THERE’S SOMETHING INSCRUTABLE about things that go viral. They’re often unassuming in form — a phrase, an image, a gif — but they travel with such bewildering alacrity that before long it seems as if they’ve reached the entire known universe (though half of that universe is privately wondering what all the fuss is about). The Dress, Left Shark, covfefe — all were inescapable. But experience enough internet-spawned news cycles and patterns emerge. A recent BuzzFeed piece, “The 29 Stages Of A Twitterstorm In 2018,” offers up a template of sorts: through screenshots of tweets and websites, it charts how exactly a bit of outrage spreads. First, “someone somewhere does something bad,” like, say, sell a T-shirt with a gender-normative slogan on it. Eventually, inaccuracies start flying, Nazis pop out of the woodwork, people get doxxed, Trump starts tweeting about it, and the “controversy” stays on the front page of The New York Times for a week.
Despite its remarkably convincing “screenshots,” the article is a coyly realistic work of fiction. (Careful readers will note that all the tweets and posts show timestamps from a few months after the piece was published.) Or rather, it nestles in the squishy middle between fiction and fact: none of the stuff it describes actually happened, but the truth lies in the way it shows how these things play out.
I thought of that BuzzFeed piece when I read Jonathan Miles’s masterful new novel Anatomy of a Miracle, which documents the slo-mo explosion of an attention-grabbing event with trompe l’oeil flourishes. This blast, however, is triggered not by that reliable human detonator outrage but by inspirational uplift. It’s 2014, and Cameron Harris, a young Army vet paralyzed from the waist down after a land mine incident in Afghanistan, suddenly rises from his wheelchair and takes a few staggering steps in the parking lot of the Biz-E-Bee, a convenience store in Biloxi, Mississippi, where his sister Tanya is buying beer, cigarettes, and Cap’n Crunch.
Everyone who witnesses it immediately calls it a miracle, and the hype machine slowly but surely creaks into motion. Tanya posts a photo of her now-standing brother on Facebook that attracts likes and comments from family, friends, and folks in the area. Soon hundreds of people she doesn’t know are sending hallelujahs and prayer requests, and a local reporter’s feature lands the story in national, then international press (including, yes, a write-up in BuzzFeed). Tour buses bearing people from across the country make pilgrimages to the Biz-E-Bee, and its owners, a Vietnamese couple named Lê Nhu Quỳnh and Lê Thị Hat, begin selling miracle-themed merchandise, including a snow globe that features a tiny man in a wheelchair who stands when the globe is tilted. “Moments like these,” thinks a shell-shocked Cameron, “felt immune to nuance.”
In short, it’s a circus. Part of the delight in reading this novel comes from recognition that this is the absurd state of things at this moment in our culture. (Or, to put it in more social media-friendly terms: #2018.) Each little detail Miles inserts about the splashy news coverage, the idiosyncratically punctuated Facebook comments (“Please man in the picture pray for me and my two sons John and Grant for healing of diabetes Please .In the name of Jesus”), and the consternation of medical experts is deliciously on point in what amounts to a thorough accounting of our current national madness. Someone even asks Cameron to run for office. Eventually, a reality TV crew from Lifetime colonizes the Harrises’ home, and a Vatican investigator building a case for the canonization of a bishop arrives from Rome to verify whether Cameron’s recovery can truly be considered a miracle.
In a particularly trippy meta move, Miles includes the novel itself in the ever-widening sphere of Cameron’s influence. The book is billed as a serious nonfiction work on the saga, with all the necessary accoutrements. There’s an appropriately lengthy subtitle (“The True Story of a Paralyzed Veteran, a Mississippi Convenience Store, a Vatican Investigation, and the Spectacular Perils of Grace”), an introductory note on methodology (“All the scenes and dialogue contained herein were reconstructed…”), and acknowledgments that thank the characters in the book for their cooperation, trust, generosity, et cetera. Peppered throughout are reminders that the author has interviewed the characters after the fact: “Neither Tanya nor Quỳnh can recall precisely what they talked about,” he writes at one point. “I get why some people are going to paint me as the villain in this story,” Miles quotes the producer of the reality show as saying, and readers can almost imagine him getting defensive in the interview after everything’s blown over. To blur the boundaries even more, Miles litters the novel with references to passages from real-world books, Pew statistics, Gallup polls about religiosity in Mississippi, and a quote from a George Packer piece in The New Yorker describing the summer of 2014 as “an anxious and depressing muddle.” Reading this book feels a bit like holding an artifact from a parallel universe one probability branch over.
One of the book’s few concessions to its fictional nature comes on its copyright page, where it says, “This is actually a work of fiction.” It then goes on to say, “Some of the facts presented in this book are not factual, though many others are, or could be.” Which is a sly move on Miles’s part, because this book is entirely about the way we tell stories and how they relate to truth. “Miracle” is the only way people can think to describe what happened to Cameron, a stopgap word one character describes as an “empty little sack.” In response to the inexplicable, everyone swoops in with her own theory like a warlord into a power vacuum.
Janice Lorimar-Cuevas, Cameron’s doctor at the veterans hospital, is a rationalist stolidly against anything that smacks of metaphor and symbolism, and she so objects to the idea of miracles that, in small but crucial ways, she betrays her other principles to preserve this conviction. Both she and the Vatican investigator, the Maserati-adoring Euclide Abbascia, are trying to find out what actually happened, and their working theory (which is in fact a conspiracy theory) ends up blinding them to a key truth about Cameron they don’t even know to look for — a truth that eventually throws practically all the stories people are telling about him into disarray.
Even social media pile-ons are manifestations of a deeply human impulse to make sense of the world. The problem is that often the kinds of stories that go viral are the ones that people can use to project their own beefs — they pass them along as proof of their own ideas about how the world should or shouldn’t work, as “a cudgel, not a complication.” Eventually, “Cameron was seen as something far more dangerous […] a symbol.” It’s easy to reduce people to pawns in one’s own stories — that’s basically what outrage on Twitter is. Much more difficult is seeing or at least remembering that every living person contains kaleidoscopic complexity, multiple facets that not even their closest confidants will ever know the totality of.
The characters in Anatomy struggle with this more than once. Janice, who has seen Cameron at his worst, has lunch with him after the reality show crew has given him and his life a TV-ready makeover, and “it was beyond difficult for her to reconcile these two Camerons — no, it was flat-out impossible.” Later, Lê Thị Hat reaches a sort of reckoning:
Regarding Cameron in the fluorescent store lights she found, with dizzying confusion, that she couldn’t quite see him — not in the way she could see other people, as contained and coherent. He was standing before her in triplicate or quadruplicate or even quintuplicate, each iteration — the one she knew, the one she thought she knew, the ones she didn’t know at all — slightly different from the rest …
The truth is messy, complex, not easily fit into a narrative — and all the more beautiful for it.
One damper on what is otherwise a hilarious and compassionate book is a pivotal conversation Janice has with her father, a freewheeling Southern novelist who once included in a book a “seven-page, three sentence description of a kudzu-turbocharged orgasm.” Their conversation is notable mainly because it seems to rehash all of the conclusions at which Anatomy arrives, in what feels like a lecture. “A hypothesis, that’s just a story told a different way,” Winston Lorimar tells his daughter, smoothly reconciling Janice’s allegiance to science and her opposition to rampant fabulism. It’s not that making up stories itself is bad, he clarifies, it’s that sometimes the stories people tell are simply too glib. He then waxes eloquent on the beauty and necessity of stories, which is, well, a bit convenient coming from a novelist character in a novel. The answer to reductive drivel, it seems, is better, more expansive stories, stories that are roomy enough to contain a multitude of other stories. A story, perhaps, much like Anatomy of a Miracle.
But this is mostly forgiven, because Miles is a writer so virtuosic that readers will feel themselves becoming better, more observant people from reading him. Part of this is a humor that seems tossed off effortlessly, cropping up as it does in practically every sentence; one minor character’s chin, for example, “appeared eager for the company of more chins.” This fits with the author’s gift for capturing people’s essences — of that same minor character, an officer in the Army, Miles writes, “Every word the captain said came out in identically uninflected pellets that took meaningful shape several beats later, like Sea-Monkeys in spoken form.” A TV exec “emits statements like smoke rings, pausing afterward to admire their passage through the air and expecting others to do likewise.”
Part of why Anatomy feels so expansive is that Miles takes every opportunity to delve into the characters’ backstories, each one practically a mini magazine profile that touches on the person’s worldviews, formative experiences, and unresolved questions. But this keen interest in people is part and parcel of a book in which the author describes humans as “extraordinary” at least three times. In Miles’s world, everyone — not just the people shouting the loudest on the internet — is worthy of attention.