Image via Alex Cook
Long considered one of the forefathers of the contemporary short story, Anton Chekhov (1860–1904) has continued for more than a century to be held up as an example of how to tell a human tale. There is perhaps no larger precursor for realistic short fiction in its most popular form: clearly stated, socially involved narrative displays that set out to objectively mimic human life. I can certainly tell you that more than a few times while I was studying fiction as an MFA student, Chekhov was passed around like some holy washcloth everyone should rub their faces on.
You might also be familiar with Jeffrey Dahmer (1960–1994), who raped and murdered 17 known male victims over a period of 13 years. Made most infamous for his proclivity to store or cook and eat parts of his victims’ bodies, Dahmer remains one of the most unnerving of all repeat killers, despite his oddly calm and mechanically regretful outward demeanor. I can’t remember ever having a teacher mention Dahmer as someone I should use as a model for good art.
And yet, somehow in my mind these two keep crossing paths. I find I can’t help myself from thinking about Dahmer every time I hear someone mention Chekhov, like a lurking shadow in my spirit. I can’t help but want to draw them out, to put them together in a cage and watch their brains bump. Finally, the other day I started culling quotes from both and began to find weird intersections between their thoughts. Below I’ve pitted some of each against each other, and tried to make sense of the wide gap between the two.
I realize this likely means I will never be allowed to teach collegiate fiction.
CHEKHOV: “If there is a gun hanging on the wall in the first act, it must fire in the last.”
DAHMER (of his first victim): "I, uh, didn't know how else to keep him there other than to get the barbell and hit him, over the head, which I did, and then strangled him with the same barbell."
If I could point to one artist’s quote that has done the most damage to keeping things interesting, it’s Chekhov’s faux-ominous gun. Besides the fact that it completely discounts the concept of mystery or aura, what it really means to me is Chekhov imagined his audience as too stupid or bored to appreciate anything that doesn’t go boom, kind of like a 19th-century Russian take on Michael Bay. A gun is a gun and a face is a face and death is death. There’s no need to pretend that just because we’re in a novel or a movie that everything you see has hidden purpose, or can’t be beautiful without application to the human.
Dahmer doesn’t pretend that he began the hell he created out of anything beyond blood-drunk improvisation. His murder weapon, the barbell, was just something that happened to be there—a tool used and then discarded. Even his fumbling way of explicating his procedure adds an eerie layer that reflects more turmoil and overrun emotion than the idea that everything in life has its special little place. Instead, the tools are all around you. Anything could be a door toward an end, even if that end is you being put in prison and killed almost exactly the same way. Life repeats because it has no choice, not because some dick in a smoking jacket says so.
Winner: DAHMER (1–0)
CHEKHOV: “Don't try for too many characters. The center of gravity should reside in two: he and she.” And: “I'll have to limit myself to descriptions of how my heroes love, marry, give birth, die, and how they speak.”
DAHMER: "I was completely swept along with my own compulsion. I don't know how else to put it. It didn't satisfy me completely, so maybe I was thinking, 'Maybe another one will. Maybe this one will.' And the numbers started growing and growing and just got out of control, as you can see."
Yes, please, don’t confuse me, for God’s sake! I read so I can feel superior to something, to watch it play out before my eyes like a little Christmas menagerie. I’m definitely very interested in hearing all about the relationship between the man and lady characters you made up, because there’s not enough of that already going on literally every-fucking-where I look. I am very interested in who is fucking who in a book and how and what emotional garbage they got into between the fucking.
That is the fuel of bad TV and movies, as well as books that follow the model like they’re shamelessly begging someone to film them. No, actually, I want a wildness, a stringently orchestrated amalgam that makes me wonder how it was even made, one that I perhaps want to understand but know there isn’t really a definitive answer beyond the wonder of being in the throat of a collision of events, ideas, words, images. The book or film or whatever, I believe, should in the end find a way beyond its creator’s control. It should circumvent his original plan, like a weird shitty baby released into the wild to crawl all over everything, getting bigger as it goes.
Winner: DAHMER (2–0)
CHEKHOV: “A writer is not a confectioner, a cosmetic dealer, or an entertainer. He is a man who has signed a contract with his conscience and his sense of duty.”
DAHMER: "I would cook it, and look at the pictures and masturbate."
In my book, “a man who has signed a contract with his conscience and his sense of duty” is called a priest. Or a Boy Scout leader (if there’s a difference). Chekhov would have probably kicked ass at heading up a troop, leading his boys to receive the most merit badges ever: the Realistic Dialogue merit badge; the Compassion merit badge; the Most Students Published In the New Yorker merit badge… OK, now I’m just being a dick.
But certainly a parent’s greatest fear is that lurking in all Boy Scout leaders is a latent Jeffrey Dahmer, cooking in his brain a feast of grotesque proportion, fantasy with the constant threat of becoming real. And yet, how many truly great den leaders wrote a book you’d like to spend some time with?
Even when on its face a book is comprised of a very specific and heartfelt system of morals and emotional clarity, such as with David Foster Wallace’s work, there remains lurking there a gray area in its deployment. The would-be profane sense of masturbation behind all the mechanics is what brings out of order something more true, more broiling with not only ambition, but jacked-up color, infection, shit that makes you go “wow,” not “oh.”
Winner: DAHMER (3–0)
CHEKHOV: “Literature is accepted as an art because it depicts life as it actually is. Its aim is the truth, unconditional and honest.”
DAHMER: "The only motive that there ever was was to completely control a person; a person I found physically attractive. And keep them with me as long as possible, even if it meant just keeping a part of them."
I can’t help but get the image here of a guy sitting in the Grand Canyon reading a book about the Grand Canyon, which is a more contemporary image than Chekhov necessarily deserves. I don’t know about most people, but I don’t read or look at art because I want to learn about myself, or about the world. Nor is it used as an escape. Instead, it’s kind of a morbid fascination, a force against the nagging idea that there is some kind of truth and I must uphold it. I can go to the mall whenever I want and see all the people and hear them on their phones, and from there walk out into the warm sun and go sit in the car again and drive somewhere and experience more life. The moment I know what you are talking about, I usually don’t want to listen.
I believe what you read or see in unique images becomes part of your life—it creates a place that you have been that is not accessible beyond its particular frame. It’s not truth so much as terror, even in the calmest of bodies, that for a while you can be taken over, erased, filled with thoughts, images not yours, but now inside you whether you want them to be or not.
The problem is, as Dahmer found, the drugs don’t work if what you’re trying to do is hypnotize somebody into loving you, into swallowing your secret truth. Don’t give me time to realize I don’t believe you.
Winner: DAHMER (4–0)
CHEKHOV: “Man is what he believes.”
DAHMER: "If I'd been thinking rationally I would have stopped. I wasn't thinking rationally because it just increased and increased. It was almost like I wanted to get to a point where it was out of my control and there was no return.”
It’s a bizarre world, full of bizarre bodies, each with their own arms and their own minds, each recalibrating everything around them in their minds every second whether they want to or not, whether it is true or not. Anything can come next.
Winner: DAHMER (5–0)
Previously by Blake Butler: Sarcophagi of Prisoners Covered in Cocaine