Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away, Eric G. Wilson, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 213 pages
It takes a tormented intellectual to write a book like this. To connect with the morbid curiosity that rules his life, he crashes through the gates at Aristotle, jumps the tracks at Keats, hurtles through the flashing red lights at Coleridge Junction, derails Shakespeare and Poor Yorick on an isolated spur line, and scoops up Emily Dickinson in the cowcatcher and quotes her to death.
The author of this aptly titled work, Eric G. Wilson, holds a prestigious chair in English at Wake Forest University and is a fixture at the many scholarly journals and quarterlies where he has published pensées galore. His last book, Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy, was a good idea that foundered on the shoals of shoulda-woulda-coulda. Intended as a well-deserved assault on America’s obligatory optimism, it was ruined by the author’s heavy-handed literalness. Abandoning objectivity and detachment, he praised his own melancholic penchant, defended his own elusive happiness, and got panned by Garrison Keillor in The New York Times.
He repeats his mistakes in the present book. Any writer seeking to analyze the dark areas of human nature must remember to keep it light. This challenging task was perfected by the French neoclassical playwright Molière, whose immortal comedies “Le Misanthrope,” “Tartuffe,” and “Le Malade imaginaire” nail down the truth about hatred, hypocrisy, and hypochondria while making audiences laugh.
But Eric G. Wilson doesn’t make anybody laugh, unless it be at him. He uses Aristotle’s theory of catharsis—tragedy drains the audience of pity and terror, leaving them purified—to defend his compulsive need to view human road kill at auto accidents. Then, with dizzying speed, he applies it to violence in popular entertainment in a sentence that, so help me, I have copied correctly: “I’m a defender of the catharsis theory, at least partially, and probably more than I’d like to admit, because I hate Tipper Gore.”
Tipper Gore, wife of the luckless Al, became Wilson’s nemesis some 20 years ago when she pleaded for warning labels on records with violent lyrics. Wilson confesses that he became “obsessed with loathing” for her because she represented everything that he hated: “upright living, positive thinking, the G rating, and sentimentality. I felt a visceral aversion to anything even approaching censorship.” This personal aversion extends, he goes on, to anyone, “be they social scientists or ministers or strict parents or conservative pundits, who claim that cinematic violence is responsible for some of our culture’s ills.” Anyone, in short, “who takes the Tipper Gore side.”
Poor Tipper. Being married to Al is bad enough, she doesn’t deserve this, but Wilson won’t let her be. Those violent lyrics she tried to ban would purge our society of aggression, he claims, thereby rendering innocent his guilty pleasure in viewing human road kill. At this point he gets so worked up that he abandons the authorial requirement to remain above the battle and pleads his case in an hysterical cri de coeur: “Say that this view is an example of my immaturity, that I’m letting teen petulance inform adult views. Say that I’m narrow-minded … call me perversely contrarian, someone who needs to counter mainstream sentiment in order to get attention. Say whatever you want…”
Okay. This book would be sickening if it weren’t so unintentionally funny. To illustrate how beneficial it is to get in touch with our macabre side Wilson takes us on a tour of its ubiquitous manifestations. First up are the online beheadings that became available after 9/11, which, he is quick to note, were so popular that internet servers had trouble managing the traffic. He claims he never watched them, though he describes one in detail, but insists they can teach us “how fragile life is” and inspire us “to help and love one another.” The trick is to let beheadings stream over us so that we might develop “imagination” and “empathy,” those twin virtues that run rampant in faculty lounges.
Next he visits a retired “mortician”—he won’t say “undertaker” because it is insufficiently morbid—who runs a little business on the side. Rick Staton, proprietor of “Murderabilia,” sells artifacts such as a handwritten note by Jeffrey Dahmer ($1,700) or the wrapper from a candy bar eaten by John Wayne Gacy ($49.50). All perfectly normal, says the author, no different from the time-honored trade in saints’ relics that goes back to medieval times.
Then it’s off to the “Odditorium,” which Wilson tells us is full of “tenebrous energy”—i.e., deformed fetuses and two-headed pigs in formaldehyde, a jar of assorted tumors, an actual pre-Columbian mummy, and wax sculptures of people being eaten by rats. Wilson digs this little museum so much that he forgets he’s an English professor. Searching for an adequate description, he reaches all the way back to Homer’s Odyssey and latches on to the world’s very first cliche: the Odditorium, he gulps, is a “wine-dark” sanctum.
The book promises to get better when he takes up macabre eroticism because he starts with the story of a teenage Thomas Hardy being turned on by the shapely corpse of a young female criminal who has just been publicly hanged. The incident stayed with Hardy and inspired his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles, about a woman who is hanged for murdering the man who raped her. Wilson essays some scholarly observations about turning sick thrills into high art, when suddenly he veers off to discuss his own Hardy moment: his adolescent lust for Carolyn Jones as Morticia in the ’60s sitcom, “The Addams Family.” And as if this were not jarring enough, he tosses in some cutesy truculence: “So I’m perverse. I’ll bet you are, too.”
Classifying Schadenfreude as morbidity is a stretch. It means “shadow joy” and describes humanity’s nastiest little trait: the secret satisfaction we get when a coworker, rival, or sibling screws up. To qualify as Schadenfreude the victim must be someone we know and our satisfaction must be fleeting and tinged with shame. This does not tally with Wilson’s confession that his favorite YouTube video is “Fat Women Falling.” This man thinks big. “There is nothing quite like unmitigated derision,” he writes, “becoming as nasty as possible, surreal and baroque with the insults, a geyser of spleen.” To this end, he upgrades Schadenfreude to “Celebrities Behaving Badly” and hexes Tiger Woods, Britney Spears “with her shaved head and shaved vagina” (he meant pubis), and Mel Gibson, who has been the undisputed king of morbidity since making “The Passion of the Christ.” That may be why Wilson has it in for him…
This book is the train wreck of its title, a virtual guide on how-not-to-write. Wilson quotes everybody under the sun; not just Aristotle, Shakespeare, and Freud, but the kind of quotation that begins “In the words of Burkhard Bilger…”
His inability to organize his material is evident from his heavy use of parentheses. The worst example is an entire paragraph in parentheses: 87 words. He also uses them for interjections that could just as easily be woven into the ongoing sentence, e.g., the retired mortician who sells Murderabilia is (“funny as hell”).
He seems to strain to compose the kind of analogies that inspire naïve sophomores to write “How true!” in the margin, e.g., “like an August fever’s reverie: half-closed blinds, afternoon sunlight feeling deadly.”
The worst sentence in the book? That’s a hard one, but I finally chose this: “In contrast, a proper aesthetic encounter, though static in nature, throws us into the suffering: it disarms the narcissist’s pornography and didacticism and frees pity and fear to be what they should be.” Once he writes a sentence like this, Wilson keeps on digging—tearing asunder, relinquishing hope, devastating realms, and teetering on nihilism until he succeeds in burying his readers in the graves of academe. A better title for this book would be Gloomy Gus Goes to College. The author so confuses the business of navel-gazing that he no longer knows whether he is an innie or an outie.
Florence King is a novelist and former columnist for National Review.