Dave Cullen – Columbine

columbine.jpg
You can look at the story of Columbine and think it’s just a bunch of whiny, privileged white males. That’s okay. People write off people’s troubles in similar ways. As we know, black people are less intelligent and cultured, so who cares what’s going on in Africa?

The world is full of stories. People murder and cause terrorist attacks all the time and it’s not something I feel comfortable reading. The purpose of the storyteller is to extract the meaning out of it. This book is not just the recounting of the events in Columbine and what came after/before. It’s a gigantic argument why the story even matters in the first place. Cullen does an amazing job. No scene is without purpose. No scene exists only to spout details. Each detail has insight into another topic. Like the best non-fiction, Columbine is more about other subjects than its title.

Cullen dispels two big, contrasting myths. There’s the ‘psycho villain’ myth, and the ‘revenge of the nerds’ myth. The truth is actually somewhere in between, or at least split between the killers. The truth was, Columbine Massacre was instigated by a single person.

The writings about psychopathy here are integral. Psychopathy was the cause of the massacre, and also what people miss. People believe in Just World and want to believe that moral people are also good social presence. If someone’s charismatic and hot, then he cannot be bad. However, the fat dude who sends you a message on Facebook is a creep. Such a world is ordered, easy to navigate and we know what to fear.

Psychopaths blow it apart. The true danger isn’t the socially inept person. He’s too timid and his doors are blocked. In order for him to cause social crime, he first needs to become a part of society. Psychopaths are the most desirable people. They’re aces in imitating social cues and personalities but they have no good intentions. They don’t even have empathy.

In truth, there’s nothing like ‘what a killer/rapist/thief’ look like. People who want to deliberately harm – and psychopaths do – need to conceal themselves. How else can a rapist do his crime, if he can’t convince his victim to trust them in an isolated setting? Eric Harris was successful. Women loved him. When he apologized, everyone was convinced. He knew exactly how to hint about the killing to see who’s on board. People couldn’t believe Eric would do it because of his social skills, but his high social skills are directly related to his lack of empathy which pushed him to massacre. It’s a bizarre thing. The most dangerous people are designed to look benign.

What’s ironic is during all the time leading to Columbine, it was Dylan who got the most flak. Dylan was only in it to kill himself. The journals are up online if you want to read it. Dylan was soaked in self-loathing. His character was truly tragic. While I’m not excusing what Dylan did, he’s perhaps just as a victim as the others. He barely even shoot during the massacre. His depressive state and feelings of powerlessness made him an easy target for a psychopath needing an accomplice. Harris provided him a way out. Psychopaths are hard to stop, but what if someone reached out to Dylan before?

This situation reveals something dark about our society. It’s caused by our overall preference for socially skilled people over everything. Yes, this would happen again. In the end, what we want are people who can act like Harris. We want charismatic people who can lead, who look good and can tell jokes. Dylan may have been almost innocent, but socially he’s useless. What’s there to do with a depressive suicidal? Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, we will always support Harris over Dylan. Harris can navigate social situations gracefully, and for a social animal nothing is more important.

Aside from the killer’s psych, the book reveals the many shades of tragedies with multiple victims. Not everyone comes out the same. The stories of survivors, or the bereaved, are vastly different. Cullen tells the story they deserve with empathy. After such a tragedy, you need a spotlight on your unique position. No matter how many suffered with you, your misery is still real. Lumping it up with everyone else is insulting.

It’s also a story of media, and how the way we report events affect their influence. For those who are interested in media studies, this is essential. The parts about the eyewitnesses’ unreliability are fantastic. Such tragic stories have a stronger demand for precise details. These situations, by their nature, confuse us and we need every information we can have to understand them. The intensity of these situation also leads to confused memory. It’s almost funny how people thought there are multiple killers. One person saw Dylan & Eric with trenchcoats. Then they took off and a different person saw them.

An important arc is the story of Cassie, the supposed martyr. Initially it was reported she claimed to believe in God right before being shot. In reality this exchanged happened with a different student who survived. Yet people were quick to believe Cassie’s story and stuck to it even once the truth goes out. It goes to show you what kind of moral responsbility the media has. The reporting of this story affected lives. A survivor in trauma who needed her story told has been pushed aside while everyone lives in a lie.

I don’t think the conclusion of this book was that tragedy was inevitble, that Eric and Dylan were pure evil and we’re all victims. What makes the book so dark is that it shows how badly we function when tragedy strikes. Aside from the aforementioned psychopathy, there’s a coverup, ganging up on parents without knowing why and a parent who becomes a ranting anti-abortion activists. If anything, it’s almost fatalist. What could we do? We’re only human. Why disclose that we could’ve prevented it, and put us in harm’s way?

Cullen’s prose is sometimes too fiction-esque. Writing a non-fiction book like a fiction one, with dialogue boxes makes it look silly. The author wasn’t there, and if he were he could only have this exactness if he recorded it. I prefer writing as summary, since that’s the only thing you can do. Cullen’s prose is also precise enough to let it slide. He’s fantastic in choosing the right details. Physical descriptions never enter. Instead, it’s all about the people and what they did. I know a lot of people who say they can’t read a book without understanding the physical reality of it. Here, Cullen wrote a powerful story by only describing the people in it.

Some will write this off and say it’s just two white privileged white kids. Perhaps, but perhaps underneath every school shooting or underneath every crime rests a story like this. The difference is, we had a lot of cameras on the scene. Columbine is important because of what it tells us about us – that, yes, this will happen again. As social animals, we’ll always take Eric Harris above others. We’ll tell stories that make us feel good – our son is a martyr, they were just evil villains, they were just bullied kids. Cullen does have answers, they’re just incredibly pessimistic.

4 out of 5

Theodore Dreiser – An American Tragedy

americantragedy
“intermingled and furnished it in some nondescript manner which need hardly be described.”

I dare you to find a funnier joke in all of history of the world. Only Robert Jordan’s death can compete with this. Theodore Dreiser overwrites like no other, and he is telling us twice that something is nondescript and there shouldn’t be described. I don’t know whether it’s a moment of self-awareness, or whether it’s definitive proof there was no editor.

You better laugh, because An American Tragedy is a heavy novel. It’s heavy in every sense of the word. The book is long. The writing is dense, overwritten, everything is repeated and reptition is everywhere. The subject matter is the same, the nature of crime and ambition and other big topics about life. The psychology is just as deep, with Dreiser refusing to cast anyone as pure evil.

Dreiser does the impossible here. Authors write great books by sticking to principles of good writing. They each have their own unique spin, but you can draw general rules that these books have in common.

Dreiser breaks every conventional rule. The end of the novel is obvious from the title. The writing is the worst you can find. I can never say enough how Dreiser overwrites. Plenty of things get described and every thought in the characters’ heads is spelled out for us. Dreiser never shows but always tells. The novel is just one psychoanalysis of his characters, but he doesn’t even give us the privilege of letting us do the hard work. He shows both the evidence and the conclusions.

Good thing that Dreiser can back it up. The reason all the overwriting is forgiven is because Dreiser has too much to say. By trying to show the story rather than tell it, he would have lost of the information he wanted to convey.

Is it the easy way out? I don’t know. Showing this story means writing a lot less. By telling everything, Dreiser has to grapple with his ideas head-on. An American Tragedy may be a busy novel, but it has clear themes you can follow. It also has an abundance of them.

It feels so epic, yet the story itself is simple. You could probably tell it in 5 pages. The thing is, what makes literature remarkable is less what happens. The meaning behind it counts far more. That’s why we can tell stories of rise and fall until the heat death of the universe and we don’t get sick of them because they each have different themes.

I doubt many of them can hold a candle to Dreisser’s work. He was blessed with the unique ability of reading minds. That’s the only way to explain the characters. They feel real because they’re each understandable. There’s a murderer, but there’s no villain. By the end, the reverend who constantly begs for mercy isn’t just the character but Dreisser itself.

Weren’t oracles always portrayed as being greatly affected by their visions? This novel shows how understanding the human mind can affect a person. Dreisser doesn’t just overwrite. He wrestles with the tragedy of the human condition. I know this is a huge word and it makes me sound pretentious (and a white straight male). How else to describe this novel, though?

We puny humans are always in conflict. All of us think we’re right. The man who can cure cancer, the soldier who kills a terrorist, Ian Watkins abusing kids, the person who prevents suicides and the suicidal person all sure that their worldview is current. They also all come in conflict. Now, when you only thing your side is right it’s easy. Just keep attacking the other side no matter what. What do you do when you can understand everyone? What do you do when you see both the selfishness of heroics and altruism of it? What do you do when you understand a cruel murderer but can’t ignore the pleas of the victims?

These questions always pop in the novel. American Tragedy is confusing not because of silly things, like ‘it could mean anything’ or because you can’t understand what’s going on. It’s confusing like real life is confusing. There are no shades of grey. It’s one whole kaleidoscope. Dreiser has some answers. Clyde is definitely guilty, but beyond that Dreiser leaves us with questions and keeps us wondering.

While it’s a tragic novel, it’s not a depressing one. A novel that tries hard to understand everyone isn’t a product of a nihilist. It’s a product of someone who loves humanity. Love is a problem like it is a blessing. Like Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between people because of his love for them. Unlike Clyde, Dreiser is trapped between more than just two women and he’s unsure who to choose. Seeing how much compassion he writes this novel with, it only inspires me to be as compassionate to others like Dreiser is to his characters.

Be careful when starting this. The novel takes time to read. The langauge is complex. The paragraphs are long and the plot is very slow. It also took me about 90 pages before I got used to the writing style. It might be inaccessible, but it’s well worth the effort. The novel wouldn’t work if it wasn’t so clogged with Dreiser’s own thoughts on his characters. That’s how he reveals to us all the grey areas in the novel.

As inaccessible and hard to read as it is, I’d recommend to everyone. If literature is about enriching our understanding of ourselves, then this is definitive literature. It loses a few points for dragging, but as difficult as it is I know I will return to it someday.

5 murders out of 5

Saul Bellow – Seize the Day

seizetheday.JPG
It’s amazing how much you can say in so few words. It’s not even a case of huge paragraphs and a small font. You can read Seize the Day in a few hours, but it covers more topics and points of view than a regular novel. It also feels epic, even though all that happens is that a person talks to his father, checks the market and notices a funeral.

Bellow uses the same starting point as Herzog. His main character is a person who hit rock bottom and is worried that there is a hole there. It’s about being stuck in a terrible situation and being anxious about how worse it can get. The situation is more realistic and troubling this time. It’s no longer the case of a wealthy man who has time to get into trouble. Wilhelm can’t afford it.

It’s an examination of the money-hungry world and its two sides. People who love money make for useful shallow villains that create plot, but here they take a different role. Bellow looks what the ideas beneath just loving money.

We get the two common promises of wealth. Dr. Adler represents wealth via hard work and skills. Despite what your parents say, a degree in medicine isn’t enough to get cash flowing. Dr. Tamkin is the other side, the promise of quick money without a lot of work. Just buy some commodities, sell them later and hope that the changes in the market will be in your favour.

Why do we want all that money anyway? Wilhelm is like many of the middle class who were born into enough wealth. They don’t know the instinct for survival since they never faced the threat of hunger. The main thing they end up searching for is love, fame, quick money that will keep their idle lifestyle and ‘seizing the day’.

There is truth to both sides. Wilhelm fails because he doesn’t take the good parts of the two but the bad. He has the love of money and the reckless attitude, but he doesn’t have the ability to work or to enjoy the present for what he is. His hotel has a pool and a massage parlor, but he doesn’t use them. He thinks he can seize the day and get money from it, but it doesn’t work. You get money so it’ll be easier to seize the day.

Dr. Adler worked hard to gain his position. Being a doctor is agonizing work and after all the time you spend with patients, you will grow to be more dismissive of people who work less hard. This dismissive nature can also spin out of control.

Wilhelm might be lazy and misguided, but Adler is so sure of his ways that he thinks beating him over the head with it will solve his problem. He doesn’t see any other solution besides working hard. It’s a miracle cure for him. Welhelm doesn’t actually want his father to take care of all his funds. He just wants a little affection.

In Tamkin’s world, success is measured not only by how much money you have but how quickly you can get it. It’s all about taking risks, living in the now and so on. The flaw in this, is that what they actually do is not to enjoy the present. They gamble so they could enjoy the money in the future. Buying and selling commodities, at least for Wilhelm, isn’t enjoyable in and of itself.

Even his wife doesn’t have the little bit of kindness to divorce him. She wants money and nothing else. She expects to get it while she’ll simply ‘raise her kids’ despite the fact they can handle a little on their own. Wherever Wilhelm turns, it’s all about money.

Saul Bellow doesn’t write off money completely. You can’t expect to live off society’s kindness. Bellow’s critique against the mindset is that it’s so caught up in so-called ‘survival’, money is so important that they can’t see anything else. Human civilization wasn’t built only by people who could hunt.

His attack in how this society doesn’t give people a chance. Wilhelm isn’t chained to his past mistakes just psychologically. The fallout from his marriage is still after him. He does try to shake it off, but Bellow doesn’t show us whether it worked out or not. Like anything else, putting away our mistakes and moving on is a gamble.

The problem rests not just with the money-hungry society but Wilhelm himself – he’s tied to some his mistakes psychologically, he goes after scam artists although no one points a gun to his head. It’s hard to know where we draw line. If Bellow attempted to do it, he could quickly degenerate into caricatures. What makes this book so convincing and so realistic is that everyone is criticized and understood. We’re not told whether Adler or Tamkin or Margaret are evil assholes who oppress poor Wilhelm. We’re merely shown their sides of things.

You can’t come up with an easy to this conflict and Bellow doesn’t even try to. The only message in the ending seems a cliched one – appreciate your life because someday you will die – but it’s an insightful way of saying it. Some of our problems are our fault and some are our environment’s, but we have to ‘seize the day’ and still enjoy it.

Bellow’s writing is far more focused here. It’s the rambling style again, but it doesn’t feel like a collection of excerpts from essays. There are inner monologues which still feel awkward – Bellow should’ve just wrote this in first-person – but this time they’re tied more strongly to the themes and ideas. They are either Wilhelm’s various thoughts about the characters and how he perceives them, or they are about the Money Society and other such concepts. There’s more of the former, thankfully. The latter still feels like leftovers from an essay collection.

There’s a blurb on the cover that describes Bellow’s writing as ‘energetic’. That’s a very good descriptor. The novella has a brisk pace to it. It reads like an epic story condensed. Compared to other novellas I’ve read, it doesn’t have the contemplative atmosphere. It’s hard for me to describe how Bellow achieves this (Tamkin’s dialogues are the best examples. He rants endlessly like a salesman) but it fits. Everything is urgent on this novel.

He also avoids the main problem of any realist authors. His characters feel real because of the traits he gives them. He achieves his realism by giving him distinct descriptions, worldviews and dialogue. Even Rubin, who appears briefly in the beginning feels more developed than those in Hemingway’s novels. He always wears pretty clothes although he’s behind the counter and no one sees him. Bellow could’ve skipped telling us what this means, because it’s a unique enough detail that can tell us all kinds of things about who this person is.

It’s a tight, foucsed novella with a purpose that I think I haven’t found yet. I came up with some things but I’m sure it’s not enough. Bellow is a man of big ideas and strong writing, and here his ideas are more apparent. It’s not buried under essays, unlike Herzog. Its short length will also make it friendly for re-reading. The occasional rambling style is a problem, and this can’t escape the “this is very literary, so pay attention” trap. This trap can confuse the reader more than help transmit the ideas. Still, I hope to return to this someday and find more.

3.5 stock market crashes out of 5

Zora Neale Hurston – Their Eyes Were Watching God

theireyes
Is this novel really about Black people?

Can a Black person write a novel whose novel about a character who happens to be dark-skinned, and make it about things other than the Experience of Living as an African-American? It’s pretty racist to expect every book written by a Black to be about this. They have more in their life than just being dark-skinned. Women can also write about things that are not Being a Woman.

I’m not American, so I may have missed the part where it revealed truths about the African-American Experience. Then again, I didn’t miss it in that Chinua Achebe novel. What drives the story, the grand theme that connects it is love.

People often ask what is love (no references to the song please). The novel is an examination of that idea. It’s not an easy question. A Jewish proverb claims that not disciplining your son equals hate. It’s often a defense of hitting your kids.

Nanny thinks that mere survival is enough for happiness. She’s the mom who pushes her son to make sure he’ll have enough money to survive, which she defines as ‘rich’. The problem is, humans often need some sort of reason to survive. There are also other ways to survive other than being rich.

Some think love is protection. Yet protection can often slip into prevention. We all know these protective parents who think keeping their children away from things is good parenting. Then their kids reach their 20’s with depression and having no idea where to go. Joe Starks had good intentions. He did love and tried hard to make Janie happy, yet how could she happy if she’s being kept away from life?

This examination ends with Tea Cake. Tea Cake is a character whose role often feels like wish-fulfillment. He’s almost an ideal. There’s a wifebeating thing going on, but it’s addressed and then pushed away. Whether it’s pushed away because they didn’t take it seriously back then, or because Zora forgives Tea Cake is unclear. He doesn’t have a major flaw, but the pushing away goes in Janie’s head. She pushes it away because she was raised in a society where women are second class and she can’t think in any other way.

Janie is a little better. This is where Zora resembles other feminist writers. Then again, race is a pseudoscientific idea while sex is biological, so it’ll be harder to escape it. Janie isn’t a 3rd-waver who travelled back in time. She wants the ordinary dreams of loving husband who’ll define her world.

You can’t expect her to want anything else since that’s all she knows. What Zora recognizes is that you can still give this character an agency. Janie’s life may revolve around husbands, but she never gives up on looking for the husband that suits her. There’s a reason behind every action she does, even if she realizes it was wrong.

This adds some realism, but Zora doesn’t do enough with it. When Tea Cake appears, all development stops. The romance scenes are well-written but the only conclusion is a tragedy that comes out of nowhere. Too many realist authors add a surprising disaster for the climax. Something is happening, but it’s disconnected from what the story is about. Since Zora doesn’t deal with the randomness of tragedy, the climax only exists to be climatic.

It’s weird to see Zora descends into this cliche. Up until then she’s a talented author. The dialect prose takes some time to get used to, but it’s not used to obscure the dialogue. She manages to give different characters their own speech patterns. The men’s ‘I love you’ monologues are dead-on. Every time a character explains themselves, even when they’re obviously wrong their dialogue makes it clear they see themselves in the right. No one comes off as a caricature.

Zora’s prose is also pretty. It’s poetic, but precise. Her description of the disaster are a highlight. The disaster may have been pointless, but the scene is powerful enough because Zora’s description focuses on how it feels like, rather than give a shopping list of what happens. All her descriptions rely on pointing out the unique details that define a scene. The prose also has a great rhythm. The title comes from a paragraph in the novel, not a poem. If this is supposed to be an influence from the oral tradition, it’s more convincing than Chinua Achebe’s novel.

It’s an enjoyable novel. It’s well-written and realistic enough. Zora avoids the main pitfalls of realism – structurless events and dull characters most of the way. Her poetic prose is pretty and helps to emphasize the reality, rather than exaggerate it too much. She fails in conclusing her ideas, and only her good prose carries the ending. It’s good, but not very remarkable.

3 eyes on God out of 5

Siri Hustvedt – The Sorrows of an American

Sorrows
What a terrible title. I’m not with the Anti-Americanism thing. Among products that sell like hot cakes, Anti-Americanism is one of the most insulting ones. Still, the title feels like it came straight out of the American Exceptionalism everyone hates so much. America is an interesting country, sure, but the sorrows of an American aren’t more profound than others.

The novel avoids this exceptionalism, thankfully. In fact, it’s the opposite of what its title suggests. The novel is concerned with the emotional turmoil of many people. It seeks to understand them, even when they’re creeps. I doubt the disconnection between the self-centered album title and the thoughtful story is deliberate, though.

Siri rambles again. There is a center for these ramblings, something resembling plot. The ramblings are also less elegant than that novel about a summer without men. In that Siri could just ramble on and even if it felt like a digression, it was pleasant to read.

Sorrows has an oddly clunky prose. Imagine if someone stuck a lot of gears inside Auster’s writing. This style is supposed to flow easily and be easy to read. If it isn’t, then the abundance of words is frustrating. Why Hustvedt fails here when he succeeded later is hard to pinpoint. Maybe it’s because Sorrows is more descriptive.

Maze of thoughts tend to ramble, but their content always remains subjective. We get a lot of thoughts but few details. Sorrows tries to combine both. Sometimes it works. There are some objects in the story with great importance who needed detailed descriptions. Even there Hustvedt disappoints. She tries, but she doesn’t manage to come up with powerful imagery like McEwan.

There is also a family tree which is hard to keep track of. Here’s a tip for writers. Don’t just give a list of names of who was in the family and what’s their relation to the main character. Simply have them appear when their role in the story is relevant. Unless you’re into the study of naming, a name without something attached to it is a random collection of letters.

She’s better at keeping track of her present-day characters. They drive the story with their personalities and desires. A mystery kicks the novel off but it’s pushed to the side. Even when it’s solved, the resolution only exists to put all the characters in one place and have them clash. This is more exciting than just solving a murder mystery. Hustvedt has the tools to produce a nice psychological thriller.

The best parts is how she treats characters who otherwise would’ve been antagonists. The characters who create conflict, bother the protagonists and otherwise ruin everything for everyone aren’t defeated. The end of the conflict is understanding how the others think and why they do what they do, even if we still disapprove. In fact, we can’t really disapprove of someone’s behavior if we don’t understand it at first.

This is where Hustved deviates from Auster. Auster’s novels are a self-centered psychodrama. He traps you inside a character’s head and only shows his point of view. We’re not meant to necessarily side with the protagonist, but examine his flaws and strengths. Hustvedt wants to examine a large cast. It’s more admirable, but she’s not as successful as Auster is at his game. It’s the clunky prose again. The smooth prose is also what brought the characters in Summer Without Men to life. If only that one was as long as this novel.

Some have complained Hustvedt’s male protagonist sounds like a female. I found it so surprisingly male I wanted to take off points for it. Hustvedt’s prose is so similar to other male writers, but there’s not a touch of femininity in it. She writes it with a straight way and doesn’t show the female’s spin on it.

When Hustvedt describes how the protagonist lusts after a female, I almost felt like I’m reading another male author who needs to let out his fantasies. Hustvedt never crosses the border. She only describes the female the protagonist notices, and at points where he’ll notice something specific. One thing that Hustvedt describes well is those little moments where you notice a woman’s leg or hair or arm and aroused by it.

It’s not ‘wimpy’ or other such macho bullshit descriptions. Guys need girls. I’ve seen a lot of macho dudes who work so hard trying to achieve positive feedback from females. Without it, they’re nothing. Sexuality makes fools out of us all. Most people who are cool about it just happen to have it at the moment.

Hustvedt still sounds like Paul Auster in Sorrows, but that’s okay. Her attempts at understanding others and her wider scope means a different spin on that style. Without Auster’s smooth prose, though, it goes nowhere. The irony is that Sorrows has more purpose and a better story than Summer, but its prose keeps all the events distant. I’m still interested in what else Hustvedt has to offer, but this isn’t her masterpiece.

2.5 secrets out of 5