Unreliable Narrators: The Character Known as Elliot Rodger

May 27, 2014 • Culture

Author’s note: There will be no quotes from his manifesto, or links to video, because I don’t want to give him any more traffic.

Elliot Rodger’s (by now known by everyone as that killer at UCSB) attempt bildungsromaning himself for all of posterity is like being bludgeoned over the head with a reprint of “American Psycho.” If we didn’t know any better––and we didn’t until all tragedy broke loose––his novelization, his micro-videos, could have been easily ghostwritten by Bret Easton Ellis. Dangerously close to being satire, it only chills because––to crib a line from Rosemary’s Baby––”this is no dream, this is really happening!”

After the shock, comes the morbid curiosity. Copies of Rodger’s 141 page manifesto are circulating online, complete with annotations by  Mahbod Moghadam, formerly of Rap Genius. Gawker also published a collection of Rodger’s self-made youtube videos. So you can skip the think pieces, and go straight to the source.

It’s perversely entertaining to peer into his brain. Homicidal misogyny is tempered by pomposity; it almost undermines the invisible, and indomitable largeness that seems to make up our understanding of  injustice. From everything you may have read, Rodger comes off as larger-than-life, armoured by the very system that coddled his mentality. Yet, the “work” he left behind is both cinematic, and unintentionally hilarious. Seemingly––or accidentally, Rodger’s autobiography reads like a self aware homage to the canon homicidal dick-lit. He  is Jack’s smoking sense of excremental self-importance, but with a heaping the idea that Jack “JUST WANT[S] TO FIT IN!!!!!”  Yet, his “opus” written in someone else’s blood.

With delusional aplomb, Rodger casts himself as the plucky, put-upon anti-hero. A child deprived of popularity, girlfriends, looks, and the wealth he grew up surrounded by, he takes us through the formative moments of his life, to the point where the media picks up his story. Attempting  to be wry and wise, he writes himself as the classic social misfit, apart and above the unenlightened ones.  Zarathustra, this ain’t.

With short and sparsely-populated sentences, the work itself is overlong, more interested in telling than showing. Who knew that visiting six countries by the age of four was so integral to the plot? If Rodger had only murdered his darlings like Hemingway famously advised, then maybe he wouldn’t have had to move on to actual people. Lacking both dialogue and dimension, the people in Rodger’s life are either there as fallen idols, as comparisons, or as target practice. On occasion, he is likeable. Sometimes you can feel sorry for him. But don’t woobify him just yet.

 Rodger’s prose is drenched in the kind of ire-inducing entitlement that necessitated the use of guillotines in the first place, he is yet another unreliable narrator lost in the promised land of dick-lit. It’s no masterpiece, or even “great”, or even “good”,  but if you can stomach it––and armchair detectives, news enthusiasts, and a particular demographic of “disaffected” dudes will––it’s compulsively readable. But like, in a cult classic kind of way.

 The manifesto’s humour comes only by the grace of camp and caricature. Though we feel the effects of a destructive narcissism writ large, Rodger’s egotism makes him amusingly small, despite the grandiosity of his self-characterization. He is an exaggeration of everything we’ve come to expect from a certain kind of raging misogynist. To anyone who cannot even fathom that mindset, Whether by my own incredulity, moral superiority, or propensity for being referential, it’s hard not to superimpose the “fact” of his work with already known fictions. If he hadn’t murdered six people, or if written by someone else, his dark confessional would be a dark comedy. His story reveals the Trump Tower sized nugget of truth behind affluenza: that evil is so, like,  profoundly banal.

His youtube videos are soundtracked just the way that Patrick Bateman via Mary Harron would do it––that intersection between murderously glib sociopathy, and upbeat 80’s pop. With a bit of fixing up in post, it could become languid L.A weirdness, bright lights and open road. Whomever the dudebro version of Sofia Coppola is, he’ll probably get  to direct the inevitable movie version. If, or when the day comes, if Hollywood has any sense, they’d get Campion, Breillat, or some young-girl upstart could inject the movie version with the pincer-sharp, aftershock of cruelty the film would desperately need. If the aestheticization of this horrific act is inevitable (as it already is), let the film be a case study of abjection––his and ours; show his fear and loathing of women in the extreme, rather than yet another bro-fest for the ages that starts and ends with a bevy of blue-blushed dead girls.

How any sense of  filmic or literary “artistry” can be parsed out of this is both bewildering and obvious. The fact that I can be so cavalier about someone who killed innocent people,  continually unsettles. That film-dreams can overtake reality is as disquieting as it can get. The fact that you can’t just turn it off even for a few days of solemnity either means that this must be some kind of coping method, or is curiosity what trumps all? Initially, the goal is to get under the skin of someone who can shoot-point blank over perceived rejections. It’s detective work, armchair psychology––moral diagnosis. The point is to condemn, to feel repulsion without anything of fascination’s pleasurable parts; to have the kind of white-hot righteousness that does not abide even the slightest hint of grey. If satire humorously heightens and distorts to illustrate a social point, and filmic imagination becomes our own, what does it say when reality matches up to the fantasies we venerate or skewer?

Glamourizing killers is nothing new. The Manson-Tate-LaBianca murders still feel like Gothed-out, California fever dreamin’. Obsessive shrines to the Columbine killers are spackled across the Internet.  Innocent bodies are immaterial, compared to the myths you can build. 19th century British writer, Thomas de Quincey, wrote satirically on the aesthetic consideration of murder. As much as he skewers both moralists, aesthetes, and those with private club memberships, his lecturer reminds us:

When a murder is in the paulo-post-futurum tense — not done, not even (according to modern purism) being done, but only going to be done — and a rumor of it comes to our ears, by all means let us treat it morally. But suppose it over and done…Done it is, it is a fait accompli; suppose the poor murdered man to be out of his pain…we have done our best, by putting out our legs, to trip up the fellow in his flight, but all to no purpose — “abiit, evasit, excessit, erupit,” etc. — why, then, I say, what’s the use of any more virtue? Enough has been given to morality; now comes the turn of Taste and the Fine Arts. A sad thing it was, no doubt, very sad; but we can’t mend it. Therefore let us make the best of a bad matter; and, as it is impossible to hammer anything out of it for moral purpose, let us treat it aesthetically, and see if it will turn to account in that way. Such is the logic of a sensible man; and what follows? We dry up our tears, and have the satisfaction, perhaps, to discover that a transaction which, morally considered, was shocking, and without a leg to stand upon, when tried by principles of Taste, turns out to be a very meritorious performance.

Why enjoy this? Why analyze this?

After the massacre, comes the thought. Whether martyr, monster, or sideshow attraction, the dramatis personae of the UCSB killer is up for grabs. In trying to think him out, his victims disappear in favour of an attempt to connect him to some larger apparatus of thought––a spectacle of his carnage as much cipher as entertainment.

 To be a woman and to be amused by his writing is an odd position. It requires both disassociation and a certain amount of nerve, to look your fears in the eye and laugh. It also requires that you see victims as a kind of fifth business, only there to move to plot along.  By judging his work aesthetically, am I making him smaller, and comprehensible? By gawping and glibly appraising, am I losing sight of the immensity of this tragedy? Or am I laughing to keep from crying?

Leaving a blueprint of his becoming, this is a trajectory so meticulous and coordinated, as if he knew exactly what he was doing. Even when he comes undone, he still remains a murderer with a completely expected plot style.  The desire for revenge, oblivion, and the death of all women is whispered loudly like a soldier’s prayer. His single-mindedness is supported by structures and attitudes that allow those dreams to remain ever-current and achievable. Virginia Postrel’s words on glamour are applicable here. She writes, “glamour does not exist independently in the glamourous object––it is not a style, personal quality, or aesthetic feature––but emerges between object and audience.” A shimmering glimpse of permission that dares us to do.

Postrel continues: “Glamour is not something you possess but something you perceive, not something you have, but something you feel. It is a subjective response to a stimulus…a “glamourous” person, setting, or style will not produce glamour unless that audience resonates with the audience’s aspirations, and unless the audience is willing to entertain the illusion. Conversely, one audience may find glamourous something another audience deems ordinary or repulsive.”  Let that sit a moment. Now think about dick-culture. Now think about “not all men.” Wasn’t it last month that a girl was stabbed after she rejected an invitation to prom?

Elliot Rodger saw himself as failure compared to what he was surrounded by. His idea of masculinity was pure stylistic posture, validated by the world around him. He accessorized with cars and clothes, and became a devoted student of popularity. He became the impotent conqueror who lost his kingdom, an exiled emperor born without his “rightful” clothes. If that sounds hyperbolic, it should. Nothing sounds as big as megalomania feels. And megalomania is sure hard to treat when you’re surrounded by a coterie of yes-men. Just ask any celebrity.

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