Nobody lived in this Texas. From one horizon to the other, the entire flat landscape was a mess of tangled freeways; forty-lane, fifty-lane; screaming metal in the sunshine, bright green fringes of grass. Every so often—near a big interchange, usually—there would be a huge slab of blue glass, a forty-story building: a hospital. This Texas was only freeways and hospitals, and I was at a hospital. Someone I knew was in there, and she was dying, but there was nothing I could do except sit in the air-conditioned waiting room as doctors and nurses ran around in panic behind plate glass and the traffic roared outside. Another man was waiting with me, and in my desperation I picked a fight with him. I told him that he was fat and probably illiterate, that his clothes were made of plastic and didn’t fit, and that nobody would remember him when he died. I was practically begging him to punch me in the face, but he just sat through my tirade, perfectly impassive. Only when I was done did he come up to me, close, very close, and growl, “Listen pal. I’m an American. I believe in 1776 and the Fourth of July.” That was enough. I’d wanted violence, but this was worse. I sat quietly in my chair and tried not to look the American in the eyes until I woke up in bed.
That was on the 25th of May. The previous day, someone had walked into a school in Uvalde, Texas and murdered nineteen children, along with two teachers, while the police stood around outside and did nothing. Ten days previously, someone had walked into a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and murdered a security guard and nine customers, most of them elderly. Six weeks later, on the Fourth of July, thirteen people were shot in New York, six people were shot in Kansas City, six people were shot in Richmond, five people were shot in Sacramento, two people were shot in Philadelphia and in Highland Park, a wealthy suburb of Chicago, someone climbed to the roof of a building during an Independence Day parade and opened fire. He shot and wounded 48 people. Seven died.
The spree in Highland Park was the one that caught everyone’s attention that day, and not just because it was the deadliest. Some kind of collision. Here is the cheerful eighteenth-century masquerade of America: 1776 and the Fourth of July. Towns full of prosperous burghers with their strong civic values; Yankee Doodle and fireworks, kosher hot dogs, parades. Teenage marching bands solemnly parping their trumpets, and all those heavy outfits; shakos, aiguillettes, like a Napoleonic battalion wandering unstuck in time. Elaborate floats. In Europe, we still have the occasional parade, but it’s usually under the aegis of the trade-union movement or the Catholic Church, and both institutions are dying. Americans are supposed to be hooked up to a constant drip feed of digitized distraction, but despite Netflix and TikTok they’ll still reliably line the streets just to watch someone take a very slow walk while playing the French horn. In a way, this country is very, very old. But here, on a rooftop, firing at a rate of 45 rounds per minute directly into the crowd, is the 21st century.
The world by itself does not make sense, and this is why we dream. Waking life is just a succession of events—five dead, three dead, twelve dead—loosely held together by the vague frenzy of conscious thought. But in dreams, the experiences of the last day are integrated into the anxieties that have ruled your entire life, sewn tight into the fabric of your neurotic little mind. Dreams draw together things that seem to have the same shape, or that echo each other in a way the daytime mind can’t quite explain. A perfect knowledge of the facts is not enough; it needs to be turned into a parable, a little story.
My dream of the Texas hospital was about the Uvalde massacre. Of course it was: I’d spent half the night reading about it, watching videos of cops firing Tasers and pepper spray at the frantic parents who tried to rush into the school and save their children, and when I tried to sleep there was a lump growing in my belly and I couldn’t. But it wasn’t only about that. Four years ago, my closest friend died in a hospital in Texas, while I sat five thousand miles away in London, doing nothing. We’d been to Texas together, once; we went to the rodeo and a megachurch and fired AR-15s at a shooting range. Just before she died, her parents phoned me from her bedside so I could say a few words to her. Maybe she would have heard me, even in her coma, and known something. I could have said I loved her, I could have said goodbye, but I didn’t pick up the phone. I was busy. The dream was about her, but she wasn’t the person dying in that hospital: it was someone else entirely, a novelist I’d dated briefly over the winter before we’d drifted apart. Another way for someone to make a small hole in your life. The dream was working an abstract, distant catastrophe into everything I already knew about loss. But most of all, I think the dream was about the way Uvalde churned up something uncomfortable in myself.
There was a time when I also wanted violence. I, too, was a slightly weird kid, even at my nice liberal private school on a leafy hilltop in north London. Not quite an outcast, not tormented, but not particularly happy either. I liked gnostic codices more than football or music. I tried to talk to girls about Marx’s general formula of capital. And more than once, in my early teens, I had the same fantasy as the shooters. What if, rather than being quietly miserable, I killed people instead?
Sometimes, even now, when I’m on the roof of a tall building or standing near the edge of a train platform, I’ll sometimes imagine myself jumping—not because I want to die, but simply because the option is always there. Apparently this is fairly common. My school-shooting fantasy was the same. Not a plan, but a nagging intrusive thought. To perform the secret forbidden magic that turns a human being into a floppy sack of meat. To squander other lives for no good reason at all. I’d even imagine the incredible grief and pain it would cause my parents, and there was a sort of satisfaction there too. I could refuse every gift that had ever been given me; in a second I could wipe out all their efforts setting me up for a long and happy life. In a way, that felt like independence, or a reasonable response to the indignity of being loved.
The thought was like my display in that hospital waiting room: all hollow. I am not an American. Still, when I read about another violent tragedy somewhere in America, I can’t pretend that I’m simply horrified by a distant evil, and all my thoughts are only with the victims and the survivors. The killer is not foreign to me either. He is also here.
There is something totemic about these events. They aren’t like the “going postal” killings of the Reagan era, when people who had been screwed over by their employers brought a gun to work and shot up the place; that made a certain sort of easy sense. These events distill a whole world into a single point. The technical term is “overdetermination.” What causes people in the richest country in the world to kill at random? Everything, it’s everything: every unspoken truth and repressed emotion, the swirling totality of everything wrong. Political paranoia; racial panic; the terror of women; the emptiness of the future. You could see an eruption of the substratum of violence that sustains our world, the atrocities on distant continents to keep you safe. Or the spectacle of violence, the machine-gun massacres you watch at the end of the day, to turn off your brain and relax. There’s the distant past, and the old colonial frontier: all those towns and suburbs in which young people commit their massacres were once on the borderlands, where the empires faced the savages skulking in the woods. D. H. Lawrence once called America “the great death-continent.” There’s nothing over the border anymore, and the pioneers have all become commuters instead, fatter every year—but the subjects of the world’s most advanced and all-encompassing bureaucracy still believe, somewhere deep, that freedom means one man striding around with a rifle in his hands. A lonely man. And mass shooters are, overwhelmingly, lonely in one particular sense: they are men without women, men that women do not—could not—want. Something has gone very wrong, because America keeps birthing these half-finished men, wasting their lives on video games, still watching cartoons, so turned in on themselves that there’s simply nothing there for another person to desire.
Describing these things, though, isn’t enough. No list of factors will ever be complete. The story behind every mass shooting is a kind of hyperobject: something too big, and too vastly interconnected, to be rationally conceived of all at once. It’s made of cowboys and algorithms and the end of the world, scattered bits from every corner of life. But literature—which works a little like a dream, making the world explicable in ways more subtle than ordinary explanation—can show it. You need Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, shambling around with his tattered hat and his sincerity, kind to widows, kind to prostitutes, tortured by dreams of beaten horses, aghast at the cruelty of man—and all the while, the terrible idea swells inside him. “Will I really—I mean really—actually take an axe, start bashing her on the head, smash her skull to pieces?”
And lately, fiction has been increasingly turned toward hyperobjects. There is the racism novel, in which a single narrative, even a single encounter, ends up summoning something huge and dormant: Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, or Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. There is the climate-change novel: Alexandra Kleeman’s Something New Under the Sun, for example, with its dying California, wilted in the sun, as Hollywood survives on synthetic water. There are a basically limitless number of novels about the internet and what it’s done to our brains. So where is the mass-shooting novel?
Such novels did exist—two decades ago. In 2003, there was DBC Pierre’s Vernon God Little and Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin. The same year saw the release of Gus Van Sant’s film Elephant, loosely based on the Columbine massacre. Maybe in 2003 the school shooting was a good metaphor: safer to talk about American violence in the suburbs than American violence abroad. The “systems novels” of the past also grappled with some of this stuff; you could see intimations of the mass shooting in Don DeLillo. Non-Anglophone literature has flirted with the theme; in Michel Houellebecq’s 1994 novel Whatever, our hero tries to convince his young, spotty, unlovable coworker to “launch yourself on a career of murder this very evening … When you feel these women trembling at the end of your knife, and begging for their young lives, then will you truly be the master.”
But that’s about it. In a country where the random slaughter of children is so common that it’s been integrated into the structure of ordinary life, literary culture simply has nothing to say on the subject. It will talk about awkward interactions and sexual confusion and learning to love yourself in the face of trauma, but it’s afraid to touch this thing that seems to sum up the entire experience of modernity. The American novelist is standing in the middle of a charnel house, with blood dripping off the walls, writing little autofictions about the time someone was rude to them in their MFA.
What we have instead of the mass-shooting novel is the mass-shooting essay. Mass-shooting essays, classically, are full of solutions. They work in a fairly simple way: you pluck out a single, overriding factor that causes these events, and then you suggest how it might be sensibly eliminated. As I write, the New York Times has published over fifty mass-shooting essays this year. Some talk about the internet, social media, radicalization, alienation. When a shooter claims to be acting in the service of far-right ideology, there are essays about the long history of American racism, or the specific culpability of Fox News and the GOP. But the vast majority, understandably, are about guns.
Of course, this is the Times; other views exist. Many conservatives do not want to see bans or restrictions on guns. A few still try to reframe the numbers, pointing out that more children are killed each year by trampolines or Central American gangs than spree shooters. (Even if this were true, it’s also true that in September 2001 more Americans were killed by their own cars than by al-Qaeda.) But there’s a parallel version of the mass-shooting essay on the right. Some argue for more guns, more police, more guards, a society constantly on watch against itself. Some mumble vaguely about mental health. For most, there’s the culture thing. In an earlier era, conservatives focused on specific cultural commodities: violent video games, gangsta rap and Marilyn Manson. Guns are healthy, manly things, but this is poison. Today, it’s broader. Conservative mass-shooting essays like Samuel D. James’s entry in First Things describe “a hemorrhaging wound near the soul of contemporary American culture,” faithless, creedless, detached. “We need to re-dignify masculine power and drive,” James writes. “And that can be done in churches that talk about men the way Scripture talks about them: not as problems to be reeducated but as potential warrior-kings who hold the fate of society in their hands.”
Well, men. The other great genre of mass-shooting essay is the one that recognizes that these killers are always, always men. These win awards and get turned into books: the texts that, instead of suggesting which laws should be put before Congress, delve into the deep, human, literary question of men and women and what it is we owe each other. So Amia Srinivasan’s London Review of Books essay on “the right to sex,” which gives its title to her best-selling collection, begins with a mass shooting. In 2014, Elliot Rodger “became the world’s most famous ‘incel’” when he murdered six people in Isla Vista, California. This, he explained in his manifesto, was because he was a virgin. He wanted to fuck “hot blonde sluts,” and they wouldn’t let him. He thought he had a right to sex, that he was entitled to other people’s bodies, and Srinivasan is very clear that no such right exists. “No one is under an obligation to have sex with anyone else.”
But then she goes further, complicating things. Yes, there’s no right to sex—but what about the fact that “the beautiful torsos on Grindr are mostly Asian men hiding their faces”? What about the sexual exclusion experienced by fat women, or black women, or trans women? For Srinivasan, the question of “who we have sex with, and how, is a political question.” She wants to take these issues seriously, but without endorsing the views of an Elliot Rodger. Tricky! In the end, she gestures toward the idea that unlike fat or black or trans women, straight men who have been sexually marginalized sometimes go on to kill. What’s odd is that in a long essay about the rules governing who is and isn’t desired, Srinivasan never addresses the fact that the entire system is in collapse. Rates of sexlessness are rising, more people are more alone than ever before; something is happening, something vaster than male entitlement, that expresses itself in random mass murder. The essay can’t contain it.
The truly seminal mass-shooting essay, though, is Wesley Yang’s “The Face of Seung-Hui Cho,” published in n+1 in 2008. The previous year, the 23-year-old Cho had murdered 32 fellow students and faculty at Virginia Tech; at the time, it was the deadliest mass shooting in American history. (Since then the record has been broken twice.) Afterwards, Cho’s face was splashed across TV news and the internet, and Yang’s essay is launched from a moment of self-recognition. “I felt,” Yang writes, “looking at that photo, a very personal revulsion. Millions of others reviled this person, but my own loathing was more intimate. Those lugubrious eyes, that elongated face behind wire-frame glasses. He looks like me, I thought.”
Yang’s might be the most literary of the mass-shooting essays. He tells stories from his own life, the resentful people he’s known. Unlike most mass-shooting essayists, he puts himself in the shooter’s place, follows him creeping out his female classmates and writing bad resentful fiction. He allows them to swap faces. But the essay ends with Cho in the Virginia Tech gym, working out, preparing for his massacre. Yang won’t go any further. He doesn’t follow Cho as he shot Liviu Librescu, a 76-year-old Holocaust survivor, four times in the chest and then finally in the head. Librescu had been blocking off a door with his own body so his students could escape. Yang doesn’t try to inhabit Cho’s subjectivity as he walked between the rows of desks where students were hiding, shooting each one in turn, and not saying a word. He can’t write this stuff, because everything he does describe in the essay is necessary but still not sufficient. Because despite having had a similar experience of American life, and despite having a similar face, Yang would simply never have done these things, and Cho did.
The shortcomings of these essays aren’t the fault of the essayists. Srinivasan and Yang have perfectly reasonable ideas about why these things happen—the problem is that these things are not reasonable. They are outside the remit of the essay, a form in which things are supposed to be broken down into comprehensible pieces and coherently analyzed. This might be why the tone of these essays is shifting. Hopelessness is seeping in. The political system is inadequate to respond to these murders, but so, it seems, is our ordinary sensemaking apparatus, the power of reason, language itself. The best recent mass-shooting essays have been Elizabeth Bruenig’s in the Atlantic, but they’re less essay than threnody: a wail of helpless grief, crying the last whole truth left: “It’s going to go on indefinitely. It’s not an end, exactly, but life inside a permanent postscript to one’s own history. Here is America after there was no more hope.”
It’s not entirely true that there are no mass-shooting novels being published. There are, in fact, dozens of them. Hate List by Jennifer Brown, published in 2009, is a young-adult novel about a girl processing her trauma after her boyfriend commits a school shooting. And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard, published in 2014, is also a young-adult novel about a girl processing her trauma after her boyfriend commits a school shooting. Silent Alarm by Jennifer Banash, published in 2015, is a young-adult novel about a girl processing her trauma after her brother commits a school shooting. There are many more.
I don’t have any particular problem with books for children, or even books for children by people named Jennifer. Young-adult literature has become a favorite target for a certain type of critic, but good children’s literature has a lot in common with the myth, the epic and the dream. Most of today’s young-adult fiction is bad because it isn’t childish enough, because its authors assume that what young readers need are clear moral and therapeutic homilies. This is why the YA world is so notoriously insane: if any book delivers the wrong kind of message, then it risks doing incalculable harm to the children. And in this respect, adult literary fiction is hardly any different. We’ve all seemingly come to accept that art is basically a minor form of therapy, which exists to help us think better thoughts and become better people. Gently didactic, it should give improving lessons and express virtuous politics. Why say anything if you can’t be nice?
One of the rare pieces of recent spree-killing literature not intended for children was Tony Tulathimutte’s short story “The Feminist,” published in n+1 in 2019. The protagonist of the story, our unnamed feminist, is trying to be a nice, kind person who thinks nice, kind thoughts. He was one of only five boys at his high school; most of his friends have always been women and nonbinary people. He has “read Sanger and Friedan and MacKinnon and Dworkin and Firestone and Faludi and Winterson and Butler and Solanas and Schulman and hooks and Greer.” He’s aware that women are not objects, and their desires must always be respected. It’s just that he would still quite like to sleep with one at some point in his life, and it simply isn’t happening. When he asks women on a date, they tense up and try to let him down as gently as possible—and since he knows that “men often react badly to ‘hard rejection’” he makes a big earnest show of how totally okay with that he is. He asks his friends for advice, and they just tell him he’s not entitled to sex, which he already knows. Eventually, he becomes convinced it’s all because he has narrow shoulders. He joins a support forum for narrow-shouldered men. He becomes bitter, then cancer-ridden. Before he dies, he walks into a tapas restaurant full of happy young women, carrying a long serrated knife.
“The Feminist” became one of those pieces of fiction that go viral and briefly take over the Discourse. Feminists who liked it read it as an exposé of their hypocritical male-feminist allies: see, these people claim to be fighting for our liberation, but really they just want to fuck us. Feminists who didn’t like it read it as a nasty incel screed, cloaking its hatred of women with the thin pretense of satire. Anti-feminists who liked it read it as an exposé of their hypocritical enemies: see, people like Srinivasan claim that they’re fighting for the male victims of patriarchy too, but really they just want to fuck Chad. Anti-feminists who didn’t like it read it as a nasty caricature of innocent lovelorn men, pretending that they are all murderers in the making. Everyone agreed that it was either making a good, virtuous point they agreed with, or a bad one they didn’t.
Nobody seemed to consider that this might be a work of fiction, an author’s attempt to describe a particular kind of human personality and experience and see where it leads. This was, at least, how I read it: as a decent attempt to create literature. Tulathimutte doesn’t tell us why his character failed so badly to live, or what he should have done instead. You hardly notice as the story’s viewpoint becomes more and more deranged, until by the end the protagonist’s decision to kill makes a strange, nightmarish sort of sense. Various characters pop up to supply their own accounts; all of them are partially accurate, most of them are cruel, and none of them is enough. “Somehow you got a shit deal,” one of the feminist’s friends says. “Nobody knows why.” But Tulathimutte’s readers are exactly the same as his protagonist, maniacally boiling everything down to their one singular interpretation. It’s my narrow shoulders, isn’t it? This might be why there’s no great mass-shooting fiction: because fiction itself has become suspect. We’ll accept a mass-shooting novel only if we can pretend it’s a mass-shooting essay in disguise.
In his second Manifesto of Surrealism, André Breton writes that “the simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.” Something instantly incomprehensible, an act that would instantly elude all the powers of human reason. But also, in its own way, a kind of art.
There’s another genre of mass-shooting literature I’ve not really talked about here, the kind written by the shooters themselves. Mass shooters are scripturient: they write. Unlike most other criminals, but like artists and revolutionaries, they produce manifestos. You are not supposed to read these things; reading them is what the killers want, and why should they get what they want? But I do. I read them all. I could pretend that it’s because I’m trying to understand, like a scientist peering at some pathogen through his microscope, selflessly exposing himself to something dangerous in the hope of protecting everyone else. That would be a lie. I read them because I enjoy them.
I enjoy reading the spluttering hurt and rage and petty stupid hatred, because I am also capable of these things, and so are you. They are also part of the human substance. It is not good that they have been sanitized or ironized out of literary culture. It is not good that they can’t be fully expressed in books, but only with a gun.
I even enjoy the fascist tracts that tell me that I, as a communist and a Jew, must be violently killed to save white civilization. In 2019, a man murdered over fifty worshippers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand; the manifesto he published online to explain the act is full of small, ironic, internet-y asides. “Spyro the dragon 3 taught me ethno-nationalism. Fortnite trained me to be a killer and to floss on the corpses of my enemies.” But sometimes his nonchalance breaks, and the intensity of his hatred wells through. He describes a trip to France, the horror and indignity of seeing Muslims on the street or in the supermarkets, leading their basically ordinary lives. “I could no longer bring the sneer to my face.” He visits a cemetery for the dead of the world wars. “I broke into tears, sobbing alone in the car, staring at the crosses, at the forgotten dead … it was there I decided to take action, to commit to force.”
Is his manifesto good? No, not even slightly. It plods, it’s self-important; you can hear the killer’s nasal whine in every sentence. A catalogue of pedantries about birth rates, or moth-eaten fantasies of reclaiming Constantinople. What I enjoyed most were the pure flashes of fury, in all caps, peppered through the text: “KILL ANGELA MERKEL, KILL ERDOGAN, KILL SADIQ KHAN.” “ACCEPT DEATH.” “LEAVE NO VIPERS NEST UNBURNT.”
There have, in the past, been racist rants that did rise to the level of great literature; one of my favorite books is Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s Trifles for a Massacre, a long think-spurt of pus and spleen, against me, against the Jew. “Hey there! Listen up, Jewry! So you want to cover me with garbage! I hear your tawdry surreptitions! Your riflings-through! Your screwings-over of your wastebaskets! How dimwitted and stupid you are! More flatulent! More cowardly!” When women reject him, Céline snarls: “You are going to get your hemorrhoids buffeted about by that fat, doughy, waxy, famous kike!” He was a terrible, ugly person, but he knew it; when he talks about the Jews, he understands that he’s already talking about himself. At the start of the book, he upbraids himself: “You boast like a Jew, Ferdinand! … you are venal… perfidious, false, stinking, perverted, vulgar, oblivious and scandal-mongering!” Whatever else he might have been, he was self-aware, and the Christchurch shooter was not.
The other difference is that Céline, for all his bitterness, never actually murdered the people he hated, and the Christchurch shooter did. Céline’s book is a piece of nasty reactionary propaganda, but also a piece of art. There are moments where all you really encounter are your own cruelest and most senseless feelings waiting for you on the page. Because what he was doing was literature, Céline managed to show, a decade before Sartre and far more eloquently, that what the anti-Semite really hates is not the Jew but himself. Maybe the word kill—all caps, in a half-literate Google Doc shared around the dark web—can show us the same thing. The mass-shooting manifesto is, after all, a kind of artist’s statement, though one that often devolves, in tune with the spirit of the times, into a mass-shooting essay—and not a particularly good one. Before he performs Breton’s supreme surrealist act, the Christchurch shooter offers a list of reasons meant to explain what he is about to do, first of all to himself.
In 2015, a man murdered eight students and one professor at a community college in Roseburg, Oregon. He announces himself at the start of his manifesto: “I have always been the most hated person in the world.” He is 26, with “no friends, no job, no girlfriend, a virgin.” But then things take a strange turn. This latter-day Underground Man is transformed, without warning, into a child writing his diary, or a personals ad. He tells us what music he likes: Marilyn Manson, the Dresden Dolls. “You may find our tastes are more similar than you realize.” He likes the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas, his favorite colors are red and black, his favorite food potatoes. He pours out everything he knows about himself, and there’s nothing there: just music and potatoes, blind wittering where a motive ought to be. A long, central section of the manifesto consists of an invective against black men. He was, of course, a black man himself.
Possibly the greatest of the mass-shooting manifestos, the most studied, the most influential, is “My Twisted World”: the autobiography of Elliot Rodger, who has already been mentioned. Near the beginning, there’s a kind of buried warning against my enjoyment of these things. Rodger lets us know that he comes from good stock; he is a scion of the Rodger family, which “was once part of the wealthy upper classes before they lost all of their fortune during the Great Depression.” His grandfather, “George Rodger, was a renowned photojournalist who had taken very famous photographs during the Second World War, though he failed to reacquire the family’s lost fortune.” It’s true: George Rodger did take very famous photographs during the Second World War. Specifically, he documented the war for Life magazine, and he was following the British 11th Armored Division when they liberated Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. Rodger was one of the first photographers to witness the camps.
Some twelve thousand unburied corpses were waiting for him, and he did his job. He took photos. Carefully framing his shots, finding the right angle for the rows of half-naked bodies, a pleasing way to represent the machinery of death. Then, suddenly, he realized what it was he was doing. “My God, what’s happened to me? This is the end. I mean, I can’t, in a situation like this, be thinking of nothing but lovely compositions.” George Rodger continued to work as a photojournalist after Bergen-Belsen, but he never covered another war. His later photos are of indigenous peoples in Africa, industrial workers in Europe, antelopes and zebra. He stopped making art about death.
This is a part of the family history that doesn’t make it into “My Twisted World.” Even if Elliot Rodger knew about this incident, I’m not sure he would have understood it at all. If Rodgers is the most literary writer of mass murder, he’s also the least self-aware.
Our narrator is simply incapable of seeing himself from the outside, as a human being among others in the world. This leads to some moments of intense black comedy. Before his 22nd birthday, Rodger makes an attempt to lose his virginity, and fucks it up in extraordinary fashion. He goes to a house party. Before he leaves, he dresses himself up in designer clothes, Gucci sunglasses and a gold necklace. He drinks a few shots of vodka to calm his nerves. Tonight’s the night! He will be smooth and confident and charming, and people will see him for the special person he really is. He will be loved. He will be happy. He’s seen how all the cocky, arrogant boys end up attracting women, so he decides to try it out himself. At the party, buzzing off vodka and hope, he deliberately bumps into people, but he’s had too much to drink and ends up practically sprawled on the floor. He escapes outside, and climbs onto a ledge to calm down. Eventually, a few other partygoers join him there. “I rose from my chair and tried to act arrogant and cocky toward them, throwing insults at everyone. They only laughed at me and started insulting me back. That was the last straw.” Why wasn’t it working? Why didn’t they like him? In a rage, he tries to push a group of girls off the ledge: to kill them. He fails. Some of the boys kick the shit out of him and steal his sunglasses and his necklace. So ends his quest for love: “I had actually gone out to a party in Isla Vista, hoping that I would be walking back to my room in triumph with a beautiful girl on my arm, but instead I stumbled back to my room with a shattered leg and shattered hopes.”
That was the moment that sealed his decision: he would have to start murdering people. Because when he insulted some strangers at a party, they had the gall to insult him back.
If anyone other than Elliot Rodger had written this text, it would have been hailed as a literary masterpiece: something like Tulathimutte’s “The Feminist,” but deeper, better, more committed to its character and its craft. Our narrator is a kind of incel Alex Portnoy, an intense writerly voice, whiny and obsessive, not without its own crazed charisma. It’s all so magnificently over the top: “Sex… the very word fills me with hate”; “walking through the streets of London at night … was truly breathtaking, or it would have been if I had a beautiful girlfriend by my side to experience it with me.” All it would take is an inch of distance, the faintest hint of separation between author and narrator, for irony to flood in. That party story is brilliantly told, with impeccable timing—but only if you can imagine it as a joke.
But the massacre our narrator starts planning, as he limped home on his broken leg—it really did take place. This is the real punch line, and the story doesn’t quite come together without it. Like most literary comedy, what makes it work is the sheer incongruity—the gap between the farce on the page and the fact that the person who wrote it caused the loss of six actual human lives.
Rodger sets out a basic schema for why his “Day of Retribution” had to take place: he desired the hot blonde girls he saw everywhere around him in California, but they didn’t desire him back—so he had to murder them instead. Most commentators, like Srinivasan, are perfectly happy to take him on his word here. But should we? Is this actually what’s going on? Earlier in the manifesto, Rodger describes another abortive attempt to lose his virginity, this time before he turns twenty. What’s his strategy? “For those crucial twelve days I had left as a teenager, I walked over to the center of Isla Vista every day and sat at one of the tables outside Domino’s Pizza, hoping against hope that a girl would come up and talk to me.” None of them did. “On every one of those nights, I walked home alone, with my head down in defeat.” Rodger repeatedly complains that he’s been rejected by women, but in fact he wasn’t, because he never gave them a chance. Not once does he actually introduce himself to one of the people he supposedly desires so badly. This young, rich, good-looking man spent his entire adult life convincing himself of his grievance, that he wanted women and they didn’t want him back—because it gave him a cover for what he really wanted, which was to have a grievance.
All the manifestos are like this, even the supposedly political ones. The Christchurch killer spends nearly ninety pages thumping out the far-right case for mass murder—then, at one point, he mentions that “when I was young I was a communist, then an anarchist and finally a libertarian before coming to be an eco-fascist.” This is someone who’s searching for meaning, an ideological structure capable of conferring meaning on the inexplicable things he’s about to do. Fascism does the job, but his arguments do not make any sense. He says he wants to expel the “invaders” from “European lands”—but he committed his killings in New Zealand, and the Treaty of Waitangi, the country’s founding document, makes clear that the land does not belong to Europeans but to Māori. Meanwhile, for the more recent shooter in Buffalo, the “invaders” are black Americans, whose ancestors were living in the country for centuries before the shooter’s forebears filed off the boat at Ellis Island. Not a motive: an excuse. Whatever meaning these events hold is not in the accompanying texts—it’s in the gap, the void, between the killer’s favorite food and the bodies he left behind. The killers’ monistic explanations for their deeds are the best evidence that they don’t understand them either.
Elliot Rodger’s manifesto is threaded with descriptions of his various fantasies. When he’s younger, they’re banal, barely even there: “To have a beautiful blonde girl by my side, to feel her hand clasping my own as we walk everywhere together”; “a beautiful, opulent mansion with an extravagant view.” As he grows older, they grow more lurid: “How sweet it would be to torture or kill every single young couple I saw … capturing the two of them and stripping the skin off her boyfriend’s flesh while making her watch.” At one point, he has an idea for an epic fantasy novel that could be adapted into a movie and make him rich. It’s about “someone like myself rising to power after a life of being treated unfairly by the world.” The same dull wish fulfillment. But right near the end, he talks about an actual dream: when he was a child, he had dreams in which his father died. He’d wake up crying. Now, days before his massacre, he was imagining having to murder his father too. I want to know more about what was in those dreams. I want to know how that felt.
Art credit: Ravi Zupa. MT-AR-Smith-Corona-2, from the Mightier Than series (2015). All images courtesy of the artist.