Archive for February, 2014
I’ll just put this up
and see what you do with it.
For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on something that is…not my usual kind of thing. Maybe I should say it is not my usual kind of thing lately, because early in my publishing career I wrote a couple of one shot novels that were, like this one, very dark.
Doing it now, though, I find myself constantly defeated by the need for a lead character–and no, I don’t think I’m misstating that.
In my mind, this novel is about the way something is in the world. It outlines the commission of a crime, and the way that crime affected people who came in contact with it in many different ways.
But it is not, in any way, a whodunnit–the criminal is known almost immediately, and the puzzle of his motives and personality will not be solved because they cannot be solved.
There are things in this world we cannot know, and the motivations of a mass shooter are one of them, especially if that shooter is dead when the shooting is over.
I am on record as not having much taste for the kind of fiction that is about somebody going out there and Doing Something–but the structure of a long work of fiction is such that it has to have a focal point and that focal point has to be a character whose motivations and action are something the reader can follow and believe, if not necessarily sympathize with.
Part of my problem here has to do with a certain amount of cynicism. I know plenty of possible character tropes for somebody who investigates the facts and personalities of a mass shooting, but at the bottom of all of these is something like a superstition.
We don’t want to actually understand as much as we want a ritual for warding off the evil that threatens us.
The reason that is so is that the reality of mass shootings is somethign we really, really, really don’t want to hear: we don’t understand them, we can’t predict them, we can’t prevent them, and the next one will come when we least expect it, at a place and in a time when we are not ready, and there’s not a thing we can do about it.
Public responses to mass shootings are really remarkable illustrations of this–this ward off the evil thing, I mean. In general, there are two or three that always crop up, each and every time.
The first of these is to label the shooter “evil” or a “monster,” which has the dual virtues of being both meaningless and satisfyingly judgmental. It does not tell us anything at all about what happened, never mind about how to stop it from happening again.
The second of these is actually a derivative of the first. It is to call the shooter “mentally ill.” This is less judgmental, but it has the virtue of making the problem seem solvable sometime in the future, through “identifying” “mental illness” and “getting the mentally ill the help they need before it’s too late.”
This method works as long as we don’t think too much about what we’re saying, and especially as long as we don’t admit to ourselves that “mentally ill” is, like “evil monster,” a phrase without real content.
What we mean when we say somebody is “mentally ill” is that they make choices we wouldn’t make ourselves, and that we lack the imagination to understand how anybody else could.
One of the spectacles that is very common after mass shootings is that of people trying to pretend they don’t notice that none of the psychological markers that would supposedly have predicted the shooting was present in the life or behavior of the shooter before the event.
The only thing in Adam Lanza’s history to indicate he might have been “mentally ill” came in the suggestion somebody made at some point–it might have been his mother–that he might have a mild Asperger’s Syndrome. Nothing about Asperger’s Syndrome predicts any kind of violence at all on the part of the sufferer.
The third response is to hitch the event to your present hobbyhorse and pretend that if you could get what you wanted on policy–on gun control, for instance–these things wouldn’t happened.
All of these responses require that we do not look very carefully at anything.
In the Newtown case, the gulf between reality and the proposed solutions was vast. The guns Lanza used for the massacre would not have been outlawed by a reinstatement of the Assault Weapons ban. Connectict actually had tougher gun control laws than anything the gun control advocates were proposing on the Federal level. Nor would the restriction of high capacity magazines have done much, if any good, since Lanza didn’t use especially large magazines, and his guns were all single-shot. Nor would better background checks have made any difference. Even if Lanza’s mother had been required to reveal the mental health status of anybody in her household who might have access to her guns, Lanza’s mental health status would not have precluded her from having them. Hell, it wouldn’t have precluded him for having guns of his own.
All of these things are, as I’ve pointed out, ways of whistling in the wind, of giving ourselves the possibility of not recognizing the reality here.
“These things are going to happen and there is nothing anyone can do to predict them or stop them” is not a comforting message, and it’s not a satisfying message, either.
We “explain” things and then carefully don’t look at whether our explanations make sense. Adam Lanza was mentally ill! Adam Lanza played violent videogames (actually, he was most enamored of those Lego games that have almost no violence at all).
But here’s the thing.
I don’t want to write yet another book that “explains” what cannot be explained, or that doesn’t face, head on, the fact that it CANNOT be explained.
There may be, somewhere, an actual explanation, or a set of explanations, different for each shooter.
There may be, but I don’t know what it is, and I don’t think anybody else does, either.
There may be, but I don’t know what it is, and I don’t think anybody else does, either.
Certainly none of the propsed “explanations” I have researched holds up under even the lightest of scrutiny.
(And no, getting rid of all the guns won’t fix it. The first school massacre in this country killed 32 children and teachers and was the result of a bomb, no guns involved.)
The problem, of course, becomes something else in the place I’m at now, because I’m writing a book.
And books sometimes require things that real life does not.
A sense of resolution is often one of those things.
At the moment, I’m trying to fix this problem by giving my main character something else in her life that needs to be resolved, and that can be resolved, in and around her working on what happened in the mass shooting she’s concerned with.
I have no idea at all if this is going to work.
So here I sit, at the end of February–almost–feeling very aware of the fact that I have been neglecting the blog.
I’ve got good reasons for that, of course–I’ve had a ton of actual writing to do, the term has started, the office at home is in a sunroom and gets REALLY cold when the temperature goes down to single digits, or worse.
The real problem, however, is that lately I’ve been feeling as if I don’t really have much to say.
Not having much to say is not the kind of thing that stops writers writing on a regular basis. Most of us are willing to say stuff just because we want to go on saying stuff, whether it makes any sense or not.
Recently, though, I have been feeling as if not only do I have nothing to say, but that nobody else does, either.
I do that thing where I almost obsessively keep up with “current events” and end up thinking that I’ve heard it all before, that all the talking heads on all sides of every issue are doing nothing but repeating the same stuff over and over and over again.
They not only don’t say anything new, they say what they’ve always said in almost perfect repetition from the other times they’ve said it.
But it’s not just The Rachel Maddow Show turning into All Chris Christie All The Time, or the Fox News people dredging up Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky to having something to bash Hilary with.
My largely apolitical students are engaged in the same kind of wheel spinning.
This past week I gave them a short story to read called “The Birthmark,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne. It’s an early example of what has to be science fiction, and one of Hawthorne’s many protests against the intellectual and social ideas imported into the early US by the Transcendentalists.
If you ever want to see Hawthorne at his most sarcastic, I suggest his novel The Blithedale Romance, which takes apart the Ideal Communist Communities of the period as only someone who had actually lived in one for a while could do.
“The Birthmark” concerns another mania of the movement, the idea that we can somehow make people perfect.
In this story there is a scientist, named Aylmer, who is married to a beautiful and docile young woman named Georgiana. She is so beautiful, in fact, that she is the closest thing to physical perfection that has ever been seen in womankind–except for one thing.
There is a tiny birthmark, in the shape of a human had, on her cheek.
The more Aylmer looks at that birthmark, the crazier he gets. It is an affront to his reason, and to his commitment to science, which he is convinced is capable of knowing all and controling all.
It is an affront to science and reason to allow such an imperfection to continue to exist when it can be remedied by the proper methods. And Aylmer is convinced he is able to devise the proper methods.
Georgiana is not really happy with this, but she’s a perfect docile and obedient wife, and she allows it because her husband commands it.
Aylmer removes the birthmark–and as soon as he does, Georgiana dies.
Now, this is not a particularly subtle allegory. Hawthorne is not a particularly subtle writer, or a particularly fluid one, either. I don’t tend to recommend him, because I think his prose style would drive most modern readers up the wall.
It’s not his prose style I’m concerned about here, however.
My kids have a hard time reading anything, even straightforward nonfiction prose. They have not been taught common literary devises like personification or metaphor. Their vocabularies are very small and the range of their cultural contexts are nearly nonexistent.
So in order to try to bridge some of this stuff, I gave them a running start.
At the end of the class before the class this reading was due, I outlined the basics: the theme is the perfectibility of man. The issue is whether or not it is possible to build a society in which all the bad things–war, crime, disease, whatever–will be gone, whether the people who live in that society want that or not.
Your job is to figure out which side of this question the story comes down on, and to tell me how you know.
So we get into the class where they’re supposed to do this, and I ask them to write down: a) the themep; b) the message (that which side thing); and c) real world examples of the kind of thing Hawthorne is talking about.
Let’s pass over the usual overaching problem, which is that my students do not understand that the author isn’t the same thing as his characters.
Part of my brain says that they can’t really be as clueless about this as they seem to be. They all watch movies and television. They’re used to story structure and actors who play villains in one movie and heroes in the next.
Let’s go to the quizzes they turned in, almost half of which told me that the theme of “The Birthmark” was that “nobody’s perfect.”
It’s bad enough that “nobody’s perfect” makes no sense as a theme for “The Birthmark.” It’s even worse that I actually discussed the theme–gave them the answer–the class before.
The very worst thing is that “nobody’s perfect” is the kind of thing they say to each other, thinking they know what they mean, that actually has no meaning at all.
To the extent to which my students use this phrase in the conduct of their own lives, it’s an excuse–and excuse without actual content, so that they can’t be called on it.
“Nobody’s perfect” means “I don’t have to meet anybody’s standards, not even my own, because it’s all useless anyway.”
Except that it doesn’t actually mean that, either, because if you make them unpack it, they repudiate it.
It’s just a thing people say, without thinking about it.
And not thinking is the point.
My students have dozens, maybe even hundreds, of things like this wandering around in their heads–things they think they “know,” but that actually mean nothing at all.
And in that, they are exactly like the talking heads I watch on cable news channel opinion shows, and exactly like the “professionals” (educational and psychological and medical) who spew advice into the daily lives of children and adults.
It’s like we’re all on some kind of verbal loop, with words passing through us without ever stopping long enough to be identified.
And in doing that, we’re not only not solving our problems or making them worse–although we’re surely doing both of those–but we are engaging in a collossal waste of time.
And I’m beginning to think it is also a deliberate waste of time.
Maybe what we’ve done is to make a farreaching bet–that by clinging to these things that mean nothing but that make us feel we’ve said or thought something meaningful, we can get to the death we pretend isn’t coming while never having to face the fact that we don’t understand anything.
That our lives are meaningless and futile because there is no meaning to be had, anywhere.
Meaning doesn’t exist. Hope isn’t just an illusion, but an absurdity.
Of course, this is the kind of thing religion is supposed to solve for people, but my guess is that it doesn’t, not in the contemporary US, not for most people.
People say they believe all kinds of things, but if you probe at those beliefs long enough, what you mostly find is even more mush, more phrases that meaning nothing but sound like they do, more truisms and platitudes and empty verbiage that nobody is ever going to examine if they can avoid it.
And, yes, that is true of people in the modern humanist/secular movement, too.
I’m not entirely sure where I’m going with this.
On one level, it’s very bad news indeed, because one of the things a society does–whether or not it rises to the level of a civilization–is to provide a framework and foundation for meaning.
When a society can no longer do that, when most of its people get up in the morning and can’t see the point, or burrow into their emotions and fantasies so they don’t have to face not seeing the point–
Then that society is over, even if it goes about its business on the day to day mundane level just as it seemed to do before.
And, of course, eventually, something else shows up. I don’t know if nature abhors a vacuum, but meaning certainly does.
I think we’re on the cusp of one of those “paradigm shifts” Thomas Kuhn was so enamored of.
I don’t know what comes next, although I’m pretty sure it will be neither a mass reconversion to Christianity nor what some people here call “The Movement,” that tissue of fashionable shibboleths about gender, race and class that pretends to be a moral code and is actually a resurgence of penitential monasticism in a new and not very improved form–scrupulosity raised to the tenth power, meant to keep us all focussed on our navels instead of on the questions nobody has the answers to.
There are a fair number of people who think that the Next Thing will be Islam, since Muslims at least actually believe what they believe, and nobody in the West really does any more.
I don’t have the answer to that, either.