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from Tuesday, July7th of the year2009.

I’ve been reading this newly released book about the school shootings at Columbine high school. Like most people my age, I was grimly fascinated by the whole thing, and found myself unable to not read any articles, books, Ops Ed, etc, about it. Also, I was fascinated by the generally accepted narrative of the killers as these sort of gothy outcasts tormented by jocks and holier-than-thou Evangelical pretty girls. Having been in high school at the same time, I of course understood the impossibility of that straightforward a description of high schoolers’ social networks. The issue I’m having with the book is that Dave Cullen, the author, is obsessed with this halting, impossible language:

Linda Sanders’s family awaited the news at her home. By Wednesday afternoon, the house was packed with friends and relatives. Everyone knew what was coming. News crews set up a row of cameras to capture the moment of agony.

The media had made their lives hell. And reporters could be counted on to appear in record numbers.

There is a house, outside of Laramie. It’s a rugged Wyoming town on the fringes of the Rockies. That’s where Dave and Linda Sanders were going to retire.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find sentences like that—especially when clustered together over many, many pages—physically difficult to read. It feels like riding in a car with somebody who doesn’t know how to drive a stick shift: jerky, lurchy, non-continuous. I’m not saying everybody has to be Henry James, but there’s something very unnerving about short sentences. It reminds me of one of my least favorite Things in the Universe: that Gene Weingarten horseshit:

A hundred feet away, across the arcade, was the lottery line, sometimes five or six people long. They had a much better view of Bell than Tindley did, if they had just turned around. But no one did. Not in the entire 43 minutes. They just shuffled forward toward that machine spitting out numbers. Eyes on the prize.

You can read my fully frothing rant about that piece here, but that’s not the point. The other issue I have with this Columbine book is that I find myself constantly recommending it to everyone I know; it has a lot of fantastically surprising revelations about the killers that I guess I wouldn’t have had access to if I only read the papers. For instance: did you know that Klebold & Harris had been arrested, and were in part of some county-wide juvenile rehabilitation program? Weird. And that they actually did have lots of friends and stuff? And remember that girl who “Said Yes” to whether or not she believed in God right before she got shot? Turns out all of that was totally made up, and it was another girl who survived who said “yes.” Anyway, I didn’t know any of that, and this book is slowly revealing a lot to me.

I think growing up in the suburbs can be really satisfying but it does require a little bit more self-sparked interest and style than growing up surrounded by Access and Ideas. It surprises me that Cullen never dips into this, even though he quotes extensively from Harris’s diaries that have wildly fantastic apocalyptic visions about Denver and its suburbs being bombed to rubble. When you have sociopaths talking about destroying all of society, wouldn’t it make sense to take a peek into what about the society might be bothering them?

One thing I liked about the book was Cullen’s focus on the students’ insistence that the word Columbine not become synonymous with the shooting, or with any shooting. Reclaim the language! I like it. However. After reading all of that, I accidentally performed another act of East Coast Leftie Deconstruction. I want to look at that ‘sentence,’ above, where Cullen writes about the Sanders’s retirement:

There is a house, outside of Laramie. It’s a rugged Wyoming town on the fringes of the Rockies. That’s where Dave and Linda Sanders were going to retire.

Now girl. When I read that shit, my mind went into overdrive. First question. Why is there a comma there? Second: Dave and Linda Sanders had been planning on retiring to Laramie, a rugged Wyoming town on the fringes of the Rockies. That is what he is trying to say in this sentence. So how come the ‘house’ is set aside? What else would be outside of Laramie? Oh, I remember the last time I heard about anything being outside of Laramie: how about Matthew Shepard’s body, lashed to a pole in the middle of the night? Certainly that’s as loaded a word as “Columbine” is—the same linguistic loading that the students constantly resist in Cullen’s book. Does it strike anybody else as odd that this fact would go unsung in this narrative? Cullen writes, “When all [Harris’s] bombs fizzled, everything about his attack was misread. He didn’t just fail to top Timothy McVeigh’s record—he wasn’t even recognized for trying. He was never categorized with his peer group. We lumped him in with the pathetic loners who shot people.” Who’s we!? I know it’s irrelevant and kind of an asshole thing to say, but Cullen must know that for a lot of us in the corners of the country, we file Oklahoma State in the same drawer as Columbine, Matthew Shepard’s murder, Sarah Palin’s ethics complaints, Larry Craig, and a whole host of other stuff that happens to and by white people in the suburbs?

I think what’s making all of this so vivid in my mind, actually, is Sarah Palin’s recent announcement. I took it upon myself—I was bored in JFK—to rewatch that speech where she talked about “real America,” and I just got so angry, and I was simultaneously reading this Columbine book, and remembering what it felt like to roll into a high school as a guest teacher/artist in Littleton in 2006: me all 6’1, lanky, gay, and wearing all black with lime green shoes. I felt way less foreign and way more like a tourist than in, say, Reykjavík. I think that Cullen’s book is written from a place—and why not, I suppose—where Littleton, CO, is the most normal place in the world. It just takes me an extra step to understand it—my community just isn’t made of people from there. I think Cullen does his readers a disservice to assume that we understand the nature of the place.


  • It seems as if this here writer could use a single-day’s lesson on sentence variety and rhythm/flow/pause from a standard first-year writing course.

    I also suspect that he’s attempting to artificially create a sense of impending doom by writing these short, stilted sentences–as if his “style” mimics the dead-pan and static of the hours, minutes, seconds before It happened. What he wasn’t banking on was how much this would jar with the reader.

  • “There is a house, outside of Laramie.”

    I couldn’t stop thinking about why that comma suddenly appeared in the middle of the sentence…

  • The style seems like a sort of Truman Capote _In Cold Blood_ ripoff, merged with true crime television voiceover. I can’t read those sections you quote without hearing them in the voice of Bill Kurtis of A&E’s “Cold Case Files.” And it’s really written as if it’s meant to be read aloud–that comma makes perfect sense (within the hokey context of the style) as a place to pause for dramatic effect when reading aloud.

  • That stilted style smacks of NPR. Of course, it works very well on the radio, but it’s like writing a book with the mindset that you’ll eventually have to read it for an audio book. Ira Glass makes for good radio, but I’d slit my wrists if I had to read 1,000 pages in his style.

  • Whoops – just read Galen’s comment. What he said.

  • Nico,

    Thank you for describing your inability to accept “that straightforward a description of high schoolers’ social networks.”

    I was also in high school when this and other American school shootings happened (Paducah, KY; Pearl, MS; Jonesboro, AR), and I remember being frustrated with Dateline NBC-style analysis of the social lives of kids my age. Suburban teenagers were presented by the media in such a Column A or Column B way, that some of the adults in my life began to buy in to it, and start to eerily observe us, as to sort the “good kids” from the potential Trenchcoat Mafia sleeper cells.

    Sarah Palin indeed grossly oversimplifies and polarizes when she makes “real America” speeches, but maybe ten years after Columbine, the mainstream media has come a little closer to calling bullshit when we are presented with such a Good vs. Evil declamation. Maybe.

    I haven’t read Cullen’s book, but I’m glad that you point out that a perch in the middle of the country doesn’t necessarily offer the clearest vantage point to survey the entire land.

  • “I think Cullen does his readers a disservice to assume that we understand the nature of the place.”

    I would agree. I grew up in Highlands Ranch (technically Littleton), attended a very similar high school just down the road, etc. and now live in Boulder, a very different place culturally. The more time I spend away from the suburbs, the less even I feel like I understand them. I think it would have made for a more fascinating book if he hadn’t made the assumption that suburban America is any more “normal” than any other American sub-culture.

  • You’ve seen Gus van Sant’s Elephant, right? It’s a weirdly beautiful movie – I particularly remember liking the sound design of it. I think Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel is used in it? or maybe that’s Gerry.

  • “There is a house, outside of Laramie, it’s called The Rising Sun.”

  • My first editor taught me to avoid starting sentences with “there is” or “there was” because it is dull and passive.

    What really annoys me lately is the horrid fad for present tense narration, in both fiction and nonfiction books. Borrowed from magazine journalism, it strikes me as a cheap, tacky attempt to manufacture immediacy for events which have (obviously) already taken place.

  • “There is a house, outside of Laramie. It’s a rugged Wyoming town on the fringes of the Rockies. That’s where Dave and Linda Sanders were going to retire.”

    These choppy sentences are reminiscent of the “frozen peas” advertisements that Orson Welles worked on. (“We know a remote farm in Lincolnshire, where Mrs. Buckley lives. Every July, peas grow there…)

  • I don’t like. To read. Short, choppy, writing, either. You, are not alone.

  • I’m willing to bet that most of Cullen’s readers will be from there and not the coasts, and so they won’t need any help understanding the place. You may feel like a tourist going there, but they feel entirely as out of place when they visit New York — which is one reason they never do. They’d feel pretty weird reading Bret Easton Ellis, I imagine.

  • It made me think of
    “There is, a house,
    in New Orleans,
    they call, the ri,sing sun…”

  • What dan viesel said. “Elephant” may be Van Sant’s greatest arty film. It’s as formally elegant as “Last Year at Marienbad” but the subject matter is a sympathetic look at American youth as mass murderers (and it came out just when we started having 18-year-olds murdering Iraqis).

  • When daily newspaper reporters attempt to be literary this is the inevitable outcome. It’s like sportswriters and the one-sentence paragraph.

  • I was in my senior year of high school during Columbine. The following day, half of the town’s police force was parked in the school parking lot, and we were told it was a “lock-down situation” to look out for copy cat acts. Any goth kid in black was questioned by authority figures, and most students felt instantly criminalized.

    I still think about that severe, knee-jerk reaction to the incident by a suburban Michigan school thousands of miles from Littleton, Co. I remember it as the first time I realized that adults could feel viscerally threatened by teenagers.

  • Great article, I’m really enjoying your blog.