Saturday, January 26, 2008

In the Penny Press!

As some celebrity chef or other is fond of saying: BAM!

Right out of the starting-gate, before the first month of the year has run its course, the Penny Press has thrown up an article so arresting, so remarkable, that it demands notice here at Stevereads.

Such a piece appears in the February issue of GQ (the one with the, er, stimulating cover photo of Rachel Bilson): it's by John Jeremiah Sullivan, and it's called "Violence of the Lambs."

Sullivan is a born storyteller and a marvellously confessional one, and he sidles up very gradually to his odd, unique subject matter. In fact, he introduces us to his expert on that subject, the Virgil who will be his guide, a quirky young man named Marc Livengood, before he's really told us what that subject is. This is because his subject genuinely unnerves him, and he knows it will unnerve his readers, and we must believe him when he says he doesn't want to do that. His subject extends ominously into the future, and he's recently had his belief in the domesticated nature of the future badly rattled:

My surprise at this pretty obvious-seeming realization [that nobody knows the future] showed me the extent to which, thanks to Hollywood or my own paranoia or whatever, I'd unconsciously internalized a belief in the existence of some guy, some prematurely middle-aged guy, either Jewish or Asian (or, in the comedy version I sometimes screen internally, Irish) who sits in a room in the bowels of some governmental building and actually knows what's going to happen in the future...

The future is uncertain, yes, and Sullivan creeps up to it by chronicling all the various ... oddities his research and Livengood's obsession have uncovered. Sea lions chasing swimmers. Chimpanzees using sharpened sticks to spear small monkeys hiding in tree hollows. Male elephants on the African savanna raping rhinos.

Once he broaches the subject, it veritably gushes from him, and the reader gradually gets the impression of what he's getting at:

One example: In Bombay earlier this year, a pack of leopards entered the town - just sauntered out of the forest at the heart of the city - and murdered a total of twenty-two people. J. C. Daniel, an environmentalist who has monitored the wildlife in that forest for forty years, said, 'We have to study why the animal is coming out. It never came out before.'
Because that's his subject: the recently-escalating level of aberrant animal behavior, both animals attacking other animals and, more to the point, animals attacking humans in unprecedented numbers.

(here is the only place where Sullivan's excellent piece goes astray - he lets the oddities of the events he's describing sometimes carry him away. For instance, at one point he suggests something frankly unbelievable:

A pack of 200 dogs descended out of the mountains - this was in Albania - ran straight into the town of Mamurras, and just started going after people - old people, young people, 'dragging them to the ground and inflicting serious wounds.' One witness spoke of a 'clearly identifiable leader.' (Lest we assume this to be a seasonal occurence in Albania, the town's mayor, Anton Frroku, stated that 'even in the movies, I have never seen a horde of 200 stray dogs from the mountains attacking people in the middle of a town.' 'Clearly identifiable leader': Elsewhere, too, there are suggestions of organization, cooperation.'

Obviously this part of his piece is fiction - normally solitary animals like male leopards or adult male elephants accept no hierarchical leader and will only seem to be acting in unison when they each come to the same conclusion about what they want to do. To insinuate otherwise is to hint that such disparate animals as elephants or tigers or dogs or cephalopods might have some kind of separate sovereigns who can override their genetic predispositions and organize them, which is obviously the stuff of fantasy. It's here and only here that Sullivan attributes a growing malevolence to the phenomenon he's describing).

That phenomenon only comes to him gradually, as he does more and more reading in wilder and wilder regions of the Internet. And a similar note keeps sounding in all his reading:

What stuck out above all else, as I clicked through Livengood's dots, was the same tendency that had presented itself when I was still just idly following news items on the Internet, namely, the extraordinary number of 'first time' attacks. That is, not simply unprecedented types of attack, such as leopard packs going forth and killing in a crowded city, but rather, pure cases of: animals that have never shown a desire to kill human beings before, killing them.

For every account that seemed a little far-fetched and made me think a few qualifying facts must have been left out, there'd be another that, while admittedly bizarre, had the instant ring of stuff you wouldn't make up, like the jogger in southeastern North Carolina who witnesses saw get surrounded on the boardwalk by a squadron of oversize male hermit crabs, which approached him, kung fu style, with that one bulging claw forward, and appeared to attempt to drive him off the pier. And as always with cases like these, the quote from the zoologist comes around like a mantra: first recorded ... not known to have occurred previously ... relevant literature was searched but no prior instances retrieved ... experts shocked ... abnormal ... unheard of ...

One of these unheard-of incidents happened in Kenya in 2000, during the worst of a drought, when newly arrived water tankers were welcomed by thirsty villagers - and a well-organized troop of equally-thirsty monkeys, who fought a pitched battle for days over who would drink and live. The human villagers eventually won that battle by resorting to axes, but it was a near-run thing, and several of its smaller corollaries went the other way:

In late February of that year, a herder named Ali Adam Hussein slid down to that puddle, probably not to slake his own thirst but to gather a little water for his cows. He looked up and saw several monkeys looking down at him. Presumably, he went to go for his weapon. The monkeys responded by lifting several stones and hurling them directly at his head. He died hours later of what a nurse back in Mandera, where we'd just come from, described simply as "severe head injuries."

His guide Livengood puts it plainly, as plainly as the case is made in this remarkable piece:

Think about it like this, he said, In the early eighteenth century, there were massive combined populations of enslaved blacks, embattled Indians, and poor-white servants living in North America. If at any moment they had truly woken up to the nature of their plight, which is to say the commonality of their plight, and identified its cause as the agenda of the Colonial ruling class, ours would not now be a mainly European continent, genetically speaking. The animals are making the same discovery. And I don't think they'll squander it.

That's pure Marc Livengood, as Sullivan has presented him to us, and it's only at the piece's very end that we learn the jarring truth, or rather untruth: there is no Livengood - there never was. The article ends on a one-two punch of unsettling notes, delivered like this:

Big parts of this piece I made up. I didn't want to say that, but the editors are making me, because of certain scandals in the past with made-up stories and because they want to distance themselves from me. Fine. I made up Marc Livengood. I made up the trip to Nairobi. But I didn't make up the two incidents in Kenya, the battles of the monkeys and men and the murder [this is Sullivan's word]. I did not fabricate a single one of the animal-related facts or stories, the incidents. There's even a real-life guy on the Internet whom I could have used in place of the made-up one, but that go messy, because he wanted money, and anyway, he was insane.

And then this, from GQ's apparently craven editors:

Editor's note: Gay Bradshaw, Christina Holzapfel, and everyone at the Institute for the Future and the at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University are serious scholars and researchers who had nothing to do with this story and have never discussed animal violence with the author, much less endorsed any of his assertions, nor would they, presumably.

This weird and outstanding declaration comes at the end of a piece that is weird and outstanding enough as it is. So what are we supposed to take from it? That there really is such a topic as is euphemistically called 'animal violence' but we aren't to talk about it in the hallowed pages of GQ? Or maybe that the mention of 'serious scholars and researchers' is meant to denigrate Sullivan's character and work habits, when he himself has been at great pains throughout his piece to stress his own doubts and his own fallible humanity?

The magazine is obviously haunted by the ghost of Stephen Glass, who famously fabricated stories while working at the New Republic. Many magazines are, and we here at Stevereads will admit to feeling a little leaden sensation upon first reading that Marc Livengood is a fictional character. Part of the reason is because Sullivan doesn't just use him as conduit for exposition: he invests Livengood with a wide range of totally believable character quirks.

And ultimately, it doesn't matter. When Glass wrote about the Wild West nature of the brand-new Internet, or the odd stress of being a telephone psychic, or the crazy excesses political conventions, he was telling truths, regardless of the lies he clothed them in - and he was turning out some fantastic prose in the process. Sullivan hasn't transgressed quite so far - he immediately admits to his fabrications, and he's right (we had an intern check): every instance he cites of increased or unprecedented animal violence is concretely documentable. And he's crafted a fantastic piece of prose in the process.

The men among our readers will already own a copy of this issue, for, er, other reasons. But for the sake of "Violence of the Lambs," we urge all the rest of you - men, women, manatees, Elmo - to give it a look.


brian said...

Steve, this is the first time I've ever been aroused by one of your postings. That's all.

steve said...

Brian, welcome to Beepy's world.

steve said...

But also, apart from the aforementioned GQ cover (which would arouse just about anybody, gay, straight, hermaprhodite, undead .. you name it), I take it you liked the entry?

Or was it just the pachyderm sex, you old dog?

stoners.manual said...

I loved this article. It was so well paced. The chimps using spears unsettled me the most. Turns out to be pretty well confirmed. You can see video of a chimp ... almost... using a spear here:

Sam said...

Do you think it's really true that if the slaves, American Indians, and poor whites had banded together they could have overwhelmed the rest of the colonizing population? Beyond a lots of early victories in the form of massacres, I don't see how this could have been. The US was never a little island like Haiti. It seems like a matter of long-term resources, weapons, industry; guns and steel and all that.

steve said...

It wouldn't have required even all those people: if the American Indian tribes who were here when the first waves of colonizers started arriving had a) accepted this for the enormous, overwhelming danger it represented and b) stopped their own internal squabblings and banded together across a common front, they could have completely prevented the European expropriation of North America, at least until the developement of warplanes.

Greg said...

That whole scenario seems even less likely than all of the Europeans banding together to take over the continent.

Anonymous said...

I know the writer of the essay, and I know that none of the animal attack info was invented. There are fictional elements in the piece, but none of the hard-to-believe animal stuff, including the 200 dogs, was made up.

Locke Peterseim said...

I've known Steve for 24 (!!!!) years and to this day I still have trouble figuring out when a) Steve doesn't get the joke or b) Steve gets the joke, but pretends NOT to get the joke in order to provoke responses from others who get the joke and think Steve doesn't.

For starters, Steve does sometimes have a bit of trouble seeing things in their context. Plus, given its subject, it's obvious he very much WANTS this story to be true. Whether or not he really believes it, well, there's where I have to shrug.

Secondly, because he is well over 300 years old, Steve still remembers a time when slick fashion magazines like GQ and Esquire mattered for their journalism, essays, and fiction. They don't anymore. They still have plenty of amusing or distracting stuff in them, but Steve probably still assigns them much more credence and gravitas than they deserve.

That said, the GQ article is a joke. A hoax. A funny. It's like the Jurassic Museum of Technology in LA -- it's performance art, in this case, meta-fiction.

It doesn't matter one whit whether the animal attacks are real or not -- that's not the point and it's not the joke. Nor is the joke as simple as an attempt to hoax people into believing there's a connection between the attacks. And it's not a just goof on Stephen Glass. (It might also be a bit of a goof on global-warming alarmists.) Mostly, it seems to me, the author and editors' intent is to goof on the idea of Internet pseudo-science, on the fact that massive information-communication hootenanny that is the Interwebs naturally lends itself to this sort of thing: people soaking up too many random facts and then venturing into the very dangerous waters of Trying To Make Sense of Them All.

I don't doubt the attacks happened (though, intern-free myself, I am not going to try to track them all down), and I don't doubt Sullivan found someone online who's postulated the theory that They Are Ganging Up On Us.

But what I see the piece as is one of those bits of writing that bubbles up when a writer and his editors spend so much time generating story ideas, chasing down increasingly wacky leads in hopes of finding that elusive new, sensational story. So what you end up with is a meta-work that says "Here, you want a sensational story?! You got it! It's not really true, but that's the danger of the information world we live in these days."

The author does not believe these attacks are signs of a worldwide animal uprising. He does not believe the "real" Livengood model he found online is credible or even sane. He seems, to me, to be making the point that if you wallow too long in the murky depths of the World Wide Web, you're gonna get a little waterlogged.

And looking back over Steve's entry, I think now he does get the joke -- his reference to the "craven" GQ editors probably tipped his hand a bit.

Sullivan is having us on. Steve is having us on. I am the only speaking the truth to you all. Now send me all your money and canned goods.

And Rachel Bilson? Eh, cute but not really all that. She's no Anne Hathaway.

Locke Peterseim said...

Or did everyone else get that the article is a joke and that Steve knows it's a joke and I'M the one not getting it (that is, that everyone gets it)?

(Oh, and it's been 22 years, not 24. That I've known Steve -- spring of '86, not '84. I just thought I should clear that up -- you know, for when they forge the commemorative plaque.)

steve said...

Just you wait until the lobsters come for YOU, smarty-pants! THEN you'll see!

Locke Peterseim said...

Wait, the lobsters want my PANTS? Huh?

Oh yeah -- they're GQ lobsters!

Sadly, I fear my pants would not be cool enough for GQ lobsters...

Locke Peterseim said...

But just to be safe, I'm surrounding my bed with pots of boiling water.

steve said...

86 or 84 - doesn't matter! everybody here - with the exception of Beepy - wasn't yet BORN in any case, back when you and I were first having fun in a public forum! How different the world is now, and yet how alike! And WE'RE still here! Life, as I insisted to you back then, is good!

Kevin Caron said...

Uh... Steve, I think the bulk of your regulars were born, say, a decade or more before 1986. At least, me, Jeffy, Beepy, Locke, even dandy ol' Sebastien...

Locke Peterseim said...

"back when you and I were first having fun in a public forum"

Um, for the record, Steve and I did NOT meet in a park restroom.

Just wanted to be clear about that.

Anonymous said...

I know Sullivan very well and know for certain that none of the instances of animal attacks were fictionalized. Is there any question as to how good a writer Sullivan is, that now the Washington Post is writing about this piece?

jake said...

It's happening, people. This is REAL. Have a look...

Ryoo said...

Thanks for posting this article and opening it up for discussion. I have read the GQ article so many times, it fascinates me.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

Great writing! I want you to follow up on this topic!!