"I am a Minnesotan by birth and a traveler in wild places by vocation and compulsion." -Paul Gruchow

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

State of Mind: Boston, Doolittle, Crime Fiction and the Necessity of Fiction in Tragedy

When I was in high school, the welding shop in our small town exploded.  A spark landed where it shouldn’t have and my hometown got its first taste of this kind of tragedy.  Those who were inside survived, but not easily.  Randy Rhodes had third-degree burns over 90% of his body and even at the hospital, he needed to be revived several times.  I didn't know him well, but I knew who he was.  Over the course of several months, he received skin grafts and fought infections, his fingers and toes had to be amputated, but he survived.  I remember seeing him once and the large diamond shapes on his arms, the result of the skin being pulled tightly to cover him.  I remember when he was finally well enough to remake his life and he started making wooden toys.  He joked that they were handmade—no fingers involved.

Last week, Sean Doolittle came to UNL to talk with my fiction class about his novel Rain Dogswhich begins with an explosion in a small town in western Nebraska.  It was an incredible time in my classroom, getting to talk with a writer about the book we’d just finished, to ask him all that we’d been wondering about process and craft, the line between crime fiction and literary fiction.  That afternoon, I assembled a diverse group of panelists to talk about crime literature in the academy—from the fiction writing side, with Sean and Joy Castro, the literature side, with Wendy Oleson and Jackie Harris, and the critical theory aspect, with Roland Vegso.  Bailey Library was full, to my very great surprise and pleasure.  The discussion was lively, lively enough that I didn’t want to cut it off to shift to the Q&A portion—and that provided some incredibly interesting perspectives I wish we’d had more time to explore.  Overall, though, it signaled to me that we have a lot to talk about—and I hope we can continue the discussion in another time and place. (I'll post separately about my class's conversation with Doolittle.)

But as I got up this morning to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings, afraid to pull up the news on my computer—because I don’t have a television or cable—I couldn’t shake my 9/11 flashbacks, the cold, the nausea.  When 9/11 happened, I was living in Spokane, unpacking my first apartment, and I didn't have cable then either and the entirety of my first impressions was my imagination.  When classes started, we were all hyper-aware of how our students would be dealing with the aftermath and this morning, as I prepare for my classes today, I want to teach them how to channel what they're feeling into their writing.  Partly, it's catharsis, but partly, it's also using the energy of that grief that has nowhere to go.  When 9/11 happened, I ended up writing thirty, forty, fifty pages in my novel, channeling all that grief and impotent rage into one of my characters.  How do we make sense of the senseless?  (It’s another conversation entirely that this was my first disaster that I followed solely via social media.  That’s an interesting way of telling a story—I wonder what that would look like, on a page, if the story was told in tweets.)

In my 252 class, though, we're going to be talking about Sean Doolittle's visit to our class last week—and I want to ask them to consider some other aspects:  Rain Dogs begins with an explosion and the (eventual) death of one of the boys caught in it.  We're doing the second workshop of their short stories (which are due next week) and it's become a running joke in that class that it's very dangerous to be a character in our class, because nearly every single story has killed off at least one character, if not all of them.  Why do we consider violence to be entertaining?  What is our responsibility as writers?  It's not the Boston Marathon Bombings that's the hot point—it’s the fear and the grief and the motive and the aftermath that's the hot point.  There is more to conflict and drama than death—even incredible acts of terror like we saw yesterday. 

Is tragedy necessary for fiction?  And is fiction necessary during a tragedy?  (I do not mean conspiracy theories.)  Is fiction what we need to give voice to things we cannot say?  It's an interesting question.

The point is not that this week is the most dangerous time in America—from 15 April to 20 April—that Patriot’s Day (the 3rd Monday of April) to Hitler’s birthday is the time when the majority of terrorist activity happens inside our borders.  It’s Waco, it’s Virginia Tech, it’s Oklahoma City, it’s Columbine, it’s Boston.  The conflict and the drama is what happens after the terror subsides:  it’s how we trust and distrust, it’s how we respond to the people around us.  9/11 really did change us—and not all in good ways—and it was something I noticed before I had to turn off the looping video of the bomb:  this is the first American bombing (that I’m aware of) where our instincts are now to run towards the bomb, not away, and those who were not close enough to run towards the bomb found their first instincts were to donate blood.  I don’t want to make any sweeping statements about how tragedy brings us together, how we’re all Americans and we won’t be cowed—because that’s not the point either and actually, that rhetoric isn’t particularly helpful. 

The reality, as I see it, came to me as I was driving to campus this morning, on the sixth anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings that reminds me that I am not safe even in a learning environment:  one of the interviews I saw this morning was with one of the emergency trauma surgeons at one of the Boston hospitals and he was talking about the types of injuries he was seeing.  Traumatic amputations, shrapnel, lower limb trauma.  The kinds of injuries you see in a war zone.  He said that the other surgeon he works with is a military surgeon, with experience in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And all I could think was we’re not at war—these types of war injuries should not be feeling familiar.  But then, we are at war.  We’re at war with ourselves.  It’s impossible to listen to the news anymore—and it doesn’t matter if you lean left or right—without hearing incredible and dangerous rhetoric.  Language matters.  This is what happens when we forget that what we say and how we say it matters.  And as writers, what is the responsibility and the opportunity of art to respond to these situations?

I don’t know what to make of violence as entertainment.  I don’t know what my students and I will talk about later this morning, but I’m looking forward to the conversation.  Maybe it’s not that we’re writing violence to be entertaining—maybe we’re not reading crime literature to be entertained—but maybe it’s that we need to write our greatest fears, write through them so they’re not stuck inside us.  If crime literature is based in the greatest fears of a society, than individual works must be based in the greatest fears of a writer.  Maybe the act of writing gives us some way to reconcile the senselessness we see in front of us and forging a way forward when the way is filled with smoke and blood.

But really, I don't know.  And I don't expect that feeling will go away anytime soon.  Fellow teachers and writers, how will you address Boston in your classes?  In your writing?

1 comment:

  1. I remember much of these feelings when I was a student at the UofM in the spring of 1970. It had been a school year filled with revolution, marches, sit-ins and a moratorium protesting the Viet Nam war. But that spring day, when the campus police shot protestors at Kent State was terrifying. It was the first time I was forced out of my safety zone of home and college and it was very uncomfortable. Many classroom discussions were held, especially in my English class, since the instructor's brother was a witness at the Kent State protest. It was a valuable release for all of us to be able to discuss those events, so Karen, I am glad to hear you are offering your students this opportunity to vent in an acceptable manner.