On the day the calendar officially turns to fall, the only thing that needs to be said about the state of the novel is this: E.L. James’s Grey—from that time-honored genre of English letters, the shot-for-shot rewrite of an erotic fanfic of a series of young adult vampire novels—was the book of the summer. Which isn’t to say it’s good.
Quite the opposite; if Grey were a novelization of that movie with Liam Neeson fighting the wolves, it’d probably be a better book. And it’s not to lament the ascendance of trashy books. I understand the fascination with the source material twice removed, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series. I’m just as interested as anyone to see what happens when an impossibly handsome, wealthy, superpower-possessing immortal, who believes that a never-ending life is best spent being a cool kid in high school forever, tells a misunderstood girl that she’s his soulmate and also by the way the most important person in the universe. I have a harder time with the source material once removed, Fifty Shades of Grey, which seems to ask a much less interesting question: what if anything remotely compelling about Twilight was replaced with generic bondage fetishism? But sure, I get it, even without the supernatural element, tied-up hot vampire fanfic is sexy to some folks.
The appeal of Grey is more esoteric to me. (And not just because it asks the least interesting question yet: how does the male protagonist of Fifty Shades—who, in a wonderfully carnate transformation of his immortal counterpart’s forever-prom-king ethos, trains all of his immense wealth, power, and good looks on the vexing problem of “inventing new ways to touch a boob”—feel about touching boobs?) It seems to me that, when you tip up Twilight’s lid and take a peek inside, nothing should be in there, let alone another book, let alone another book with another book inside of it. But sure enough, there’s Grey, like a tiny poop emoji matryoshka-doll nested within two larger ones, the larval offspring of the author’s tedious sensibility and Word’s find-and-replace function, soon to grow into a fully mature pile of shit. And despite not understanding its appeal myself, I understand the forces that propelled Grey to book-of-the-summer heights.
When Grey entered the world, it met a mass audience craving media fashioned in the mode of light beer: irresistibly familiar and smooth on the way down. If you’ve got any doubt, take a look at the wildly successful summer blockbusters (three of the top six films of all time by worldwide box office gross): Furious 7, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Jurassic World. Or check out the announcements for the reboots of Full House, The X-Files, Coach, Twin Peaks, Heroes, Ducktales, The Magic School Bus, etc. Or try to avoid all those lists of pictures of Surge cans paired with Rugrats quotes in your Facebook feed. Grey simply ports the concept to the novel form. It’s a longform listicle; a 576-page-long “14 Things Only Hey Arnold! Fans Will Understand”; a breezy, regurgitative, BuzzFeed-style book, whose primary purpose is to serve as a reminder of, and trade on the emotions you felt while having, your encounter with the original.
In the summer of the simulacrum, Grey was the defining book. The simulacrum is the unreal stand-in. It’s the shadow of past experience that has taken the original’s place. It’s the evil twin who has killed off and is now masquerading as the good one. Simulacra can take the form of derivation after derivation of something that’s pure fluff to begin with. Take Coca-Cola: totally superfluous, serving no particular need, something we want only because we want it. Two levels removed from Coke, there’s its simulacrum: Caffeine-Free Coke Zero, a painstakingly accurate attempt to reproduce the taste of the original with none of its nutritional or medicinal effects. Drinking Caffeine-Free Coke Zero is “almost literally drink[ing] nothing in the guise of something,” and that “something” is itself pure fluff. Grey is the Caffeine-Free Coke Zero to Twilight’s Coke: at two steps removed, nothing masquerading as superfluous something. Grey is the perfect book of this summer.
But a simulacrum isn’t always the product of derivative superfluousness, of fluff all the way down; a yearning to relive a past experience felt deeply and authentically drives a more powerful form. Fossilization replaces organic material with rock, turning the original into a copy of the same dimension and shape but utterly different composition. Time and memory work a similar transformation on your most authentic experiences. “When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia [becomes] its full meaning,” and the mineralized simulacrum replaces the living original; you can never get it back, no matter how hard you try.
It’s this desperate attempt to relive the authentic original that propelled the massive sales of Grey’s successor on bestseller lists: Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. The book’s failure to recapture what made To Kill a Mockingbird resonate with so many people—its failure to serve as simulacrum—is what made it so disappointing to so many people.
It’s not surprising that people would want to relive the experience of reading To Kill a Mockingbird, a book that taught millions of adolescents that homespun goodness stands a chance against crushing injustice. If you’re anything like me, you believed that, if we could all just be something like Atticus Finch, we could transcend evil. And if you’re anything like me, as you get older, what’s going on in the world makes you wonder whether that was, is, or ever will be possible.
I think that’s what’s so troubling about Atticus’s objectionable beliefs in Go Set a Watchman. Fond memories of Atticus—the near-superhero who calmly, stoically, automatically opposed racism because it was the right thing to do—are a connection with the memory of a younger version of yourself and a corresponding worldview in which simple wisdom can solve complex problems. When you’re young, it feels good to learn that Scout—a kid just like you!—can wrap her mind around an issue of such vexing adult complexity just by looking up to her dad.
With these nostalgic feelings at stake, a racist Atticus jeopardizes not just the integrity of the character, but of the place inside of yourself where you go to feel good when the world around you provides no possibility of hope or comfort. A racist Atticus drags the inner youthful idealist kicking and screaming into harsh contemporary reality, when so much is so wrong that it’s easy to question whether we’ve ever made any progress at all. If you were expecting a nostalgia-reinforcing simulacrum, a remix of the familiar feelings from To Kill a Mockingbird—and this summer, why wouldn’t you be?—the book struck a jarringly discordant note.
Thank god. To Kill a Mockingbird did not hold a mirror up to reality. It presents an adolescent fiction. As Harper Lee recognized, but her readers often sadly don’t, the simple fairness of stern fathers will not end the complex injustices of racism. The last thing we need is a simulacrum of a book allowing us a further retreat to that childlike worldview. It’s 2015! After two centuries of slavery, 90 years of Jim Crow, 60 years of separate but equal, and 35 years of racist housing policy, there’s no place for the language of children in our reckoning of this country’s compounding moral debts. It’s high time we kicked down the pillow forts in our minds where we go when we want to remember child narrators telling our child selves that everything is going to be okay. If there’s nowhere inside of ourselves left to retreat, no state of innocence to regress to, maybe we’ll finally go out into the world and figure out how to live in it.
[Image via AP]