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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.

Or fixed.

Or predicted.

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.

Written by janeh

February 24th, 2014 at 10:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Multiplicity'

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  1. Hurray! Log in worked!


    24 Feb 14 at 8:51 pm

  2. Hooray! Log in worked. Thank you.


    24 Feb 14 at 8:53 pm

  3. Well, the reporter in CITIZEN KANE didn’t get much of a resolution, but the story was still reasonably successful. I would note that your previous dark book-length stories did have resolution, and I wouldn’t have called them all that dark. Perhaps I have a high standard of dark.

    As for school shootings–welcome to the world in which there is no afterlife, no judgment–and no such thing as bad publicity. Fame is everything, and the publicity given previous shooters inspires the next. No, I don’t know how to stop them, either. Nations with every restriction a modern liberal might wish appear to have had their share. This, of course, does not keep them from advocating more restrictions. One suspects the object is somewhat different that stated.

    But I often suspect that.


    24 Feb 14 at 9:14 pm

  4. Reverting to the topic of Muslims that Jane mentioned yesterday, this table is interesting.


    Most of the Western European countries are about 5% Muslin. And as Mark Steyn commented in After America, if 1000 Christian have 400 children and 1000 Muslims have 4000, its not hard to predict what will happen.

    My guess is that Islam will take over. They actually believe in something and Americans and Europeans don’t even seem to believe in their own cultures.


    24 Feb 14 at 10:15 pm

  5. I can’t say much about the problems of writing a book that might lack a sense of resolution because a particular problem cannot be fixed – I’m no writer, and as a reader, confess to a fondness for books with a sense of resolution; a neat ending with only enough loose threads to tie a sequel on to, if desired.

    The basic human difficulty with dealing with the inevitable occurs in all aspects of life. Look at the people who respond to any news of a fatal illness with the attempt to find something, anything, to blame that they personally can avoid. Perhaps the unfortunate cancer victim smoked as a teenager – well, I didn’t, so I’m safe – regardless of whether or not that type of cancer can logically be attributed to smoking. I think this is a very human way to deal with fear – it’s ineffectual, of course, but really, so is almost any other approach to the random tragedies humankind is subject to.

    Religion often acknowledges tragedy (or evil, or natural evil) and can offer support in travelling through the valley of the shadow of death, and hope for what exists at the other side. But most Westerners either have no religion, or have the superficial flowers and stars ‘I am not religious but am spiritual’ kind that doesn’t prepare or support anyone when, as they say, bad things happen to good people. The only alternative, the natural response, seems to be to invent a cause for the tragedy, and then possibly to flail about with efforts to prevent the invented substitute for the unknown and possibly unknowable real cause. That’s not helpful, is possibly harmful, but I think is inevitable in the absence of a philosophy or religion that takes into account that aspect of human life.

    And jd, sure, Islam is spreading, and “la revanche des berceaux”, as we called it in Canada, is an old idea. But it doesn’t seem to always have the intended effect. The religously-inspired ‘revanche’ in Quebec led to the most secular society in North America. Whatever the result of Muslim high birth rates and migration is going to be long-term, I wouldn’t bet on a Europe or North American in the same mold as most Muslim countries today. I also wouldn’t bet against Christianity in the long term – or, for that matter, on a lengthy lifespan for the status quo.

    I don’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes, I’d love to find out; other times, I’m glad that these things are going to work out on a timeline longer than the period I have left to live.


    25 Feb 14 at 7:42 am

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