Dave Cullen – Columbine

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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

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John Green – Paper Towns

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You can trace growth if you follow Green’s novels in the order they came out. In Alaska, he used literature as a way to live his fantasies. On Stars, he used literature to come to terms with a devastating experience. Paper Towns is a direct response to Alaska. If that one was wish-fulfillment, this is about bursting the fantasy.

Only Green can’t completely abandon it. The similar cast isn’t because of a lack of ideas. It’s the same story as before but it’s told differently. This time everyone is more flawed, slightly less quirky. The teenagers are no longer a bunch of outcasts who conquer the world because outcasts are charming. They’re a bunch of losers who know their place and try to break away from it.

It’s more realistic in places. Being an outcast is only fun if you have a huge group of it. You still wish you were one of the popular kids who have more fun than you. You still have the same desires for women and big social events. These desires of wanting to break out add a degree of realism that’s important. Green blurs a little the duality of the Cute Nerds and Asshole Jocks.

Then he completely slides into wish-fulfillment fantasy again. Asshole jocks get their payback, and there’s a little sympathy but mostly sadistic glee. A complete loser whose ¬†one major achievement is blending in with the cool boys somehow wins the heart of a hot girl. Our protagonist, who’s mostly an unpleasant loser too wins the heart of the ultimate girl.

If only Green could see through it all. Margo is better than Alaska, but by not much. The main idea behind her is ripping off the curtian of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Quentin is John Green when he lusted after that girl, only Green now knows that women don’t exist to bring excitement into men’s worlds. They’re supposed to be flawed human beings like us.

How flawed is Margo though? It’s clever how Green rarely shows her good traits. We get them mostly second-hand from Quentin, emphasizing that it’s just his perception. There isn’t enough of the counter story, or the counter story doesn’t match the novel’s concluso.

Margo is a spoiled brat, a horrible person, the sort of person who’ll fall in love with an abusive rock star and justify it. We’re meant to think she’s flawed, but Green is unaware of how terrible she is. She’s an angsty teenager with no reason to be angsty. Her only problem in life is that the world around her is ‘fake’ or some bullshit philosophy like that.

What’s so ‘fake’ about the suburbs, though? Margo actually leads an exciting life in Orlando. She has everyone wanting her. She has the guts to take trips and midnight drives. Her environment doesn’t really confine her, since she could still go through all kinds of adventures while still studying and graduating. Margo’s myth is questioned, but not her desires. Her desires are just every silly teenager’s fantasy.

Only the jocks and the nerds are mature enough to understand you can’t live your life as a constant, glorious adventure. Humans are social animals and you have to be a part of the community even if only for your own good. Green never looks at how ridiculous and self-centered this is. He’s willing to admit women don’t exist for men’s pleasure, but he’s still selling us the fantasy of the Ultimate Girl.

Maybe I could’ve bought it if Margo was genuinaly weird. She’s not. She reminds me a lot of a certain person. It’s the sort of privilege that gives birth into hedonists with expansive vocabulary. Margo may read literature and use big words but in the end all she wants to do is have fun. She’s a kid who refuses to grow up. When her parents express disdain I was told outright how terrible they are. All I really thought was, they’re right. Margo is horrible. There isn’t enough psychology to her to make that horrible-ness interesting, so I just wanted for somthing bad to happen to her

The storytelling is often more convinient than realistic or weird. The characters are quirky in charming ways, not in odd or conflicting ones. There’s a brief rift in the friendship between Ben and Quentin which is the most exciting part of the novel, but it only lasts for a few pages.

During these few pages Green proves he can be a good writer. He can ask questions and not just emotionally manipulate. It’s a fight between friends, the kind that throws in their face the fact they’re changing. Bubbles bursting are always exciting because that’s when our worldview changes, when we’re in an emotional storm. Green just writes it away so quickly.

The novel could’ve easily taken a better route. What if instead of it being about finding Margo, Green made it about growing up and realizing how stupid our teenage dreams are? What if it’s about realizing there’s no Ultimate Girl, that the jocks are people too, that hot girls can have a personality and that we have to live with rejection?

The ending isn’t too happy, but the kissing was forced. There’s no reason for Quentin and Margo to be together. Quentin is an observer protagonist whose main trait is that he’s a self-centered asshole who only cares about his own fantasies (That’s not addressed). I already commented about Margo. I don’t think ‘unpleasantness’ is the sort of trait that makes for romantic relationship. Since when did hedonistic girls like Margo have long crushes on boring, timid guys like Quentin?

Green’s prose is good though. It flows quickly and he has a better tone here. It’s more sombre and reflective which fits with his desires to question his fantasies. The banter remains out of place, though. Only Ben’s wisecracks have anything to do with his personality. Quentin suddenly becomes clever for a second and then goes back to being Shinji Ikari without the psychology.

The theme of suicide also crops up in a few instances, but then it comes back to the hole. Sometimes the novel is on the verge of understanding it. The cliches of how you should never give up don’t appear. Anytime he comes close to saying something interesting he chickens out. He wasn’t ready for this yet.

It’s a decent novel and Green is an expert in manipulating emotions. It’s almost commendable and I’m sure I’d eaten this up if I was in high school. I’m no longer there and I see through my fantasies. There are a lot of good moments and good writing, especially in the middle. Green’s strength in at least capturing how teenagers feel like is here. It’s sad that he uses this mostly to wallow in his own fantasies. He can write insightful. He can write a Young Adult novel that will crack open the genre but this is not it.

2.5 manic pixie dream girls out of 5

John Corey Whaley – Where Things Come Back

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Someone decided to mix John Green and Chuck Palahniuk. He even decided to place his story in a dead end town that gave Local H their talent and their fear of failure. It’s a good thing I didn’t know all of this before I read the book. The disappointment would’ve hit harder.

Whaley borrows some stylistic choices from Palahniuk, but barely scrapes what made him worthwhile. He doesn’t borrow his shock antics, but that’s not much of a praise. Chuck’s choruses are here, only they’re not as inventive or informing as before. The purpose of this repetition is to inform us about the character. Victor uses the clinical “see also:” because he’s viewing the world in a detached way. Tender kept referring to cleaning because it was in his docile nature.

Cullen is an angry teenager, but this is where his personality ends. As an angry suburban teenager I recognize I was born to privilege, but it doesn’t automatically make for a happy life. You can give your parrot a safe environment and food, but ignore him and you might find that he discovered self-harm without Nine Inch Nails.

There is more to life than physical well-being. The psychological is just as important. Once we don’t have to fight for survival, we still need a reason to keep going. That’s one reason we get all these depressed teenagers. What do you expect when you put them in an isolated community where they spend most time studying and with little human interaction? Do you want to be the parrot who stares at people talking, joking and laughing while never noticing you exist for a second?

Other problems can strike suburban life, but this is a common one that’s easily brushed off as nothing by ignorant people (if they’re your parents, then the situation worsens). Cullen suffers none of that. He’s not a jock who gets all the girls, but he has a best friend with a girlfriend who feels comfortable kissing him. He has sex with two girls in this novel, one is slightly older than him and the other is the town’s main hottie (both of which make the advances). He also had a thing going on with another before the events in the book started.

Cullen’s life is kicking. Why he’s so angry is never made clear. He dislikes people, but no one is an outright asshole. Nothing about him makes him an outcast or a weirdo. He has no weird hobbies or habits. He can’t even get angry over being bored. If girls and driving around are available to you, then you have some joy in your life.

The whole disappearance thing is an external event that isn’t a part of Cullen’s personality. What’s important is not the tragic event but how it affects the character, and we don’t see it. Cullen stays angry without change. He doesn’t become more detached or more social. He manages his sexual opportunities like everything is fine. Sex is a positive force in his life. He’s neither encumbered by sexual frustration or relies on it too much like Palahniuk’s Victor Mancini.

The book is darker than John Green’s novels (excluding the cancer book). Whaley is more comfortable looking at the darkness and the story is less convenient. His characters are also more flawed than quirky. Whaley’s outcasts aren’t odd angels. Lucas has his Green-esque charms, but both he and Cullen are portrayed as stubborn kids who need to expand their horizons a little.

Whaley also questions Cullen’s hatred of everyone. Green tended to cast everyone out, put them on the bleachers so they’ll watch how cool the nerd is. Whaley has moments where we’re exposed to the others’ humanity and their flaws. A great moment like this is with John Barling. Cullen views him as a punching bag, but Barling’s scene shows he’s just another guy trying to find some value in his life. When the bully’s life gets wrecked, Whaley doesn’t celebrate.

In fact, the side characters are the best part here. Each has a little arc of its own, and a novel about them would be more interesting. Barling has a story about escaping failure and trying to do something big. If Quitman starred in his own novel, it could be a revealing one that gives us the bully’s point of view. How Cullen’s parents deal with grief is fascinating. Each deals in his/her own way and these means change with time. This is how Whaley brings a character to life:

“”Yeah, we used to fight over your cookies. And Dad would always come in and say, ‘Now, now, the only way to settle this is for me to eat the last one,’ and he’d snatch it before we could stop him.””

Such deeds can inform us about who these parents are. There are better moments here. If Whaley had so many, why aren’t they the stars of the novel.

It may be the brisk pacing. Every description of Cullen’s parents is insightful, but they’re not lingered on enough. Whaley moves quickly, as if afraid that lingering on characters will somehow boring. His story never resorts to lame action to make us feel something is happening. He knows better than that, but he doesn’t understand that a good enough moment is worth lingering on.

Unnecessary details still find their way in. Whaley gives a biography of a character whose only importance is its death. The specific details of his background, his time in Ethiopia have no effect on the story. Start from the death and drop a few mentions of his harsh family and you’ll have enough. At least Whaley’s antagonist doesn’t fit the role of evil asshole who ruins things for everyone. He couldn’t make the instigator’s madness understandable, though. Cabot felt more like a plot convenience. Again, Whaley should have slowed down and wrote more moments that define who this character is.

Whaley shows potential. His view of Young Adult is more mature. He wants to be up there with Catcher in the Rye (which is name-dropped, of course) and he wants to reach its depth, not just quirkiness. It’s halfway done. Whaley left enough annoying cliches, but the good stuff that remained are just seeds.

2.5 woodpeckers out of 5