Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
Two Books, Two Very Different Approaches to Writing About Mass Shootings
In 2015, a man withdrew a Kalashnikov from a beach umbrella in Tunisia and killed 38 people, mostly British nationals. For Colette Fellous, a French writer raised in Tunisia, the shooting follows so quickly on the heels of the sudden death of her friend Alain that she feels she must move permanently back to France. This dual sorrow, which opens This Tilting World, hits her very hard. In part, she aches and acts because she lives in Tunisia, not in America, where mass shootings occur a few times a week.
Bloomland, John Englehardt’s extraordinary debut novel, makes an American mass shooting an axis on which to tilt a much smaller world. His four narrating characters process the shooting in different ways, but none of them reacts with the degree of shock and disillusionment Fellous displays. For her, such things should not happen in Tunisia; for Englehardt’s characters, such things compose life in America. Both books process grief. Englehardt’s book shows characters moving forward in recognizable if complicated patterns, while Fellous’s book retrieves the past in less structured movements.
Bloomland uses a rare narrative strategy. He narrates each chapter in second person singular (you/your), but the identifiable “you” swings between three characters: Rose, Eli, and Eddie. A fourth narrator in first person (I) pops up after a couple dozen pages. Also, the chapters are asynchronous: Eli’s chapters take place before the shooting, while the others take place afterward. This strategy is so showy that it could have overshadowed the book, if the book weren’t so damn good. But Englehardt has been blessed with an unflinching, insightful gaze and a powerful ability to create unusual characters in organic conflicts.
The shooting that Eli commits at the college campus where all the characters converge claims many victims, including Eddie’s wife, Casey. Although Casey was newly, secretly pregnant, their marriage had started to decline, so Eddie’s grief proves difficult to navigate. Eli and Rose share the phenomena of breathtakingly bad childhoods and severe alienation, but Eli lashes out from these circumstances to commit violence, while Rose does not. She forms a necessary counterexample for Eli, who commits the mass shooting because, Englehardt posits, that is what kids in his position do: “There seems to be no original model after which you are patterned. It’s like a riot that no one remembers starting, but it doesn’t take much to grab a rock, to take aim at a building already set on fire.”
This all sounds very gloomy, but that’s the price of writing a novel about a topic as upsetting and as impactful as school shootings. No one piece of literature can suffice to tell a story of such cultural importance, which puts Bloomland on a depressing but crucial shelf with Dave Cullen’s Columbine and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. Fortunately, Englehardt writes tautly, with meticulous craft. Each chapter moves like a short story, with that level of succinctness and tension. It’s exactly the kind of book that Dzanc releases with such consistency: off the beaten path, but solid-gold work from start to finish.
It’s tougher to know what to expect from Colette Fellous, who has written more than 20 books in French but who has never been published English until now. This Tilting World is clearly a memoir, although it doesn’t restrict its narration to a handful of events, people, or places. Rather, Fellous’s resolution to leave Tunisia after the attack at Sousse leads her to a swirling recollection of memories, textures, and the details of human life. The book approaches events and information in movements like dance: Fellous broaches an idea, shies away, and then returns to romance the subject slowly and tenderly.
It’s quite European of her. In fact, This Tilting World wanders in a way that might make American readers impatient. The prose dazzles, but the book moves in circles and waves instead of straight lines, less a story than a series of impressions and anecdotes strung together on looping lines of emotional resonance:
“We would be wolfing the lumps of bread dipped in salt that he had set before each plate and now at last we could throw ourselves into our fine Friday evening that had the whole house smelling so good…On the patio, an old red chest decorated with birds and fish, the smell of wax, sunbeams on the mosaic floors, traces of cool water sparkling between the stone slabs.”
It’s the kind of book that might be nice to read in the late afternoon on a day off, when there isn’t anywhere to be or anything to do. Funny to say that about a book that sustains its energy on tragic events (mostly deaths, whether of friends or strangers or Fellous’s father), but that’s exactly how unconcerned This Tilting World is with keeping to the point. Early on, Fellous explains that keeping to the point is not the point, or so her father taught her: “How to give every detail a place of consequence and fresh value. How to work so that everything both connects and comes apart and we see it all anew.”
Bloomland functions on a different set of rules: “You realize that this year, like all the ones ahead of it, will travel in a circle that leads back to Casey’s death.” These two books in tandem demonstrate how differently people can respond to similar events. Neither rings truer than the other. Fellous’s bottomless sorrow about the randomness with which the world breaks our hearts is no less realistic than Bloomland’s assessment that a mass shooting “only changes the world for a moment, the same way that snow falling at night can be gone in the morning.” Each book has such personality that only the most stoic of readers will not prefer one over the other. But both offer beautifully shaped insight on the violence that increasingly invades our lives.
(Bloomland, Dzanc Books, September 10, 2019)
(The Tilting World, Two Lines Press, September 10, 2019)