Violence is widespread in this culture,
also in our drama. This is irrefutable, and it would be a waste
of space going into the Roadrunner-Coyote type of example here.
It's pervasive, people complain. Serious or comic, ironic or
melodramatic, too many writers--critics imply--turn to random
bloodletting as an easy way out, a give-me-the-gun or exploding-head
denouement. It's desensitizing, they say, boring, and worse (and
here they're judging not only the writer but possibly his or her
entire genre), it's cheap. Why, they say, can't we have more
uplifting stories about relationships? Why aren't our films and
novels more like our real lives, which are rather average?
I've been asked to say a few words about
the violence in my work--that is, how there seems to be an atmosphere
of dread and terror throughout the novels and stories which culminates
or is released, usually, in a final murder. Gunplay. Shotguns
I'd rather comment, first, on the presence
of Grace in my work, or the ordeal of Faith and Doubt it seems
all my characters go through. For some of them, trying to find
a reason to keep living is literally a matter of life and death.
Think of Glenn, in Snow Angels, who's lost everything and
has tried once already to end his life before taking those of
his loved ones. He seems to find a reason in being born-again,
for a time at least, but in the end he doesn't truly believe (though
he desperately wants to) and ends up killing both Annie and himself.
Only Bomber, whom he recognizes as innocent, not-fallen, escapes
I write about desperate people. Average,
yet desperate--how can that be?
We all doubt. We all have moments when
we veer toward complete despair and wish ourselves dead. Some
people linger there longer than others; some people stay.
In most of my published work, my characters
are grappling with the same standard existential questions posed
by Sartre and Camus and addressed by Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor,
John Gardner, John Cheever and other religious writers. When I
say religious, I mean their characters try to find a place in
the universe--in the cosmos--by themselves, and find that they
can't do it alone; that even with the help of their families,
friends and lovers they recognize their relationship to all creation
must be mediated by some power--benign, hateful or indifferent.
To put it in big fat Age of Anxiety terms: our essential loneliness
Most people want to be part of things.
My characters aren't mostly. They're fringey people--Annie out
on Turkey Hill alone, Larry Markham putting his town and his family
behind him to walk the jungles of Vietnam, Marjorie out on I-40
in her Roadrunner. Young Americans. Unhappy, strange, capable
of anything, purely unsure. They live in a country where everyone
seems to believe so easily, to fit in. They don't. They're not
even part of some marginal group; as Larry says, they're just
out there. They're fuck-ups, people who don't believe anyone cares.
There's freedom in that, but terror too. Anything can happen out
there in the desert, in the jungle, on that snowy cul-de-sac under
the water tower. It's the darkness at the edge of those dead-end
Rust Belt towns there people drive through, and everywhere they
see signs they think they ought to follow. Because they don't
know. Because they've got nothing else to believe in.
They don't care about manners or any kind
of church. Jesus is like a biker movie dude sometimes--LOVE on
one fist, HATE on the other, and the throttle cranked wide open.
It's not philosophy. It's not fancy. These
people are messed-up and sometimes they do the wrong thing, Because
of their despair, the wrong thing is sometimes dire. Estranged
husbands ignore restraining orders and kill the women they supposedly
love most. Sometimes they kill the kids (not in my book, in real
life I mean).
And these are very obviously mysteries.
Pick up the morning paper and try to figure out why a farmer would
kill his entire family and then burn himself alive in his house.
Why a young mother would smother her 19-month-old child in the
night and bury her in a field.
I hope there's no simple answer to these
mysteries. I want to believe people aren't that easy to understand,
that even we who believe ourselves sensible often don't know why
we do some very important things. I want to find out why things
happen, but I don't believe psychology has all the answers. As
Flannery O'Connor said, art wants to go past the place where psychology
leaves off. That's where understanding lies.
When do you give up on love? On life? Why
are some people happy and others sad? How do you come to terms
with loss? Grief? How do you live with killing someone?
I push my characters to the breaking point
to see how they'll act, whether they'll find a way to go on. Sometimes
they do, sometimes they don't. When they don't, sometimes the
violence of despair turns inward, destroying them (often quietly,
without bloodshed, though that's no less violent, the annihilation
of a soul or spirit), other times outward, killing others.
Are these people insane? I don't think
I give them that escape route. Glenn is messed-up because he's
lost everything in his life; his decision to kill Annie isn't
based on rage but on sadness. And he's uncertain, he has to coach
himself through the whole thing and then is amazed that he did
it. Strangely it's the first thing he's succeeded at in the whole
book. It's not right, certainly, but it makes sense to him. It
seems like the best, maybe the only, choice he has left.
And Larry's certainly not insane. He's
a good man trying to do what's right in a difficult situation.
It's Vietnam, and while he does become necessarily hardened to
the violence, he never loses track of what's morally right. He's
a moral agent in the best sense, as I'm sure most people in war
try to be. And Creeley, his shadow--his doppelganger or Frankenstein--only
wants Larry to acknowledge that he's there. Like the vet waiting
for America to understand, all he wants is recognition that this
did happen. He's a memory come alive, and whey Larry does acknowledge
him, he goes away. He lives inside Larry now, and once Larry trades
in his denial, he can go forward with his life.
How about Marjorie? Special case. Who can
say? She maintains that she's a victim yet at time she appears
to be the mastermind. Is Natalie nuts? Lamont? All three? Or are
they just dumb, hard-luck criminals? Who can you trust?
It's interesting to note that Marjorie's
offhand critiques or appreciations of Stephen King's writing mostly
focus on his set-piece presentation of violence, which, ironically,
is what the reader--now in King's position of interrogator/researcher--is
waiting for impatiently. The book wants to comment rather acidly
on the commodification of aestheticized violence in King's work
and in the movies she alludes to--Halloween, Badlands, Bonnie
and Clyde. At one point Marjorie wonders how King will present
the murders, worrying that he won't have his usual leeway to present
all the nasty little details because the victims' families will
suffer--which I hope will make readers feel bad for calling these
'the good parts.' So along with all the violence in the book,
there's a criticism of how violence is used. Is The Speed Queen
itself immune from that criticism? If not, why not?
On top of that, there's the litany of institutionalized
violence in the methods of execution through the ages and across
the continents. Likewise, The Names of the Dead doesn't
flinch (and hopefully doesn't indulge cavalierly) at presenting
the effects of mechanized warfare. Remember in Snow Angels
Arthur knows the sounds of gunfire from years of news footage
of Vietnam, as well as from deer season, his father's Mossberg.
So it's out there, the violence, and young men especially are
encouraged to join it, master it, fear it not.
Is America's a violent culture? A gun culture?
It's not my job to answer that. And my use of violence isn't an
antidote or more complex complement to the violence in our mass
culture. In The Speed Queen it's a riff on it, maybe, but
of the three, that's the simplest and certainly least responsible
book. It's a hoot, a prolonged joke that happens to have a juicy
character as its shifty center. In the others violence exists
far beyond its viceral shock value, for purposes specific to the
works, usually having to do with faith, despair, self-abnegnation
and, possibly lastly, moral choice.
To compare the use of violence in the three
novels is difficult, in that The Names of the Dead has
the war for its setting and is almost stiffly earnest in its presentation
of its main character, The Speed Queen is a twisted comedy
with a wildly unreliable, possibly crazy narrator, and Arthur
in Snow Angels uses Annie's murder as a tortured, even
overreaching metaphor for his parents' divorce. Three completely
different cases, I'd say.
Still, the body count is undeniably high,
and I'd attribute that to my other literary roots (of which I'm
equally proud)--horror comics, horror movies (Night of the
Living Dead!), bad 70s TV, sci-fi, and the great Stephen King
himself. Peter Straub once complained on the net that he was being
pigeonholed as a horror writer when he considered himself more
of a literary writer. My complaint might be the opposite--that
I'm actually a horror writer who's been labeled a literary writer.
If I had my choice, I'd rather have the readers.
And that explains why I tend to use more
popular forms and plots than most literary writers, also why I
try to keep my language stripped down and not too self-consciously
pretty. Sure, the sentences scan, but the metaphors aren't extended
or turned into showy gee-whiz poetry. I want people to get it
on the first read and to move fast through the book, to be excited
to find out what happens next. That's why Creeley's stalker plot's
there in The Names of the Dead (can you say Play Misty
for Me?), and the peekaboo romance on top of the Nam memoir
arc. That's why Snow Angels opens with the massive hook
of a murder mystery, and The Speed Queen borrows the tape-recorded
voice of the condemned used in so many noir thrillers, then goes
on to give us the elaborately detailed robbery-gone-wrong scene,
a staple of Hollywood's endless line of bank job movies. The work's
good and good for you, I hope. Fun. Nutty.
That's all. Writing about my own work makes
me nervous. Someone famous said: "Never complain, never explain,"
which I think is pretty good advice. Like my characters--like
most people--I don't always know what I'm doing or why, I just
try to challenge myself and write the best I can, be generous
to my characters and not tell the reader what to feel. Thanks
for tuning in. In terms of The Speed Queen, let me just
leave you with a big quote from Flannery O'Connor:
"...if our writer believes that our
life is and will remain mysterious, if he looks upon us as beings
existing in a created order to whose laws we freely respond, then
what he sees on the surface will be of interest to him only as
he can go through it into an experience of mystery itself. His
kind of fiction will always be pushing its own limits outward
toward the limits of mystery, because for this kind of writer,
the meaning of a story does not begin except at a depth where
adequate motivation and adequate psychology and the various determinations
have been exhausted. Such a writer will be interested in what
we don't understand rather than what we do. He will be interested
in characters who are forced out to meet evil and grace and who
act on a trust beyond themselves--whether they know very clearly
what it is they act upon or not...the kind of writer I am describing
will use the concrete in a more drastic way. His way will much
more obviously be the way of distortion.... It's not necessary
to point out that the look of this fiction is going to be wild,
that it is almost of necessity going to be violent and comic,
because of the discrepencies that it seeks to combine.
Thanks again to all you Stephen King fans
for your letters, I appreciate them.
Drive safe--speed kills!
Copyright © 1997 Stewart O'Nan.