In a bit of wisdom so widespread that it has turned to aphorism, Anton Chekhov tells us that, “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” Creative Writing 101, but still it sounds like sage advice, considering that authors, playwrights and directors have subverted or heeded this mandate for years. And what do you get when the pistol smoke clears?
The object and its owner: “Chekhov’s Gun.”
Where the writing of fiction is concerned, this term could refer to an actual gun, such as that which Tub wields against co-sportsman Kenny in Tobias Wolff’s story “Hunters in the Snow.” Or the rifle owned by Lester Ballard, “a misplaced and loveless simian shape” who scuttles through the back-country of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. Or this “pistol”-in-the-saying could be figurative, merely. It could refer to anything. Say, the radio-squawk of the murderous Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” or the monogrammed lighter in Strangers on a Train—not Highsmith’s book, but Hitchcock’s movie—that kicks around the mis-en-scene before becoming central to the struggle at the end. It’s foreshadowing in HD, you might say—dramatic continuity, writ strenuous and large.
That the term, which contains the word “gun” in its phrasing, should be a term at all is telling. It illuminates for us, in case we’d forgotten, what striving constructions are novels and stories—they have starting points, characters, happenstance, plot. Most unbelievably of all, they have endings. And though very few writers since Plato would say that good or effective writing must resemble real life, the artifice of fiction, as we experience it as readers, is frozen in an attitude of measuring up to the real and experienced world that surrounds us. Literally, we just can’t help it. That a gun in itself might give rise to some outcome would never truly wash in life, though that, of course, is not the point. Fiction is not fortune telling. Chekov’s Gun serves as an agent of tension, or to mark off continuity in certain standard plots: outside of its function, it doesn’t exist.
And yet it’s the guns and the gunmen of fiction that I want to examine in looking at life, and not to improve it, per se, but to get it.
To be sure that I understand.
Because if you live here in America, now, where the broad killing fields of the nation roll on, you might be as much at a loss as I am as to how to address the abhorrence of guns, as easily happened upon in the world as they are in even our most violent fictions.
Our own guns are not and will never be Chekhov’s.
But these guns are all over the stories we tell—the human conflagrations that we look to for self-knowledge—and in keeping with Chekhov’s gold standard of plotting go off in our faces again and again. And today, in the wake of the Sandy Hook horror, and before it Aurora, and before it Fort Hood, and before that Virginia Tech, that the gun in the first act will “fire in the last” has established itself at this point as foregone. Real life begins to look like fiction. This is enabled by gun laws, of course. And in spite of what happened with Antoinette Tuff, the secretary who recently prevented a school shooting in Atlanta, guns always seem to fire, these days. We don’t just keep them on our walls. We keep them in closets and safes, cupboard drawers. We carry them on or about us in public. We don’t need a climax to show us they’re there. The evidence is all around us.
I am looking for a truthfulness, I think, in the words. More than anything else, I am looking for reasons. And the victims of guns need a reason of course, far be it from me to presume to invent one. Because all throughout the coverage of recent mass shootings— which should include, too, a weekend in Chicago in June of 2012 where 46 people were wounded, 8 killed, or the Mother’s Day shooting in May in New Orleans, where 19 were wounded, 3 critically so—we have by and large focused on what we can do, the ways we can seek to improve as a culture, but we haven’t yet reflected enough, for my money. We are always intent to correct in the moment, which meaningful gun-laws would make strides towards doing, but until we have grown wise enough to institute them widely what more can we do, for the time, but reflect. We haven’t sufficiently looked to ourselves, to the ways we are good and the ways we are not. We have not looked to literature, a catalogue of ways to be and ways, as well, to represent—a mirror where we see ourselves more clearly than we do in life.
I see I am nigh pre-Platonic in this.
And yet I feel that it is due.
That being said, there are four major reasons why people use guns to do bloodshed in fiction, and un-coincidentally do bloodshed in life, which fiction, for better or worse, seeks to mirror:
War. Greed. Passion. Unknowable reasons.
Attendant upon these are stylistic traits as to how the gun-death is portrayed on the page—how the weapon is wielded; how the blood issues forth; how the bodies collapse; how the shooter and victim, together, react.
The reason is the mechanism; how the author shows the violence is the representation.
These two terms of reference cast light on each other. I will seek to look at both.
In a phenomenally depressing campfire monologue from Judge Holden, Cormac McCarthy’s Satanic philosopher-king from Blood Meridian, an epic of homicide and degeneracy set along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth-century, the Judge tells us: “It makes no difference what men think of war…War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.” The Judge’s disquisition on what is and “will be” to the brood of mercenaries that he marshals to his purpose—aka the Glanton Gang—is a pretty good summation of the spirit of the novel, some gnostic flourishes aside. War is not an act, but a state of mankind. “War,” says the Judge later on, “is God.” And humans enter into it—in fiction, at least—because they are ordered to, or have limited options, or for mercenary reasons, like McCarthy’s scalp-hunters, only to find themselves subsumed in the commonplace defilement of their fellow human beings. That the killing is often accomplished with guns should come as no surprise, of course. The startling thing is the utter extent to which guns become extensions of the living human body. The flesh and the steel in war-fiction conjoin with a seamlessness of purpose that recalls “body horror,” the singular species of movie gross-out for which we have director David Cronenberg to thank.
Take for example the following passage, once again from Blood Meridian, one of many in which Glanton, the resident psycho, orchestrates the murder of Apaches from his horse: “Glanton had drawn his pistol and he gestured with it to the men behind and one pulled up his horse and leaped to the ground and went flat on his belly and drew and cocked his own pistol and pulled down the loading lever and stuck it in the sand and holding the gun in both hands with his chin buried in the ground he sighted along the barrel.” McCarthy’s riptide of a prose-style aside, there is synthesis here between man and machine, especially given the equal importance afforded the actions of human and gun in the scheme of the onrushing sentence itself—“pulled up his horse and leaped to the ground” exists in a sort of reflexive equation with “drew and cocked his own pistol and pulled down the loading lever,” until, toward the ominous end of the sentence, McCarthy has need to remind us that the belly-dwelling soldier is “holding the gun in both hands,” as though we might manage the telling mistake that it had been part of his arm to begin with.
We see a similar congruency of soldier and weapon in Barry Hannah’s spastically acerbic short story “Dragged Fighting From His Tomb” from the collection Airships, in which an unnamed Confederate, marooned in a house, goes rogue against the Federals surrounding his position: “When I went out the front door with the two repeaters, firing and levering, through a dream of revenge—fire from my right hand and fire from my left—the cannoneers did not expect it. I knocked down five of them. Then I knelt and started shooting to kill. I let the maimed go by. But I saw the little team of blue screeching and trying to shoot me, and I killed four of them. Then they all ran off…There was nothing to shoot at.” Hannah’s soldier, like McCarthy’s, becomes one with his weapon, “firing and levering,” “shooting to kill,” “fire from [his] right hand and fire from [his] left” in a mechanization inherent to war. Hannah’s Secesh has gone comically blood-drunk. The killing progresses beyond mere survival, becoming something wholly else, as many acts of self-defense are so often more than the sum of their parts. The human life before him means no more to him, finally, than the ammo he’s rattling off to negate it. Recall that “little team of blue.” But the soldier’s “repeaters” go beyond mere extensions; they are ruinous instruments, snuffers, unmakers. The muzzles align, and the triggers get squeezed, and the threats are diminished in front of his face. There is a purposeful remoteness between the shooter and the victim that means to make the reader squirm, never mind that the soldier can’t see it himself. And so do we see that gun violence in war can ever only be as distant as it is profoundly intimate.
Turning back to Blood Meridian, which suggests, in its gun-play, a similar tension, early in the novel we have Glanton again, test-firing his Colt in a crowded courtyard. He shoots at a cat, some fowl, a goat, and finally a tower bell, whose “solemn tolling” lingers in the violence-haunted courtyard long “after the echoes of…gunfire had died…” The casual violence of the scene prefigures another that’s mostly the same, in another courtyard, in another small town, but this time Glanton executes a woman in rags for no other reason than that she is there. There is an absolutely heartbreaking split-second in this passage where she “[raises] her eyes” to Glanton’s knees, and where Glanton observes “neither courage nor heartsink” before he shoots her in the head: “The explosion filled all that sad little park. Some of the horses shied and stepped.” On the surface, like much of the novel’s bloodshed, Glanton’s murder of the woman in the town square is unknowable; it is not even, really, performed out of boredom, as you’ll find in the stories of Ian McEwan, but pointless in and of itself, void of gain or provocation. That is, until Glanton, his “pistol at halfcock,” “preparing to recharge the cylinder,” signals to one of the men in his party to “Get that receipt for us”—meaning, her scalp.
And thus do we see that the motive of war has transmuted itself, in a flash, into greed.
Not that war and greed are always mutually exclusive.
Gun-murder for greed, conspired over at length or defaulted to in the heat of the moment, has long been central after all to a major category of American fiction that bleeds happily into film called noir. And though killing for greed often seems calculated provided the tropes of the genre it sits in, in the fiction I’ve looked at, more often than not, it tends to happen suddenly—more suddenly still when you factor in guns—and leaves its victims twisted in undignified tableaus that gesture at the awkwardness of actual violence, the embarrassment of it for shooter and victim.
Take for instance Dashiell Hammett’s gangland novel Red Harvest (1929), in which the Continental Op, a cranky PI with gestures at a moral center, is enmeshed in a labor dispute gone bad that has seethes of vicious criminals and more vicious coppers leveraging for control of a city called Personville. In Hammett’s Continental Op, we have less of a gun-touting, cold-blooded killer than a savvy survivor who lets killings happen—in other words, he navigates the novel’s venal cosmos with an eye towards his enemies offing each other. And murder each other his enemies do, in myriad gun-crazy ways: “The bullet smacked blondy under the right eye, spun him around, and dropped him backwards into Dinah Brand’s arms”; or, “His voice was thickening. A little red puddle formed under the edge of his chair…Only the pressure of his arms, and his bent-forward position, were keeping him from falling apart”; or, “O’Marra put one foot high in the air, clawed at his throat, and fell solidly backward”—or, this time from Raymond Chandler in his entropic heist tale “Goldfish,” whose own Phillip Marlowe is just a holstered-pistol-away from the Continental Op in his vaguely principled willingness to let the people around him murder each other for profit: “Sunset dropped the Colt and put his chin down on his chest and tried to look at the ceiling. His long legs slid out in front of him and his heels made a rasping sound on the floor. He sat like that, limp, his chin on his chest, his eyes looking upward. Dead as a pickled walnut”; or, “The slug from the Colt knocked the girl forward as though a door had whipped in a high wind. A flurry of blue cloth, something thumped my chest—her head. I saw her face for a moment as she bounced back, a strange face that I had never seen before”; or, “Madder shot Sype twice. Sype plunged forward still grinning and hit the end of the table.”
In so many of these murders where the M.O. is profit, the violence is sudden, a knee-jerk reaction—you stood in my way, but you no longer do. The Continental Op and Phillip Marlowe, respectively, take in the slaughter along with the reader, and feel in due course its bizarre, queasy weight. When greed is the motive for gun-death in fiction, both of these authors appear to be showing, the violence itself is scattershot, if not poorly choreographed then poorly thought-out; it’s awkward and stunted, ignoble, perverse. The representation’s as blunt as the motive—I want what you have bad enough to erase you—and what emerges in the process is a nullity of outcome: a body slumped, devoid of life.
Take it from the Continental Op upon firing his gun in an unlighted room: “The flare of my gun showed me nothing. It never does, though it’s easy to think you’ve seen things. Not knowing what else to do, I fired again, and once more.”
But the vacuity of gun-sport to earn and earn more is ubiquitous not just within noir fiction. In John Williams’ anti-western Butcher’s Crossing, which it would be difficult to believe that Cormac McCarthy hadn’t read before writing Blood Meridian 25 years later, Harvard drop-out Will Andrews self-exiles to Kansas where he hopes to get closer to Emerson’s “Nature.” There he falls in with a group of tough hombres, the lot of whom he stumbles into bankrolling, naively, in a buffalo-hunt that goes quickly to seed. This isn’t because they can’t locate the herd, but rather because when they do they devolve, losing themselves to an “orgy of slaughter” that makes the weeks pass scary-fast.
Will Andrews perceives only “rhythm” at first as the rifleman, Miller, starts thinning the herd: “…Miller would fire his rifle; then quickly he would eject the still-smoking cartridge and reload; he would study the animal he had shot, and if he saw that it was cleanly hit, his eyes would search among the circling herd for a buffalo that seemed particularly restless; after a few seconds, the wounded animal would stagger and crash to the ground; and then he would shoot again.”
But as the days then weeks draw on, Andrews starts perceiving more than “rhythm” in Miller, not to mention in the dumb, insensate killing of the animals: “The original herd had been diminished by two-thirds or more. In a long irregular swath that extended beyond the herd for nearly a mile, the ground was littered with the dark mounds of dead buffalo…During the last hour of the stand [Andrews] came to see Miller as a mechanism, an automaton, moved by the moving herd; and he came to see Miller’s destruction of the buffalo, not as a lust for blood or a lust for the hides or a lust for what the hides would bring, or even at last the blind lust of fury that toiled darkly within him—he came to see the destruction as a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller had immersed himself…And he looked upon himself…and did not know who he was, or where he went.”
The buffalo roam and die in scores, becoming “dark mounds” that “[litter]” the “valley,” but the creatures irretrievably transfigured by the killing are the ones with the rifles for thinning the herd and the knives for undressing the hides from the meat. (For gun violence seen through the animal’s eyes, see Patricia Highsmith’s tragedy “Chorus Girl’s Absolutely Final Performance.”) Like modern-day teens unable to sleep for the ceaseless afterimages of bloody execution that litter the landscape of first-person shooters, the hunters become both the scourge of the herd and prisoners of the impulse to eradicate it utterly. “The destruction of the buffalo” for monetary gain is subsumed in the act of the killing itself, “a cold, mindless response to the life in which Miller”—and by extension the reader—“has immersed himself.” The credit reformulates into a debit. What might be called passion, or hunger at least, turns out to be dead in the place where it lives.
And gun violence rendered for reasons of passion—revenge, spurning, jealousy, hatred, etc.—is far and away the most happened upon in all of the gun-crowded texts I examined.
Of these representations, two approaches prevailed: the forensic and much less widespread, the absurd.
In Annie Proulx’s short story “A Lonely Coast” from her arrestingly languaged-up collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories (1999), the prose takes a laconic turn at the end when Josanna, the closest thing the story has to a protagonist, takes advantage of the chaos of a roadside conflagration to shoot her philandering boyfriend Elk, and soon after herself with a high-powered rifle. The violence itself is barely shown; only the build-up occurs in real time. What we get of the killing is blandly recounted, from a point of reference distant to the players and their struggles. And the reader comes to see that for a so-called “crime of passion”—the murder of a faithless lover—the representation is chillingly sober: “The cops said later that Ornelas was the catalyst because when he got out of his truck he was aiming a rifle in the general direction of Elk and the pickup driver, Fount Slinkard, and the first shot put a hole in Slinkard’s rear window. Slinkard screamed at his passenger to get him the .22 in his rack but she was crouching by the front tire with her hands clasping her head. Barry shouted, watch out cowboy, ran across the highway. There was no traffic. Slinkard or Slinkard’s passenger had the .22 but dropped it…Someone picked up Slinkard’s .22. Barry was drunk and in the ditch on the other side of the road and couldn’t see a thing but said he counted at least seven shots. One of the women was screaming. Someone pounded on a horn…By the time the cops came Ornelas was shot through the throat and though he did not die he wasn’t much good for yodeling. Elk was already dead. Josanna was dead, the Blackhawk on the ground beneath her.”
Proulx’s representation of gun violence finds good company in the story “Shitty Sheila” from Patrick Michael Finn’s resplendently gritty story collection From the Darkness Right Under Our Feet (2011). Try not to flinch from the moment when lovelorn strip-club patron Roger comes to visit Treasure, a stripper, at the end of her shift, his face “wet and red,” while he “[gasps] between tears”: “Roger pulled out a heavy black handgun and shot Treasure in the face. The lot was well-lit and Sheila saw Treasure’s mouth crack open and her cheek tear off in a bloody flap. He shot her four more times as she dropped and her face folded in on itself and her scalp ripped away raw. Then Roger stuck the gun in his mouth and blew his own head off as well.”
Though Finn’s is more graphically violent than Proulx’s, both representations contain words and phrases that buttress the impression of reportage, second-hand-ness, the cold geometrics of death at arm’s length. From “A Lonely Coast”: “The cops said later that Ornelas was the catalyst…”; “There was no traffic”; and “[Barry] counted at least seven shots”; “Someone pounded on a horn.” From “Shitty Sheila”: “The lot was well-lit…”; and: “Then Roger stuck the gun in his mouth and blew his own head off as well.”
The passion is strikingly passionless here. It’s as though Proulx and Finn mean to demonstrate to us in showing the violence as they do that the passion vindicated in a murder with a gun will never outlive the hot moment it lurks in. Both deaths are murder-suicides where neither the victim nor shooter survives; they’re double-barreled sound and fury, absorbing themselves like an unhealthy star. They are fast and yet slow in the way they occur. They are brutal and sudden, yet cold and aloof; the forensics of murder, as seen from above. While the murder itself may be sudden and hot—as hot as the rage or the grief or the shame that the murderer feels at the moment of action—the murder’s fated aftermath, condensing around it like coroner’s ice, is droning, inexorable, vast and cold.
Life, marked forever by violence, goes on.
But murder need not be so grave.
Not so craven a crime as a gun-murder, surely!
On the opposite end of the passion-fueled spectrum flounder vainly the doings of harlequin gunmen, none of them so stunted or grotesque in motivation as Nabokov’s aesthete, Humbert Humbert, from Lolita (1955). When Humbert sets upon a quest to avenge Lolita’s honor by killing Clare Quilty, he is not only drunk but armamentally incompetent, having given his gun “such a thorough oil bath” as to render it “black and awfully messy” (he confesses he’s bought the “wrong product” to clean it). “…[B]andaged…up with a rag, like a maimed limb,” the ensign of his impotence, yet also his tumescence as he creeps, burglar-like, through Clare Quilty’s house, the gun steadies Humbert, “an unsteady gunman,” and earns the puerile name of “Chum”—a sly referent, as the author is wont, to the way that some men bequeath names on their members. The first time that Humbert encounters his foe, he exits a bathroom off the hall, “leaving a brief waterfall behind him,” and the first time he shoots him, the gun going off makes a “ridiculously feeble and juvenile sound,” like a teenage boy’s climax. He wounds the “pink rug.” As Quilty endeavors to reason with Humbert in a ramping succession of crazed monologues that given Quilty’s status as a world-renowned playwright put the reader in mind of “Chekhov’s Gun”—“ ‘I’m the author of fifty-two successful scenarios. I know all the ropes. Let me handle this,’” he pleads—Humbert Humbert never wavers. When the murder itself ensues at last, a succession of absurdities commence in short order: Humbert shoots the rocking chair, which sets the object “rocking in a panic…by itself”; “Clare the Unpredictable [sits] down [at] the piano and [plays] several atrociously vigorous, fundamentally hysterical, plangent chords” before Humbert wounds him “somewhere in the side”; on the stairs, Humbert shoots at him “three or four times,” “wounding him at every blaze,” whereupon his face “[twitches] in an absurd clownish manner,” while continuing to bargain in a “phoney British accent”; when finally and brutally, in Quilty’s master bedroom, Humbert shoots off Quilty’s ear, and shoots him again “at… close range through the blankets.”
“…and then he lay back,” Humbert tells us, “and a big pink bubble with juvenile connotations formed on his lips, grew to the size of a toy balloon, and vanished.”
Like the slumping, clutching awkwardness in Hammett and Chandler, the indignity of the violence is plain. Yet point of view is key here, too, for Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert is a first-person shooter, which cannot but heighten the comic shortfall between his intention and what then occurs. Humbert’s killing is a pot-shot at thwarted male power that plays as a perversion of the chivalric ideal. The details aren’t forensic, they are woefully cartoonish; the representation pokes fun at the act. The mechanism of this act—which formerly I called the reason—Nabokov shows as futile, finally. Lolita, its object, is already lost.
But gunmen don’t always need reasons to fire, no more than gun-murders need serve out some function—say, the ratcheting of character, tension or plot; the deepening of greater themes. Sometimes people, inscrutably, do what they do, and no two different ways about it. In The Limeworks by Thomas Bernhard, mad scientist Konrad becomes an object of morbid speculation to a number of men who knew him well-ish (they narrate the tale at a distance, by turns) when he shoots his wife twice “in the back of the head,” “putting an end to their marital hell.” When Konrad does this, with a Mannlicher carbine, in the empty lime-works where the two of them live, he ends what has been a lifetime of not writing his “masterwork” The Sense of Hearing, for which he’d been conducting “auditory experiments” on his longsuffering wife. Toward the end of the book there’s the following passage in which a number of the characters, secondary and central, circle Konrad’s reasons like piranhas might a carcass, yet coming no nearer the flesh of them, finally, than Konrad ever comes himself: “To think that for twenty years I have believed in that delusion of yours! [Konrad’s wife] is supposed to have said more than once on the very eve of the bloody deed, as they refer to it at Laska’s. It could have been the word delusion alone, Fro thinks, that brought Konrad to the point of pulling that trigger. But at Lanner’s there are some who maintain, quite to the contrary, that on the eve of the murder Konrad treated his wife more tenderly than he had in ages. At The Inglenook they say that Konrad had been planning the murder for a long time, while at the Stiegler they call it a sudden, unpremeditated, so-called impulse killing, but what if it is a case of common, premeditated murder, an opinion also represented at the Lanner, or, as they say at The Inglenook, the act of a madman, while at Laska’s there’s some speculation that Konrad had no intention at all of shooting his wife, that he had merely tried to clean the gun, which had not been cleaned for a long time, nor had it been fired for a long time, most probably…and the carbine went off while he was cleaning the barrel…”
And on and on The Limeworks churns—as do nearly all of the Austrian’s novels—coming no closer to knowing the reason or even the details of Konrad’s wife’s murder than Konrad comes to finishing or starting his book. The gun-killing here is unknowable, empty. It doubles down, symbolically, on why it was committed. And the text of The Limeworks itself affirms this, spiraling inward with utter control.
There are similar sorts of pregnant voids in other key works that abound with gun violence, where the reason is far less important, at last, than the presence of violence at large in the world.
While in “The Intricacies of Post-Etiquette Shooting” by Brian Evenson from his collection The Wavering Knife (2004), the gun-death sets the story in uncanny motion when Kohke, the lover of someone named Bein, “[aligns] a pistol barrel with Bein’s skull and [works] the trigger.” Evenson goes on to tell us that “[Kohke] had reasons for wanting Bein dead, but watching his lover shake about the floor, smearing blood on the linoleum, he could not bring those reasons to mind.” Suffice to say, these “reasons” of Kohke’s stay hidden, and in the end they’re not the point; rather we watch “the relationship” crumble—Bein doesn’t die, at least at first—as though shooting someone in the back of the head weren’t cause in itself for a breakup of sorts. But “etiquette’s” anathema to murder, of course—unless, that is, you’re Humbert Humbert. The tale, like its title, is all contradiction. And Kohke proceeds to gaslight Bein, and to try to re-kill him again and again, until the story comes full-circle, swallowing its own grim tail.
Still again in The Stranger by Albert Camus—another foreign offering, this time from France—affectless rake Monsieur Meursault shoots an “Arab” to death on a beach in high summer because the sun gets in his eyes. Meursault, arrested for the crime, is held in jail and tried for murder, in the process of which he comes not a jot closer to understanding why he did it or does anything, really—from crushing a cockroach to tying his tie—and the novel winds down in a shoegazing fugue of him dozing and dreaming, awaiting his sentence. And as well it might be, Meursault’s sentence is death. “I had lived my life one way,” he says, “and I could just as well have lived it another.” At the end of the novel, which happens to coincide with an argument with the prison chaplain concerning the existence of a merciful God, “[Meursault opens himself] to the gentle indifference of the world,” and “[wishes] only that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of [his] execution and that they greet [him] with cries of hate.”
But here interpretation splits; these killings by firearm are vague and divisive. Much like Konrad in The Limeworks does away with his wife, perhaps to be rid of her constant castration; or rather, instead, to appease his own madness; or to leaven a lifetime of mental stagnation in the process of never beginning his book; or perhaps still again for no reason at all except the accidental discharge of the carbine as he cleaned it, the motives of Konrad, of shooters, confound. Their reasons hang there, crystallized, like droplets of innocent blood in midair—and hang there and hang there, unrealized, unknown, in the ongoing act of their proliferation. Kohke shoots Bein out of sadism, boredom, the dwindling of love between them. While Monsieur Meursault kills the Arab man, finally, because the sun is in his eyes; or because he is hot, slightly drunk, with a headache; or because, like a “dazzling spear” in the distance, the Arab wields a pocketknife; or because, in the end, it can make little difference if he turns away now, or advances and fires.
More even than the absence of a concrete mechanism, what makes these unknowable gun-deaths important is how they’re represented by the author on the page—rote and expected, a matter of course. Understandably, then, they serve less of a function in the course of the narrative’s progress itself than gun-deaths proceeding from war, greed or passion— they are not the culmination of a nail-biting plot, and they don’t seem to want to elicit emotion, nor are they commenting, politically, upon the act. They don’t create meaning so much as eschew it. In some ways they seem like a meta-acknowledgement of the unlikelihood of gun-death in most fiction—these deaths don’t serve as theater props; they are, simply, a fact of life. They are banal, and in that sense we struggle with them all the more.
On July 20th in 2012 James Eagan Holmes killed 12 people and injured 70 in a packed movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. The theater was playing The Dark Knight Rises, itself a fictional narrative with literary airs that seeks to grapple with humanity’s singular talent for bloodshed, much of it—in the first half-hour of the movie, at least—perpetrated by guns. Pierce O’Farrill, one of many survivors of the shooting (70 of whom were injured), recalls a tear gas canister arcing across the screen with the silhouette of the gunman close behind it, the piercing green laser from one of his scopes shining among the banks of seats.
On December 14th in 2012, just short of four months since the shooting in Aurora, Adam Lanza killed 26 people and injured 2 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Though the timeline of the massacre is sketchy at points, it is believed that Lanza shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School through the entrance doors; he wore neither a bulletproof vest, nor other tactical gear like his Aurora-counterpart Eagan Holmes, though he did carry with him a Bushmaster rifle, two handguns and a shotgun, a lot of dead weight for so skinny a frame. He walked through the rooms, with his Prince Valiant haircut, killing first-grade girls and boys.
While on April 16th in 2007 Seung-Hoi Cho killed 32 people and wounded 17 on Virginia Tech’s campus. No secondhand description can testify to the irreconcilable terror of that day like Derek O’Dell’s, one of another handful of survivors who saw the shooting at close range. After Cho poked his head into O’Dell’s classroom several times, like a laggard new add on the first day of class, O’Dell speaks of him barging in and of “bullets ricocheting off desks and off the wall as [Cho] slowly went around the room killing people. He walked down the aisles, putting the gun to people’s heads and shooting them at point-blank range to make sure they were dead.”
And though much lip service was paid among media pundits to various potential motives in the shootings—in Eagan Holmes’ case, dysphoric mania and an affinity for comic-book-villains; in Lanza’s, Asperger’s syndrome and a penchant for first-person shooter video games; in Cho’s case, selective mutism coupled with isolation and homicidal ideation—the reasons of the shooters are unknowable, finally. Take it from Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was among the Sandy Hook slain: “Why is the big unanswered question,” she said. “So I have to come to grips with the fact that I might never know why [Lanza] did what he did.”
So what’s to be gleaned from these echoes of truth between gun-death in fiction and gun-death in life?
On the surface, it serves to remind us of this: it’s our nature, our selves, that’s unknowable, finally. “… tis a rugged road, more so than it seems, to follow a pace so rambling and uncertain, as that of the soul,” says Virginia Woolf. “… to penetrate the dark profundities of its intricate internal windings.” It’s hard enough to one’s self, let alone to know another, and the sum obfuscation these very facts doesn’t look kindly on cut-and-dried answers. Cho, Holmes, and Lanza, the shooters before them, and even the shooters in between, and sadly, the shooters that will come, as shooters always seem to do, convey the impression of ambulant voids that appeared at some time, in some place, with some gun, sucked up lives in the dozens, and vanished again no sooner had we recognized them—and yet we must remember still that they are human beings, too. They are nothing if not human beings, worst of all. And humanity’s spectrum is broad—scary-broad. Far too broad, in the hour of our “[darkest] impulse,” as Annie Proulx calls it, to yield up one reason, and so we must be fine for now with ceasing to meddle with what we cannot.
Once again here is basis for stricter gun-laws, forever on the verge of being drafted into being, but never quite making it there, due to gun-lobby muscle, loopholes in the law, a skepticism towards the Fed on the part of gun-owners and gun-friendly folk that comes from the same strain of civic discomfort, it should be admitted, as many great novels. Whatever the case, though, gun-laws aren’t forthcoming, while the labyrinthine darkness in us rambles on.
As of April 18th, 2013, the U.S. Senate rejected a modest gun-control package that sought “to expand background checks on firearm sales as well as a proposal to ban some semi-automatic weapons modeled after military assault weapons.” The package just lacked a majority vote—54 to 46—even though 92% of Americans, Republican and Democrat alike, were in favor. When it came to the Senate majority vote it was, predictably, Republicans, with four pro-gun Democrats, who stymied the gun-control measure from passing. On the opposite end, four Republicans joined, in spite of the 46 others dissenting.
Harry Reid, the leader of the gun-rights group Gun Owners of America, had the following to say about the rash of recent shootings in Aurora, Newtown and, by proxy, still more: “You’re assuming that the weapon makes the problem. I’m assuming that the human heart makes the problem, whether it’s for good or for evil, and evil exists, and some people are unable to control evil. And they do evil things.”
How right and yet how wrong he is.
Peering deeper, however, past the need for reform and the uncertainty of the natures that guide us, unknowable acts of gun violence in fiction acknowledge the cracks beneath everyday lives. In this sense, I feel they contain the most truth of any gun violence depicted in fiction; they don’t mean to advance but to deepen the plot; they don’t seek to instruct but instead to explore; they are not utilitarian so much as philosophical.
Why do we do what we do? Heaven knows.
Why do we do it with guns? It’s convenient.
Which is, in some sense, problematic. If we turn to unknowable violence in fiction to quantify similar violence in life, we run risk of pushing that violence beyond us—to some far, nigh-Lovecraftian region of being—and end up ignoring a bevvy of factors that play into a culture where these actions are the norm. In New Orleans, for instance, gang warfare, unemployment, intense stratification of wealth, a gun market. Or still, in the case of Seung-Hui Cho or Eagan Holmes or Adam Lanza—all young men between the ages of 20 and 25 who suffered one kind of disorder or other— we might turn a blind eye to the broken health system, the way boys are raised, the way firearms are sold. And then there are the concerns of cultural philosophers like Susan Sontag and Elaine Scarry, who suspect that artistic representations of violence and human suffering, especially effective ones, “…will divert our attention,” in Scarry’s words, “away from the living sister or uncle who can be helped by our compassion in a way that the fictional character cannot be.”
Applied to gun violence, this could mean that if we focus inordinately on the motives of fictional shooters and the suffering of fictional victims, we might, then, distance ourselves from real shooters, real victims, real violence, real guns. But the most problematic entailment, I think, of looking to this kind of violence in fiction is that time and again it conveys its own meaning, whether it seeks to or whether it doesn’t. No reason, it turns out, is reason enough. These narratives tend not toward order but chaos; not causality but randomness. They seek to say, in essence, here: this is the world that we happen to live in.
Yet in spite of the problems these narratives pose, they are still the most truthful of all four attempts; they offer up answers not pat, but prodigious, which more closely mirrors gun violence in life. They recapitulate us, ceaselessly, into mystery, the hallmark trait of modern fiction and by extension modern life. To this end, then, depicted gun violence for which there is known reason seems the greater dismissal of our capacity to understand lived-through violence because it pre-supposes closure—oftenest in the form of a narrative trope. If we determine, for example, that a character kills with the “gun on the wall” out of passion or greed, then the interrogation is dead where it lives. We’ve done our work, and done it well.
Unknowable acts of gun violence, however, are forever enigmatic, impossible to pigeonhole. They have no function, on the surface, beyond the broad fact of their irresoluteness. No matter which way we examine their content, no matter how often and how arduously, they appear different to us; they spawn different stories, like arabesque tapestries—fecund, grotesque. They re-propagate and repeat themselves outward in much the same way that real acts of gun violence appear to repeat ad infinitum lately, the most recent of which is the Howard County mall shooting this January, wherein Darion Marcus Aguilar, a manager at Dunkin’ Donuts, killed two Zumiez employees with a shotgun before turning the weapon on himself.
Which brings us back to real gun violence, and what function, perhaps, it serves.
And it serves, to my thinking, no function but terror—terror as in terrorism, but also as in abject dread, in which the terror draws its force from an involuntary yielding to what’s ineffable in life.
In Franz Kafka’s short story, “The Burrow,” an unspecified subterranean creature recounts for the reader in unstinting detail the construction, fortification and gradual dissolution of his home beneath the ground. Kafka’s signature paranoia aside, the true terror in the story emerges from its terrorizing insistence on leading the reader nowhere in particular—into any kind of revelation or epiphany on behalf of the burrowing creature itself, not to mention the spiraling, anchorless plot. Even in the story’s opening lines, in which the creature describes its burrow from the outside looking in, there is a sense of dreadfulness in the face of the ineffable: “All that can be seen from outside is a big hole; that, however, really leads nowhere…” The story is as choked with subterranean “passages” that double-back on themselves and repeat as it is with unanswered questions on the part of the creature, who gradually begins to notice “a faint whistling, audible only at long intervals” emanating from somewhere deep within the burrow itself; the creature digs in search of it, determined at last to uncover “the truth” of what the whistling really is. “That truth,” the creature tells us, “will bring me either peace or despair, but whether one or the other, it will be beyond doubt or question.” Needless to say, this “truth” no more emerges by the end of the story than the creature comes either to “peace or despair.” The creature is a prisoner of its own search for meaning—of the ceaseless compulsion to seek meaning out. The terror comes not from the purposeless search but rather the endless act of searching; the reflexive, human impulse to find meaning and truth where perhaps, in the end, there was none to begin with.
The same could be said of gun violence in life, which produces a similar species of terror. We encounter this terror in lived-through gun violence on what are two successive levels: first, in the act of the violence itself—what I’ve referred to as the representation—and second how we, in the wake of that violence, go about the process of deciding why it happened—what I have called the mechanism. We are all of us not unlike Kafka’s strange creature, burrowing through the strata of potential reasons and motivations and solutions in order to better fortify our own little patches of reality against future dangerous intruders—Adam Lanza’s, Seung-Hui Choi’s—or against the kind of casual negation and attendant meaninglessness that gun violence entails. More often than not, though, we happen on nothing; our burrows, like Kafka’s, “[remain] unchanged.”
Even so, there is something affirming in this—if not the object of the search, then certainly the search itself, which proves revealing at the least, antidotal at most, when it comes to real violence. Namely, that if we are compelled into puzzling out time and again the reasons others kill with guns at the prolific rate that they’ve lately been killing—if we are still searching, in any capacity, even if we come on nothing—it means we are not yet resigned. It means we have not yet relegated the atrocity of large-scale gun violence to some neatly compartmentalized space or category where it rests peacefully, but where we are unable to interrogate it further with an eye toward understanding what it says about us as a culture, if not actively seeking a way to curtail it. (Gun control measures alone can do that.) This is what unknowable gun violence in fiction manages deftly, obliquely, to teach us—that we are not yet numb, still searching, even if we’re prisoners of the impulse to search. How we’re prisoners, each one, to our own best intentions: a commendable prison to be in at last.