Friday, 15 January 2010

'There is plenty of blame to go around'

by Simon Lelic

The school shooting is a worryingly familiar social phenomenon and has already inspired films like Gus Van Sant's Elephant and countless novels including Booker winner Vernon God Little and bestseller We Need To Talk About Kevin. With his first novel Lelic looks at a shooting in a school from a different angle, the perpetrator here not a pupil but a member of staff, an idea inspired by a real life shooting in the US where a college professor shot a colleague. With a police detective as a central character it would be tempting to put this in the crime-fiction box but it doesn't really read like that, focusing instead on the spectre of bullying in all its forms amongst pupils, staff and the police force itself. The novel begins breathlessly as a truant recounts her version of events, hers the only voice, the interviewing detective's own utterances left out. Much of the book is presented in this way, like evidence, with just the words of the interviewee, leaving it for us to fill in any blanks and slowly, piece by piece, get a clearer understanding of the events leading up to the shooting. When it reverts to third-person narration following DI Lucia May we witness the systematic bullying and harassment she receives in her male-dominated workplace, part of the reason of course why she is compelled to find out more about the real motive involved in the shooting (not even her case by the way), convinced always that this was more complicated than just a lone nut with a gun.

Lucia May begins with the aftermath, walking the route taken by the gunman, trying to imagine what had been going through his mind, but before long she is caught up in the story of panic told by the scene of devastation left behind.

From the rear wall to the podium, chairs lay on their backs, on their sides, any way but the right way up. Many were still laced together so that where one chair had fallen the rest had fallen too, transforming the row into a barrier, the legs of the chairs into barbs. Lucia was reminded of an image of Verdun, of the land and the barricades between the trenches. She imagined children, their eyes bleeding fear, tripping and becoming entangled and then trampled by those behind. She imagined the impact of one of the upended chair legs against a stomach, a cheek, a temple.

In order to really understand what had been going through his mind of course she needs to know the full story, to pursue her hunch that this apparently random shooting was an almost logical conclusion to what came before it. Samuel Szajkowski (shy-kov-skee) was just an ordinary, if reserved, teacher but from the moment he first entered the classroom and told the class his name he was never given a chance to keep his head above water. That name is all that class bully Donovan Stanley needs to begin a campaign of sustained and eventually devastating abuse. 'Shitewhatsir?..Shitecoughski?', and that cough in the middle is the one we all know that really means 'fuck off'. Despite his attempts to calmly explain his Polish ancestry and engage with the mounting unrest in the class room it isn't long before he finds it impossible to control and leaves the room. That it turns out is a big mistake.

Through the direct address of those many voices of evidence Lelic is able to drop the relevant pieces of information at just the right points of the book, much like the clues in a conventional crime novel. His ear for character voices is impressive in the early stages, only later does he occasionally fall for the writerly pitfall of putting something far too clever into someone's mouth. That phrase 'institutional' springs to mind when describing the culture of bullying within a school. Only through the complicity of other staff members could a teacher like Szajkovski be subjected to such consistent and damaging abuse and May's task in the book is to see whether it's possible to hold the school itself accountable for the actions of the gunman. Another case of bullying in the school has lead to one boy being hospitalised, with no witnesses forthcoming, yet another example of the culture of fear and reprisal.

This also recalls Alan Moore's assertion, when creating his graphic novel From Hell, that the murders of Jack the Ripper weren't simply the work of one man (or even of many if it was more than one responsible) but created and made possible by the society around them. The introspection that accompanied the cases of Mary Bell or Jamie Bulger, the question asked by those communities as to how this had been allowed to happen are all relevant here.

That institutional element is also present in May's workplace of course, the traditionally male dominated world of policing. Here she is forced to deal with the kind of sexual harassment which is leading to court cases and compensation today. Jokes, emails, close physical contact, a suggestive word here, a blatant insult there; her position as a detective and her approach to her work is also questioned by her superiors who like the simplicity of the seemingly open-and-shut case and see the emotional response to it by their female colleague as a weakness and a nuisance. Lelic is skillful in creating the everyday threat for May, an atmosphere that heightens the senses especially when the situation becomes genuinely dangerous.

She could smell him. She could smell his hair, like hotel pillows beneath their cases; his breath, sour and needing water. She could smell oranges. His fingers across her mouth, they smelt of oranges, as though he had been peeling one while he had been waiting.

May's journey towards a closer understanding of events within the school mirrors her own personal journey. It is the bandaged body of the boy in hospital that forces her to look at her own life.

She tried to decide what she would have done in his place. She tried to decide but she realised that in fact she had already decided. Like Elliot, she had chosen to trust in denial, to confide only in herself, to try to cope with what others inflicted upon her without help of any kind.

There are plenty of adults out there who are frightened of other adults. There seem increasingly to be adults scared of the children that live around them or are in their care. Lelic's book does nothing to dispel any of that, it is terrifying in places, especially when you consider the damage we are all capable of, and just one of its many achievements is to create sympathy and understanding for the man wielding the smoking gun.


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