones are a Boston-based crime series; he's more of a crime writer than I am."
As to who Fitch is as a writer, he says, "I'm a dark satirist and/or literary novelist. The interplay between dark and light is where my books reside. I like to take an idea to its illogical extreme."
In another life – for four years and through two albums – Fitch was the co-founding banjo player in the Boston country-punk band Scruffy the Cat, leaving in 1987 when he began to write his first novel, "Strategies for Success," published in 1992. Fitch's ascension to novelist was not a straightforward path. Beyond working as a musician, he washed dishes at Hoodoo Barbecue, the hip restaurant at the now-defunct Rat club in Boston, worked as an investigative crime journalist and ran an organic farm in Concord.
As it applies to this book, Fitch has experience both in the watch and advertising worlds. He calls himself "advertising adjacent," which means "to pay for my fiction habit for the last twenty years or so, I wrote technology and marketing advertising for big tech."
As for watches, in 2018, an entrepreneur got in touch with Fitch, looking for help rebranding an Italian watch company that he had just purchased. The company made beautiful, semi-high-end watches, and Fitch took on the role of researching and writing new copy for the company.
It's a long story, but the venture fell apart, and his putative partner disappeared. Fitch says it left him "with nothing but some watches, which I gave away, and an idea for a novel about a watch that could kill you."
"Death Watch" is published by Arrow Editions, an imprint of Concord Free Press, the non-profit company Fitch and his wife Ann Fitch co-founded in 2008. Concord publishes free novels, asking that readers donate to a cause they believe in and pass the book on. All proceeds from "Death Watch," which costs $18.99, support the Concord Free Press and its ongoing mission.
Fitch says ideas like consumerism and overconsumption have coursed through all of his novels: "People have to have money to survive, of course, but too much of it causes cancer of the soul. Difficult to detect, impossible to cure."
The novel takes on extremes regarding art, concerning status-seeking and tempting fate in the most fatalistic way possible. "'Death Watch' is a critique of late capitalism, when everything has a price. Even if it's bad for you, even if it's expensive, someone will buy it," says Fitch.