The OF Blog: Creepiness: Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All The Time and Helen Schulman's This Beautiful Life

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Creepiness: Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All The Time and Helen Schulman's This Beautiful Life

Creepiness is that sense of unease and fear, akin to weirdness, yet with a more palpable loathing.  An old lecher leering at prepubescent girls – that is creepy because it not only violates contemporary cultural taboos on February-December relationships, but there is also that belief that there is an undertone of violence embodied in those unwelcome glances.  Creepy can also refer to social dynamics that make us uncomfortable.  A young person raised in an affluent, multi-ethnic neighborhood would likely feel distinctly out of place if s/he were to visit a decaying rural area beset by factory shutdowns, virtually all-white enclaves, and hear open and coded references to familial associations with the Ku Klux Klan.  This is beyond weird – it is creepy to those outsiders because they are witnesses to things that are beyond their ken.  After all, who would "choose" to live in such a fashion?  Do "they" have any social morals?

Creepiness, of course, is all in the eyes of its beholders.  Some might interpret another's unease for being a subconscious dismissal of others' cherished social values.  Others might praise a so-called "creep" because that person did something similar to what they would have done in that situation.  Creepiness is fluid and dependent upon individual perspectives of what is permissible and which is out-and-out threatening.  In reading two recent 2011 releases, Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All The Time and Helen Schulman's This Beautiful Life, I was struck by how in very different ways nebulous creepiness informs and strengthens elements of their narratives.  This is not to say that the characters in either novel are "creepy" in a cartoonish fashion, but rather that certain events, situations, and character actions could be construed in such a way that this pejorative could be applied and make certain events more visible because they provoke visceral reactions.  After all, creepiness is as much about us as it is about those labelled as creeps.

The Devil All The Time divides its action between the fictional southern Ohio paper mill town of Knockemstiff (the milieu for Pollock's earlier eponymous story collection) and West Virginia between the end of World War II and the late 1960s.  In feel, The Devil All The Time reminds me strongly of Flannery O'Connor's tales of charlatans, devilish bible salesmen, and the damned seeking redemption:

The banner outside the tent read THE PROPHET AND THE PICKER.  Roy delivered his grisly version of the End Times while Theodore provided the background music.  It cost a quarter to get inside the tent, and convincing people that religion could be entertaining was tough when just a few yards away were a number of other more exciting and less serious distractions, so Roy came up with the idea of eating insects during his sermon, a slightly different take on his old spider act.  Every couple of minutes, he'd stop preaching and pull a squirming worm or crunchy roach or slimy slug out of an old bait bucket and chew on it like a piece of candy.  Business picked up after that.  Depending on the crowd, they did four, sometimes five shows every evening, alternating with the Flamingo Lady every forty-five minutes.  At the end of each show, Roy would quickly step out behind the tent to regurgitate the bugs and Theodore would follow in his wheelchair.  While waiting to go on again, they smoked and sipped from a bottle, half listened to the drunks inside whoop and holler and try to coax the fake bird into stripping off her plumes. (p. 110)

Picturesque as the above image might be, it is part of a mosaic of images Pollock constructs that is at times repulsive and yet fascinating because of how intricately he ties in the lives of a serial killer and his whore girlfriend, the above-mentioned sideshow minister and his wheelchair-bound minstrel, a "good-hearted boy," Arvin, and his violent responses to those who do wrong, and then another minister, Preston Teagardin, whose schtick is perhaps the most revolting of all:

He'd wanted to go to a regular university and study law, but no, not with her money.  She wanted him to be a humble preacher, like her brother-in-law, Albert.  She was afraid she'd spoiled him, she said.  She said all kinds of shit, insane shit, but what she really wanted, Preston understood, was to keep him dependent on her, tied to her apron strings, so he'd always have to kiss her ass.  He had always been good at figuring people out, their petty wants and desires, especially teenage girls.

Cynthia was one of his first major successes.  She was only fifteen years old when he helped one of his teachers at Heavenly Reach dunk her in Flat Fish Creek during a baptism service.  That same evening, he fucked her dainty little ass under some rosebushes on the college grounds, and within a year he had married her so that he could work on her without her parents sticking their noses in.  In the last three years, he'd taught her all the things he imagined a man might be able to do with a woman.  He couldn't begin to add up the hours it had taken him, but she was trained as well as any dog now.  All he had to do was snap his fingers and her mouth would start watering for what he liked to refer to as his "staff."

He looked over at her in her underwear, curled up in the greasy easy chair that had come with the dump, her silky-haired gash pressed tight against the thin yellow material.  She was squinting at an article about the Dave Clark Five in a Hit Parader magazine, trying to sound out the words.  Someday, he thought, it he kept her, he would have to teach her how to read.  He had discovered lately that he could last twice as long if one of his young conquests read from the Good Book while he nailed her from behind.  Preston loved the way they panted holy passages, the way they began to stutter and arch their backs and struggle not to lose their place – for he could become very upset when they got the words wrong – right before his staff exploded. (p. 174-175).

This, perhaps, is too lurid for some.  Teagardin's casual descriptions of statutory rape, his manipulation of a trusting flock (not just the girls, but those audiences he would attract with his itinerant ministry), all this is unsettling to read, not just because many will find this to be disgusting, but because we might recognize with some consternation that this is much more common than we would like to admit.  This realization makes Pollock's mosaic narrative so compelling.  He recognizes the "lost" qualities of these "fallen" characters and similar to how O'Connor would utilize them in her stories he weaves these misfits and outcasts together to create a tale that not only creeps us out on occasion, but makes us think about those sinners and displaced saints that we know exist in our midst.  Pollock's prose is deceptively poetic.  He uses simple, direct turns of phrase to get at the heart of each character and the often horrific situations which they inhabit or have created around themselves.  The reader might feel dirtied by what s/he encounters, but it is a testimony to Pollock's talent that we do not turn away from that darkness that he explores here.

At first glance, Helen Schulman's This Beautiful Life could not be any more different from Pollock's The Devil All The Time if it proclaimed its difference on billboards across the country.  Whereas Pollock's novel is set in a grim, hardscrabble rural/industrial wasteland, Schulman's novel is set in a tony 2003 New York neighborhood.  At its heart lies a professional family (two Ph.D.s, although one has relegated herself to a stay-home mom) whose nearly invisible tensions (the mom's half-regrets about her career choice, the father's ambitious brilliance working as a professor, the fifteen year-old son's confusion about where he fit in at a new school) explode into fury and self-recriminations after a scandal erupts.

Yet at its heart, This Beautiful Life depends upon ambiguity to keep its readers attention.  Jake, the son, becomes embroiled in the messy aftermath of a video sent to him by an eighth-grade girl who is hurt that he drunkenly rejected her at the party she recently hosted:

Her mouth filled the screen.  Purple lip gloss, clear braces.

"Still think I'm too young?"

She leaned over, the fixed lens of the camera catching a tiny smattering of blemishes on her cheek, like a comet's spray.  Her hair had been bleached white, with long blond roots, and most of it was pulled back and up into a chunky ponytail above the three plastic hoops climbing the rim of her ear.

The song began to play, Beyoncé.  I love to love you, baby.  She stepped aside, revealing her room in all its messy glory.  Above the bed was a painting; the central image was a daisy.  A large lava lamp bubbled and gooed on the nightstand.

She was giggling offstage.  Suddenly, the screen was a swirl of green plaid.  Filmstrips of color in knife pleats.  Her short skirt swayed along with her round hips.  A little roll of ivory fat nestled above the waistband.  She wore a white tank top, which she took off, her hands quickly finding the cups of her black bra.  The breasts inside her small, and at first she covered them with her palms, fingers splayed like scallop shells.  Then she unhooked the bra in the front and they popped out as if on springs.  Her hands did a little fan dance as they reached below her hemline and lifted up her skirt.

She'd done all of this for his benefit.  To please him.  To prove him wrong.  She reached out for the little toy baseball bat and the next part was hard to watch, even if you knew what was coming.

Except it wasn't. (p. 6-7)

Over the past decade, sexting, or the sending of erotic images via email or phone, has become a matter of concern for parents and school administrators.  It is a subject that affected me personally during the fall of 2008, when a student of mine purportedly received a racy photo from his science teacher (there was some debate on the particulars, minus the fact that somehow inappropriate images of her ended up on his phone) that led to her arrest and subsequent plea deal to give up teaching for two years in exchange for no jail time.  Witnessing the changes in his behavior following the controversy (he was suspended for two days for having a cell phone out showing those images to other students) was very tough:  he became more moody and temperamental following those who praised him for "being a man" and for those who blamed him for the teacher's firing.  He was a hero and a creep and that divided attention affected him visibly during the remainder of the school year.

Jake's situation is very much akin to this actual event.  He receives Daisy's racy video and puzzles over it, before ultimately sending it onto a friend for his take.  This in turn leads to a few more forwards until the video appears on a YouTube-like site, where it is viewed by millions.  This leads to a scandal in the neighborhood.  Jake is suspended for ten days due to the outrage it sparks at school (the girl also attends this private academy) and he is shown to be confused and hurt by the alternating praise and condemnation that he receives from teachers and peers alike.  He questions his own motives, pondering just how bad of a person he might be.  He ends up in therapy sessions and his parents bicker and despair over him and the house of cards-like social standing that they enjoyed prior to Jake's act.

This maelstrom of consequences stemming from Jake's forwarding of the racy email can be quite fascinating.  How should we view Jake?  Schulman goes to pains to show his internal and external conflicts, leaving it up to us to judge if he is a creep exploiting a confused, spoiled girl's infatuation with him.  Yet the unease around the parents' reactions to this event and toward each other  at times feels like voyeurism.  Do we take a sort of perverse Schadenfreude at seeing their (at times selfish) dreams and aspirations vanish in a cloud of sniping and arguments?  Do we blame Daisy (who barely appears in the novel) and if we feel so, what does that say about us and our own moral compasses (if such exist)?  Schulman expertly keeps juggling character perspectives around to keep us from settling on definitive conclusions, leaving readers to determine for themselves to ascertain the level of creepiness to be derived from this cautionary tale.

Pollock and Schulman largely succeed due to the ambiguities present in their narratives.  There are no "heroes" in either tale.  Instead, we see failed and ambitious characters striving to reach some point beyond their reach.  At times, their actions and motivations are revolting.  At others, they are strangely touching, even after we discover, perhaps to our chagrin, that we find such characters to be perversely attractive.  Such realizations unsettle us, make us pause before we judge these characters, their situations, and their settings.  This sense that we might condone or at least understand such actions could creep us out.  It also might explain why we on occasion are drawn to that which ought to revolt us.  Regardless of what it might be, this exposure of the uncomfortable can make for riveting reads and Pollock and Schulman provide that in spades with their latest novels.

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