By Tom Ford
Last night, I was up until the early hours trying to finish a novel by Philip Roth. Having found the pleasingly thin 1973 hardback tucked away into a dusty bookshelf, I decided it would make a quick bedtime read, and promptly set about thumbing through what I expected to be your run-of-the-mill piece of fiction. It was not. It was not, because twelve pages into the deceptively slender novel, the protagonist, David Kepish, experiences an irreversible metamorphosis that leaves him a disembodied, 155-pound mammary gland. Now, admittedly the book was called ‘The Breast’, but I was hardly expecting this to happen. Perhaps I had misread something, but the words, ‘I am a Breast’ were very clearly printed at the start of the second chapter. An hour passed – I was hooked, but was not enjoying the book. In fact all I wanted, was a rational explanation from the author for this utterly unnatural, not to mention improbable event. Indeed, I was not about to go to sleep with this on my mind. I would have settled for anything from temporary insanity to large doses of mescaline, yet though such ideas were entertained, they remained very much unconfirmed. By the time I finished two hours later, I realised much to my annoyance that the only answer I was going to get had already appeared 56 pages earlier – on page twelve – the very page the event had occurred. Must I really settle for “a massive hormonal influx” as means to explain the 38 year-old professor’s transformation? Unfortunately, yes. However, it was not until the next day that I was conscious of the trick Roth, the author, had played on me. He had known, full well, that I would not accept such a banal explanation for such an unnatural turn of events and banked on the fact that I would continue reading in a futile bid to make sense of it all. He was right.
Aside from the loss of sleep, the experience was innocuous, but the parallels that can be drawn between this work of fiction and the horrific events of July 20th are less so. At the time of writing, the news is dominated by stories covering the hideous two-day aftermath left by yet another gun-toting psychopath who is almost certainly responsible for the mass murder of innocent cinemagoers in Colorado. What is striking about the event, and those like it, are their ability to go beyond their locale and become massive international news. This point is easily confirmed through a quick search of the 60 plus countries Google tracks news for, with over two thirds trending stories related to the shootings as their lead article. In other words, millions of people in places as far away as Chile and Taiwan were waking up to hear even more about these horrendous acts.
If you step back a moment and consider this phenomenon, it makes very little sense. With the perpetrator identified and arrested and the threat of further attacks neutralised, why continue the broadcasts? Surely we should now let justice do its work and leave the families to mourn their loss. I am not about to pour moral scorn on the media for doing otherwise, but I am seeking an explanation for the continued coverage: the hour upon hour of interviews, the endless discussions, the meticulous coverage of the trail, and above all, the immense about of time devoted to analysing the killer.
Of course, factors to explain this phenomenon abound, yet thinking back to late last night, the overarching explanation for the continued coverage may lie in a desire to rationalise the unnatural. Take for example, the heavily publicised trial of the gunman in Norway. From the moment he committed the abhorrent and unnatural act, it should have been readily apparent that the man was insane, perhaps not judicially speaking, but certainly in the normative, day-to-day use of the word. Nevertheless, precisely because the event was so unnatural, an explanation for what happened – one that approximates our social normality – was demanded. After all, the word ‘insanity’ seems too inadequate for such a carefully calculated act of violence. Therefore, the presumption remains that there is more to it: for example a rationale akin to our own – one that is comprehensible and accounts for the impact of the event.
Invariably, this means the killer’s justifications are entertained. Before long, the news is reporting that the murderer believes he is a twelfth century Norwegian Templar knight, dedicated to freeing Europe of type A, B and C Islamo-Marxist traitors. Never mind the fact that he sounds like a lunatic, the media continued to report it, and will likely do so again, because the desire for an explanation persists. With regards to the aforementioned case, I think it was particularly telling that a number of journalists commented on the murderer’s persistent use of nonsensical neologisms and tedious, uncharismatic demeanour… as if more expected was expected from a madman. Meanwhile, if every other mass shooting is anything to go by, only at the end of a long televised trial, or investigation, is the public finally informed that the perpetrator is a mentally ill individual, who is probably insufficiently repentant, and that their motives makes no sense. In short, what we knew at the start yet could not quite digest.
However, perhaps this is all beside the point. After all, if the compulsion to follow these trials through to the end exists, what harm is there in indulging it. To respond this, I think it is worth considering, one final time, that annoying novel I had the misfortune of coming across late last night. In particular, the author’s clever (maybe cheap) use of peripeteia was calculated to compel the average reader to finish the otherwise mediocre book. Succinctly put, he intentionally engendered the desire for an adequate, rational explanation for an inexplicable event. With this in mind, there is no reason to doubt that a mass murder is any less capable of exploiting this all too human of compulsions. After all, being insane is not the same as being dumb. Therefore, even if the killer does not make such a link, the capacity to inadvertently exploit it persists. Moreover, their success in doing so is unmatched, because in no other circumstance would a Nobody be elevated to the status of global celebrity through a single, senseless act of butchery. The Columbine killers gloated over the candle lit vigils that would follow, the Norwegian gunman ranted about his intention of winning fame, and I am willing to bet that what happened in Colorado will be no different. In other words, their power does not end with the violence, instead it merely marks it beginning; the point at which we, the audience, are unwittingly drawn into their story.
From here, I am unsure where to go. President Obama’s refusal to name the murderer shows that the US administration is conscious that this was one of the killer’s goals. However, the act seems impotent when the murderer’s actions single handily ground national campaigning to a halt. Meanwhile, were the government to go further and curb reporting, I suspect conspiracy theories would emerge. Take the assassination of President Kennedy. To this day, people seek outlandish explanations. Why? Because it is hard accept that one deluded man can change the World with a few, well-placed shots. There must be more, yet there quite clearly is not. So, maybe the story has to be told. Either way, by the end, it is certain that the tale’s finale – a mentally ill man with access to guns – will be no more fascinating than the banal misadventures of an immovable, bodiless, 155-pound breast. A story, I for one, have no intention to reread.