Thrillers in the Age of Mass Shootings by Gina Wohlsdorf, author of Security
The title of this essay was supposed to be “Sex, Death, and Laughter: Finding the Funny in Grand Guignol.” But the day after I started writing it, a man walked into a club in Orlando and killed dozens of people. I hit a lead wall on this post. For a while, I hit a lead wall on the idea of continuing to tour with a novel about a big man with a knife slicing his way through a luxury resort, leaving rivers of blood in his wake, evoking not only fear from the reader but frequent hilarity as well.
So I did what I always do. I turned around, faced what was chasing me, and now I’m going to tell you the size and shape and sound and smell of it, so it stops being the thing I’m running from and starts being the thing I can learn from.
Because I don’t believe good thrillers are how-to’s for murder.
I believe good thrillers are how-to’s for survival.
I taught a class on survival once, though we weren’t climbing mountains or starting fires with rocks. I’d just graduated from my MFA program and was doing an optional third year of teaching Freshman Composition. We were entirely responsible for designing the course, and I chose to call my class Survivor Types. Any hardcore Stephen King fan knows that’s a reference to an obscure short story from Night Shift. It tells the tale of a drug smuggler marooned on a tiny desert island. This character is a really rotten guy — demonstrably racist and misogynist — and he begins a campaign of amputating his own limbs and eating them in order to endure until help arrives. The devolving narration strongly suggests he’s lost his mind by the end.
I had my students read this story, but I assigned a few other pieces first: David Foster Wallace’s This Is Water, an excerpt of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and selections from Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. After “Survivor Type,” I had them write a persuasive essay using one of the three philosophers’ lenses to form an opinion about the narrator in King’s story.
This Is Water is a commencement address in which Wallace argues vehemently that, despite the petty challenges of everyday living, love makes living worth it.
Man’s Search for Meaning is a treatise in which a psychologist who was a prisoner at Auschwitz argues that despite the monstrous hatred tearing his world apart, living is worth it.
Meditations is an emperor’s constant interrogation of the maxim that curiosity makes living worth it.
You can see I was teaching with a certain bias.
The narrator in King’s story loves no one and is conspicuously incurious. He is an instrument of monstrous hate. This makes his struggle for survival meaningless. It gives his grim ending a ring of justice rather than anything approaching tragedy.
We read The Hunger Games, and I opined that what makes Katniss heroic isn’t her ability to wield a bow, but her willingness to die so her sister can live. What makes Peeta heroic isn’t his endurance of suffering, but his conviction that his suffering has a purpose, because the girl he loves must live. A very practical student of mine wrote an essay about how Peeta was crazy to sacrifice himself for Katniss, whom he only knew from afar. I had to admit she was right, but I have to believe she is wrong — in 2006, a parachuting instructor gave his life for a girl he’d met that morning, taking the brunt of the impact when their plane went down.
We read Battle Royale, and I asked: If a group of people is instructed to kill one another under threat of execution, how many people does it take to make the carnage happen?
The answer, of course, is one.
But it isn’t the violence that makes Battle Royale a great read. It’s the fact that, with a handful of sociopathic exceptions, the kids don’t participate. A few kill in self-defense, but most only hide, hoping the madness will end. Shinji Mimura tries to turn the game around on the programmers, and Hiroki Sugimura goes searching for the girl he’s got a crush on, whom he’s hardly spoken to, because he feels he has to protect her.
Then there’s Shogo Kawada, who bumps into his class’s star-crossed lovers and uses his considerable skills to save them. I asked my students when we’d finished the book: How many people does it take to make empathy a reality in an impossibly evil situation?
The answer, again, is one.
The vast majority of people, when confronted with hell on a boring Tuesday, will try to live because they believe that living is worth it. And almost every time an angry loser who’s played too many video games takes his rage out on a roomful of innocents, there’s been someone who’s given his or her life because they decided others are worth it.
At Columbine High, a teacher shepherding students to safety.
At V-Tech, a professor blocking his door while his pupils escaped out the window.
In the Aurora theater, three different young men using their bodies as shields for their girlfriends.
It’s frustrating that we’ve formed a procedure for dealing with these events. The New York Times and People Magazine devote their front pages. Talk show hosts are sad in their opening monologues. Politicians shout about gun control for a week.
Then we move on. And the interval is shrinking. Columbine was in the news for months, but that was ’99. Now it’s water cooler talk for a few days, people on coffee break saying the right things about feeling upset and unsafe. For the American public by and large, the grief lasts a few days. Until it happens to someone you know, and then it’s forever.
We’re desensitized. Maybe we have to be. America has so many of these now that only the most egregious get air time, and I can’t help but think that the routinized media response is part of the increased frequency.
These shooters are always nobodies. Swaggering dudes who go to dead-end jobs, come home, and ride roughshod over their wives or girlfriends. Men who feel powerless, who want power, who want notoriety and fame, even if it’s inarguable infamy.
Holding life and death in your hands is an enormous power. But to any person who remains objectively human, it is also an enormous responsibility.
And so, the thriller: the genre I love, the genre I assert any decent book is, because any decent book must, in some way, thrill. We learn early as writers that a story without conflict is dead on the page, and what more visceral conflict is there than a mortal threat? There are novels I’ve read where I’ve felt uncomfortable afterward, where I sensed the author was dreaming up new and vicious m.o.’s merely to titillate.
Was mine such a book?
I probed Security with a great deal of fear. But what kept intruding on my self-castigation was a string of rebellious and insistent counterpoints: the head of security’s fondness for Vivica, his hopes she won’t be hurt, his recital of her characteristics, her humanity, before she’s killed. The head of security’s lack of fondness for Franklin and his inner tumult at that attack, his anxious exploration of whether he’s a horrible man for not reacting with purer emotion. Henri’s touching conversation with his daughter, Delores’s noble fight to escape. Justin’s last act of grabbing the Killer’s ankle to defend his wife and Jules’s last act of screaming to warn Tessa. Tessa and Brian, whose concerns for themselves are outweighed, time and again, by their prioritization of each other. And the narrator, naturally. Gallant to the last.
Whereas the Killer is faceless, wordless, devoid of identity. He is Nothing with a knife.