Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Play's Not The Thing

Creative writing students beware -- short stories or plays containing bleak, twisted themes and action may put you under suspicion. At least that's the gist I get after hearing the clamor over Cho Seung-Hui's body of work, such as it is. Professor Carolyn Rude, chairwoman of Virginia Tech's English department, said that Cho's writing disturbed her to the point that he had been referred to the university's counseling service. As she put it: "Sometimes, in creative writing, people reveal things and you never know if it's creative or if they're describing things, if they're imagining things or just how real it might be. But we're all alert to not ignore things like this."

A former classmate of Cho's, Ian MacFarlane, recalled that he and other students were alarmed by the angry tone of Cho's work. "When we read Cho's plays, it was like something out of a nightmare. The plays had really twisted, macabre violence that used weapons I wouldn't have even thought of. [We] were talking to each other with serious worry about whether he could be a school shooter."

As an aficionado of raw, dark, passionate writing, I naturally became curious about these "nightmare" plays. How fucked up were they really? Did they seriously suggest that Cho was a possible threat to public order? MacFarlane cut short my suspense by posting two of Cho's plays, "Richard McBeef" and "Mr. Brownstone". If you are interested in the full back-story to Cho's insane, grisly actions, then I suppose you should read the plays. But trust me, they are alarming only in the sense of being horribly written and poorly thought out. Unless there are other, more violent plays that Cho wrote, I cannot see where all the concern comes from. Yes, Cho clearly was possessed by deep anger, but that's nothing new in the creative world. Just look around you. Lord knows at the Son, I tapped out my fair share of violent fantasies, and used graphic, gruesome photos to make political, satirical points. Should I be put under surveillance?

I understand that in the immediate wake of such an atrocity, people want fast, easy answers so to soothe and calm their rattled senses. The reality that a young man had bad wiring and simply lost it is apparently not enough to help people cope. There must be more complex reasons for such madness, and thus the parsing of Cho's awful plays.

As happened after Columbine, teachers and professors nationwide will, for a time anyway, raise red flags when reading a particularly angry or violent scenario by any given student. And if the student dresses in all black, keeps to him- or herself, is a loner, listens to "weird" music, and the rest of it, you can be sure that tabs will be kept on their movements and public behavior. What some enterprising student should do is submit portions of Octave Mirbeau's "The Torture Garden" under their own name and see how their teacher or prof reacts. Or parts of William Burroughs' "Nova Express." Or bits from Kathy Acker's books. Or Dennis Cooper's. Or Donald Goines'. It might prove to be an illuminating experiment on how a young, "strange" creative person is perceived by his or her elders, as well as a test of a teacher's literary knowledge. And it would show how ridiculous it is to assume that what one writes is how one lives, or that a macabre story is a possible blueprint for mass murder.

Cho Seung-Hui was fucked in the head, and apparently made women nervous with his anti-social behavior. In time, he bought handguns, which has very little to do with creative writing. That's the story, sad and brutal though it is. There is the larger context of living in a violent, deluded society, but that doesn't completely explain Cho's madness, it serves mostly as backdrop. Sometimes horrible things happen for no reason. For the moment, the VaTech massacre appears to be one.