SEPTEMBER 28, 2019
IN SAUL BELLOW’S 1970 NOVEL Mr. Sammler’s Planet, the protagonist comments: “The idea of making the century’s greatest crime look dull is not banal. Politically, psychologically, the Germans had an idea of genius. The banality was only camouflage. What better way to get the curse out of murder than to make it look ordinary, boring, or trite?” Sammler is of course referencing the horrendous deeds of the Nazis, their aptitude for making atrocities look tedious. But what about the role of the writer in depicting those deeds? Is banality a function of the storyteller’s point of view?
Rebecca Godfrey’s Under the Bridge, a nonfiction novel first published in 2005, chronicles the death of teenage girl Reena Virk, who in 1997 was ruthlessly beaten and murdered, drowned in “the Gorge,” a saltwater inlet in Saanich, British Columbia. The book splits the event into a multitude of perspectives; chapters tend to be slim, the author’s pacing quick. As in Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (1963), in which Hannah Arendt covers the trial of the eponymous war criminal, the reader experiences evil as not out of the ordinary: wickedness, in Godfrey’s portrayal, is an accretion of unexceptional moments, a slow accumulation culminating in a decisive inhumanity.
In her introduction to Gallery Books’s reissue of Under the Bridge, Mary Gaitskill writes: “But [Godfrey] also hints at something else, something that can’t be analyzed or really even seen: how savagery can intersect with normalcy, even innocence.” Godfrey’s method for providing us with this insight is a meticulous retelling of the murder from the viewpoints of those enmeshed in the event. Godfrey demonstrates her dexterity at toggling between perspectives and, in the process, exposes common anxieties — anxieties pertaining to social status, to beauty, and to the intersection thereof.
And the forces that promote these anxieties? Under the Bridge stresses the banality of capitalism, of the desires it fluffs. Brand names are ubiquitous — Adidas, Nike, Calvin Klein, Polo, Chanel, Guess, Christian Dior. The majority of the teenagers in the story attend Shoreline high school, where there are no cheerleaders because “with the recent cutbacks, the school could no longer afford the extravagance of uniforms. Shoreline could not even afford to provide uniforms for band members or athletes.” Given these economic circumstances, the name of the suburb where the school is located — View Royal — beats like a taunt. Godfrey, through intimately inhabiting the perspectives of these adolescents, shows how brand names function like electric fences: they demarcate property, separating those who are “in” from those who are “out,” and they are charged — by design, they have the power to shock and to guide behavior.
Godfrey, like the police divers who search for Virk’s body, achieves a feat of negative buoyancy. Through her telling, we go beneath the surface of the story — where, like the divers, we glimpse a kind of psychic “detritus of suburbia”: thoughts and feelings weighed down with the usual stuff. Tired fantasies flourish in Saanich. Violence, before its powers are authenticated in murder, is performed as an imitative stunt: “In her sweet voice, she threatened. ‘The Crips are coming to your house to cap your ass!’” Despite these stock expressions, or because of them, it is easy to see ourselves in Godfrey’s characters. (I grew up in the province next door, and like many of the book’s teenagers, my friends and I engaged in forms of organized-crime playacting.) The hackneyed understanding of what it means to be in a gang is just one more way Godfrey shows adolescence to be disappointingly reiterative.
“The Shoreline Six,” the media’s concocted moniker for the girls involved in the first beating of Virk — a moniker that, as Godfrey notes, “was slightly erroneous, as only three of the girls had attended Shoreline” — are basically an ordinary bunch. We see ourselves in their “aging days,” as Warren Glowatski, one of the book’s protagonists, refers to the passage of time. The reflection is unsettling. A certain triteness has ossified; an unfeelingness has set in. Glowatski, in prison, questions whether he “would have learned all he was learning if he’d stayed in View Royal. ‘I probably would have just been some two-bit drug dealer.’” For a teenager — for a person — to express gratitude for his incarceration — “I never did any homework until I got to prison” — is an indictment of society, of what we have come to see as normal and acceptable.
The tone of Eichmann in Jerusalem precipitated criticism: Amos Elon, in an introduction to the book, asserts that Arendt “was inexcusably flippant, as when she referred to Leo Baeck, the revered former chief rabbi and head of the Berlin Judenrate, as the ‘Jewish Führer’ (she excised the remark in the second printing).” In 1964, Arendt said: “That the tone is predominantly ironic is true. That’s completely true. The tone is really the person. […] The tone is an objection against me personally. I can’t help that.” Can tone be evidence of a failure of imagination, of a lack of sensitivity? Is it insincere for a writer to mask her own outlook — which must prevail, if her accounting is to be honest? (Again, Arendt: “What is really necessary is, if you want to keep your integrity under these circumstances, then you can do it only if you remember your old way of looking at such things and say: ‘No matter what he does and if he killed ten million people, he is still a clown.’”)
In Under the Bridge, Godfrey the person feels largely absent from the text. As Gaitskill remarks: “Toward the end of the book, I began to have the strange experience of actually forgetting who the author was; twice I looked at the jacket to remind myself.” Godfrey’s voice is principally the voices of her subjects; the narratorial “I” is never used. Godfrey’s subtle appraisal of her characters is displayed by her choice of diction. In the courtroom, she describes Ruth Picha’s cross-examination as “listless”; she reports that the unsympathetic defendant Kelly Ellard “barked” in reply to a query from the Crown attorney Catherine Murray. Under the Bridge is mainly an impersonal documentary of a murder — albeit one where the camera has access to the innermost features of its subjects, where we are observing what we can’t see without the special powers of Godfrey’s lens.
Bellow’s Sammler described the banality of evil as “only camouflage.” This tactic of disguise is deployed when Ellard, in Under the Bridge, testifies about the teenagers’ usual hijinks:
“Oh, was this at one of those gatherings where someone was thrown in the water?”
“Yes,” Kelly said haughtily, “that happened quite often.”
“Did it?” Catherine said gleefully. “Regularly?”
“At parties. It happens.”
What is the big deal about drowning a 14-year-old girl, anyway? It’s standard party procedure. Ellard attempts to cloak violence in mundanity. According to Ellard, Virk’s drowning was merely an extreme example of a typically fun, innocent, ordinary activity. Godfrey thus shows that, yes, banality can be adopted as a strategy to obscure the depths of our offense — to obscure our offense qua offense — while also showing, through multiple points of view, how trivial a murderous deed can appear from the inside. Arendt diagnosed Eichmann as having a “lack of imagination,” a fatal and “total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow’s point of view.” In Under the Bridge, we witness this pivotal defect yet again.
This reissue of Under the Bridge is timely. The school shootings, the migrant “detention centers,” the not-guilty verdict in the war crimes trial of Navy SEAL Chief Edward Gallagher — take your pick of headlines, the banality of evil endures. Indeed, this banality resembles a class of benzodiazepine: it tranquilizes our imaginations, puts to sleep our capacity to visualize the experiences of others. Language is both a casualty and a cause. As a negative liberty, it is a freedom from feeling. Yet, submerged in the Gorge, Virk did not have the choice not to feel.