I originally wrote and turned in this article on Seung-Hui Cho, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooter, on Wednesday of last week. I wasn’t really sure why I felt stuck on Cho enough to write about him and his writing three years after the fact, particularly not as reporting on books for VICE, but anyway, I wrote it. Then, early last Thursday afternoon, when reports of a second shooting on the V Tech campus began popping up on my Facebook, it didn’t as much “make sense” as it felt, um, kind of fucked. Regardless, what follows seems as much in alignment with what I meant and felt when I first wrote it as it does with its echo.
Americans love people who kill people. We don’t want to say it that way, and we don’t want to be killed ourselves (most of us, not really), but it’s obvious there’s a kind of outright worship of those who go beyond what is generally considered the extent of fair or appropriate or even human behavior. This type of human will actually perform what much of our entertainment seems interested in only simulating.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this in relation to language, how it seems harder and harder now not only to have any sort of ordered idea of what’s going on, but to simply remember much of anything. It seems hard lately for me to remember anything I read. I don’t know when that started happening, or if it was always that way, but a lot of the time now I can’t even really remember what I’m reading while I’m reading it. It feels like sentences come in and, like, disappear in there somewhere. Into a field of shit of me.
Even as much as we would say killing in schools shouldn’t happen, wars shouldn’t happen, murder, period, shouldn’t happen, such events stand out and force you to attend to them. It’s not even shock value anymore; there is no shock now. The event seems almost to have happened before it happened, which is terrifying in a way that transcends even the mass murder.
I recently read David Vann’s Last Day On Earth, a rigorous and engrossing book that explores the life and suicide of Steve Kazmierczak, who on Valentine’s Day of 2008 burst into an auditorium at Northern Illinois University and shot the place up, killing 5, wounding 18. Then he killed himself. The book is an amazing balance of tracing the facts of days that lead Kazmierczak to the shooting, which, among Craigslist sex addiction and a history of depression, included an obsessive admiration for Seung-Hui Cho, whose assault of Virginia Tech had been only slightly less than a year earlier.
After I finished the book I couldn’t stop thinking about how Cho had been taking writing classes during his last semester at Virginia Tech, attempting to express himself through language before blood. Instead, he ended up constructing the sentences that would land him forever in a great number of heads by acting in the way he might have meant to have his characters act instead. Though, then what?
I need to make a list.
THINKING ABOUT SEUNG-HUI CHO’S ONE-ACT PLAY, “RICHARD MCBEEF”
1. I think a lot about “Richard McBeef” by the Virginia Tech killer Seung-Hui Cho, even though I’ve never fully read it.
2. I think about it somewhat in the same way I think about the reams of error-printed paper I would pore over as a kid when our dot matrix printer would fuck up and spit out a bunch of random characters and digits, which I then would spend hours trying to find a code in.
3. Though I never found a specific code in there and probably imagine Cho’s play would by no means blow my mind, I like the idea of there being something possible in either, available to those who’d seek it out, in whatever method.
4. Cho’s Professor Edward Falco said of Cho’s work: “They're not good writing, but at least they are a form of communication.”
5. His classmates called his writing “really morbid and grotesque.”
6. Entertainment Weekly hired Stephen King to report, “He may have been inspired by Columbine, but only because he was too dim to think up such a scenario on his own.”
7. Stephen King’s IT similarly fucked with me without having read it, when as a child I couldn’t bring myself to even open the copy I brought home from the library.
8. I set it on my desk facedown and watched it from the bed. If I didn’t pick it up it did not move.
9. Any book I’ve read of Stephen King’s and finished I’ve found any true terror tamed away.
10. It’s easy to imagine the kind of writing Cho’s classmates probably wrote in his Intro to Short Fiction class. It is doubtful any of them are still writing.
11. I imagine the work in the class that the professor or other students would have said was more interesting or better than Cho’s probably didn’t have much attention to language in it, beyond the way a carefully arranged story to be clear would be considered "attentive."
12. It is both American to shit on Cho’s work for not being diligent when so much here is not diligent, as well as it is American to think about Cho’s works without having read him, if in different ways.
13. I am writing this on the toilet. Artaud said famously, “All writing is pigshit.” Though these days, I might imagine there’s not enough writing that feels like pigshit, and instead too much that just feels like wallpaper. At least pigshit has thick smell.
14. The light in this room, like most rooms, stays on until I turn it off.
15. I don’t blame any of my friends who do not read for not reading, because look at what books we find easily in stores and what books are made well known or what books win awards.
16. Not to say that no good books win awards, but that it is certainly often books of a specific style, which is aimed to be digestible, understood. Not pigshit, let’s say.
17. I also don’t blame any of my friends for not reading because I usually can’t remember what I read even right after having finished it these days. It goes in me and there it is.
18. I often find I can’t remember a lot of what had happened in a book I’ve just finished reading. There are maybe certain sentences, or scenes, or a certain kind of phrasing or an image. The story becomes blurbs.
19. One of my friends said the other day the reason he doesn’t read books is because he likes to instead watch movies while reading their Wikipedia page.
20. Another friend said he doesn’t read books because by now he’s used to being able to read five or six things at a time and skip around.
21. Most of the time these days I only read while working out, where there’s no internet or cell phone.
22. I sit on a stationary bike so I can read while doing that and sometimes it’s hard to concentrate over the sound of the people grunting or the sports on the TV and yet I keep reading and often do not reread even if I can’t understand it, and I always end up drenched in sweat.
23. I only clean up the sweat on the machine I have used to work out with if someone I think will care is watching.
24. If Cho hadn’t killed people, no one would have ever read his writing besides the people in his class who said it sucks.
25. About two years before the murders, Cho wrote on the door of a girl who he was allegedly stalking: “By a name, I know not how to tell who I am. My name, dear saint, is hateful to myself, because it is an enemy to thee. Had I it written, I would tear the word.”
26. Whether or not the girl knew that was from Romeo and Juliet, which I would not automatically have, I wonder if those words ever meant anything to her but in a way that made her scared.
27. I wonder what if “Richard McBeef” had been a 450-page manuscript about displacement; who still might be alive.
28. Often when reading back over books I loved as a child, or even as recently as years ago, I will find that the book doesn’t hold the same appeal.
29. That I have changed so significantly mentally or otherwise since reading the book that I can’t even see what about me would like that book now or ever.
30. It seems dangerous to pretend anything is blank.
31. It seems equally dangerous in a different kind of way to assume that anything not blank has any power.
32. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme said, “Anybody can kill anybody,” which I realize in typing now is what it feels like to be online.
33. Anyone in the world is potentially contactable at anytime, if you know where they are at any given moment, or if you can guess the string of characters and digits that comprise their email address or their cell phone.
34. Some have claimed that to use a word is to word the thing it represents.
35. Chances are strong that you wrote or spoke several thousand words today.
36. Chances are even stronger than you took in more words than you realize you were taking in.
37. Most people at some point during their lives have had feelings at times of wanting to hurt others, though most do nothing about it.
38. I am no longer writing on my toilet but at my desk, which came from a science class in a school where I have never been. So many other people before me must have touched this desk.
39. It seems like one source of problems in our country is the tendency to want to refuse something as art while insisting that something else is art when the effect of either is debatable.
40. And yet there must be laws.
41. No one should really die, not really.
42. People are often willing to revolt over things that affect them financially or politically but not over what is fed into their mind. Because, perhaps, they feel they have a choice over what really goes into their mind, or at the very least how to evaluate it.
43. Tonight it isn’t cold or hot here but just on the cusp of either and it’s roughly three weeks until Christmas.
44. I google image search “Seung-Hui Cho” and it feels awful that there his head is, in there, smiling, not smiling, mouth open or mouth closed.
45. The woman I share a wall with in this complex has a dog she taught not to bark by putting a collar on it that would spray it in the face.
46. Every day there are more books.
47. Every day there are less sentences that have never been spoken in the subset of language that existed yesterday, and yet at the same time there seems more potential space in which to be spoken, space created by what those words did in the space they made in who heard or did not hear.
48. A book, once printed, says the same thing whether or not its author is alive or dead.
49. This is a country where you can do anything you want given the limits.
50. Anything you say might be remembered this time.