League of Men

Suddenly this seducer appears

Sophia Narrett, Still Burning. 2012, embroidery thread and fabric. 33 × 48". Courtesy the artist.

Rereading the story now, the detail I keep returning to is the broken coffee table, the shards of glass. It reminds me of the scene in Heathers where Heather No. 1 issues her dying croakCorn nuts!and then falls, smashing her own glass table. The scene opens with a shot of Heather asleep, not lying down but reclining, in a satin-draped bower. The whole movie has that stylized, magical quality. The same is true of Jackie’s story, which is why the article caused such an uproar in the first place. It beggared belief. You read it and thought: Unbelievable! And in retrospect, the failures of its naturalism seem so clear. The dark chamber, the silhouetted attackers, gathering close... But most of all, it’s the table, the crystalline pyrotechnics of its shattering. That’s the place where the narrative strains hardest against realism, wanting to move into another register altogether. The shards enchant and wound and scintillate, like the Snow Queen’s icy darts. A man’s body “barrels into her, tripping her backward.” Someone, we’re told, is kneeling on her hair. We can picture the strands“long, dark, wavy”outspread all around her. I wonder if the model here could be Ophelia as rendered by John Everett Millais: a young woman supine, long tresses floating. Has Jackie ever seen the painting? It’s a famous work, and a staple of undergrad art-history classes, which is how I first encountered it. I still have the textbook, one of those volumes in Taschen’s Basic Genre series, Pre-Raphaelites. I was the type of teenager who liked the Pre-Raphaelites, and Heathers. Maybe Jackie has similar tastes. But then what was she doing at a frat party, hanging out with a frat guy?

Speculation is pointless when information is so scant. I’ve been speculating anyway, intermittently, ever since her story was debunkedspeculating about why she told the story in the first place. This has been an exercise in intense frustration. Vague suppositions about her personality and its possible disorders are far from satisfactory. What I’m looking for is something resembling an actual rationale, and this is what has proved elusive. There is no biography, no case history, no leaked documents, nothing at all to go on except the story itselfJackie’s story, as told to Sabrina Erdely, who told it to the world in her now-infamous and now-retracted article. And that is why I keep rereading, not constantly, but occasionally, when some random prompt, like a Reddit headline about the civil proceedings against Rolling Stone, brings the sorry affair to mind.

But it occurs to me that I’ve been forgetting one of the basic precepts of my education, which is that a story should not be read as a cryptic map of its author’s psychic maladies. The author lies beyond diagnosis, because the author, like Ophelia, is dead. I could read her story the way I was taught to read any storyas a story, a work of literature. Such a recalibration opens up other lines of inquiry. For instance, if it’s literature, what sort of literature is it? When the specimen is perplexing, begin with the question of kind. What is the category, the Basic Genre?

The story would appear to be a dark pulp-fiction potboiler, melodrama in a gothic vein. But it has no structure to speak of, no real arc, and no suspense, no sense that events are hanging in the balance. To the contrary, a certain inexorability seems to drive the actionpeople make choices, and yet it feels as if something beyond human volition is at work, some kind of dark enchantment that drives the characters toward their violent rendezvous, which is not a climax in the traditional sense because it’s not the culmination of anything. And then there’s the question of tone, a particular timbre of weirdness or a specific shade of shadow. These impressions hardly constitute an objective opinion, but my opinion on this matter is admittedly not objective. It’s a gut feeling I’ve attempted to justify with only the slightest effort to correct for my confirmation bias. In my defense, I can only say that taxonomy is an inexact science. My classification of this story as a fairy tale is not necessarily more subjective than any other venture into binomial nomenclature.

The fairy-tale genre has its own internal taxonomy, which is governed by the venerable Aarne-Thompson-Uther system. ATU indexes more than two thousand “tale types” from hundreds of cultures, grouping them under a variety of elaborately nested rubrics (Magic Tales, Stories About a Fool, The Truth Comes to Light, et cetera), and assigning each type a unique code. These designations have long been a lingua franca among researchers, the coordinates in a vast nebula of vernacular narrative.

My first thought on consulting this resource was that Jackie’s story should be coded ATU 312, The Bluebeard, a tale type in the Magic category, Supernatural Adversaries subcategory. Angela Carter’s retelling is titled “The Bloody Chamber.” That’s what the frat guy’s bedroom is, I thought: the bloody chamber, the site of awful truth, incarnadine. But noBluebeard’s young wife is on a quest. She’s taking risks and she knows she’s taking them, defying orders, doing exactly the thing she’s been forbidden to do. That’s not what happens in Jackie’s story. As her tale begins, there is a young woman. She’s probably not a virgin, but she’s definitely not a wife. A maiden, let’s say. She might be looking for sex, romance. Or she might just be trying to get from point A to point B. In any case, she’s going about her life, and suddenly this seducer appears.

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