[Two Dollar Radio; 2023]
The first generation to have grown up on the internet, Millennials are, in a sense, the oldest people on the planet. The digital archives we have produced in the past two decades far outweigh the analog records of entire previous generations stacked together. Given the scale and exactness of our record keeping, is it any surprise that we ruminate so much on traumas personal and historical? Trauma is the past that refuses to release us. An unsparing reminder of every moment we have ever lived, the digital archive turns our growing pains into chronic pains, our unweaned anxieties into terminal pathologies. This is to say nothing of the strain of being ineradicably networked to others without directly contacting them. Even in our most private retreats we are visited by other minds, and yet, for as much they abide with us, freely transmitting their affects and ideas, they remain as if behind a virtual curtain, regarding us always from elsewhere, like ghosts trespassing on our solipsism. The wear-and-tear caused by these mounting psychic burdens has started to show up in Millennials’ moral lives and thus in our literature. Now that we are moving into the middle of life and writing about it, we are learning that our generational problem is not, as others insist, that we are unable to grow up. It is that we are aging like Dorian Gray.
These and other Millennial morbidities are the matter of Bennett Sims’s new book, Other Minds and Other Stories, a collection of short stories that, following the author’s formula from A Questionable Shape (2013) and White Dialogues (2017), borrows equally from psycho-horror and philosophy to convey its macabre message. Like Paige Clark and Kate Folk, Bennett Sims belongs to a younger cohort of fiction writers who probe our most common psychopathologies to show us that we dwell among phantoms. Many of the stories in his new collection start out banally enough: a husband purchases a smartphone for his wife, a yuppie learns from YouTube how to raise chickens, a writer hosts a film screening in Rome. Then, as if behind our backs, these innocuous tales of bourgeois boredom transform into horrid spectacles of psychopathology and violence. The protagonists, most of them left-brained males entering the second act of adulthood, stumble into their doom-loops unconsciously, believing themselves to be fully rational agents even as they are morphing into stalkers, slayers, and simps. The so-called “problem of other minds” combines with integrated technological systems—cellphones, e-readers, even “smart” doorbells—to haunt them all in different ways. Not every piece in the collection reads like a Hitchcockian techno-horror, though. Some, like the intro and outro fragments, contain nothing else but ekphratic descriptions of archaic artifacts depicting death. Others, like the title story, are extended phenomenological meditations occasioned by reading. What holds this many-sided collection together is its overall vocal consistency. Although the narrators change throughout, there is really only one narrative voice, death-addled yet self-controlled, that gives life and doles out doom to all the personages we meet.
The problem of other minds, in Sims’s formulation, is something like this: Other minds are all around us, infecting us with their desires, affects, and ideas, and yet they remain fundamentally unknowable to us. The unnamed reader of “Other Minds” discovers, while scrolling through an e-book that allows one to see how others have annotated it, that his fellow readers reflexively highlight statements about love. He observes anxiously that he does not share this tendency to highlight the “Love is . . .” statements. Instead, he reads literature for the craftsmanship, and because “he [is] curious about other minds.” Once he sees how other minds interact with the e-book, however, their presence in his network disquiets him, filling him with a sense of their “menacing mystery.” Are they all cliché-loving simpletons? Is he maybe just an arrogant prig? He does not know, and what is more, the e-book fails to mediate the kind of mutual recognition that would help him know. Instead of illuminating other minds, the e-book infects him with them, algorithmically assailing him with their preferences, until he feels moved, from somewhere deep inside himself, to come up with his own statement about love, as if that had been his purpose all along.
Another story, “An Introduction to Reading Hegel,” rehashes the same lonely-reader plot, this time with a moonlighting graduate student who fears how other minds, namely a committee that will rate his application for a prestigious fellowship, perceive his mastery of the Western philosophical canon. The student convinces himself that he has not read enough of the right things to be worthy of their esteem. His ignorance of Hegel in particular must be so obvious, he thinks, that a real scholar will be able to glean from his grammar alone that he has never beheld Minerva’s owl with his own eyes. Once again, a young person who started reading because he was “curious about other minds” discovers that his humble request to be included in the community of letters has gone unanswered. Other minds cease to be his teachers and become his torturers. The library in which he toils stands in for the society that offers him immediacy without intimacy. Every book that Hegel wrote is at his fingertips; none of them, even the all-encompassing Phenomenology of Spirit, can provide the recognition he seeks.
Again and again, Sims shows that plot is the soul of horror. A Simsian horror plot inscribes a closed circuit of inevitable incidents. In “Unknown,” the main character is an insecure spouse who is prone to rumination. Troubled by an incident during which he lends his phone to an unknown woman (who then appears to use it to inform her controlling ex-lover that she is leaving him), he starts to act the part of the jealous lover in his own relationship, conducting a forensic investigation on his wife’s smartphone. The spouse’s furtive personality conspires with his primal fear of abandonment until, through a sudden if predictable reversal, he turns out to be the stalker from whom the unknown woman flees. “Pecking Order” is yet another inescapable horror show. As a twenty- to thirty-something yuppie prepares to move to law school, he realizes that he cannot bring his three (ethically raised) backyard chickens with him. So, instead of rehoming them, he researches on YouTube for the most humane method of slaughtering them and dressing them for a dinner feast. When he utterly botches the first slaughter, inflicting unimaginable suffering on his chicken, he does not pause to reconsider his plan but carries on with a resolve that unmasks the sociopath behind the humanitarian. Sims understands well that, for horror to resonate truly, the plot must have that no-turning-back trajectory. Sometimes social pressure impels his central characters’ movements; other times, their own unconscious drives; others still, the motive power of sinking their costs into a dangerous project. In any case, Sims’s personages uniformly judge that it is worse to go back to stasis than to face the doom that awaits them.
The collection’s finest piece is, without question, “Portonaccio Sarcophagus.” The story is set in the Pallazzo Massimo in Rome, where a man meditates alone at closing time, focusing his attention on a faceless figure carved onto an ancient sarcophagus. From there the narration delves inward, following the man’s dazzlingly sequenced musings about ancient artifacts, photography, his mother’s Alzheimer’s, horror cinema, smart surveillance technology, travel, time, and of course, death. The narrative voice really finds its stride here, the prose ambling from one morbid insight to another with an ease that resembles W. G. Sebald’s slow-simmering dread in Rings of Saturn. The story’s symbolic density and associative coherence outshine everything else in the collection, and it is because Sims liberates the horror plot from the recursive structure that constrains his other tales. We still find the same sense of no-turning-back in “Portonaccio Sarcophagus,” but not because we are trapped in a doom-loop from which there is no conceivable escape. Rather, the narrator’s mind moves unrestrainedly toward a powerful insight. Contrast this with the more formulaic inner circuitry of stories like “Unknown,” “Pecking Order,” and even “Postcard” (Sims’s take on the private-eye psychodrama), all of which follow gripping necessitarian trajectories but which ultimately leave us guessing about their true significance. “Portonaccio Sarcophagus” reaches the next tier of psycho-horror through open-ended philosophical excursus instead of a templated plot.
Bookending Other Minds and Other Stories are two ekphratic fragments that, placed side-by-side, raise an intriguing final question about literature’s purpose. In the first, called “La ‘mummia di Grottarossa,’” we find ourselves in the basement of the Palazzo Massimo, surrounded by children who are photographing a child mummy with their smartphones. As in all of the Rome stories, archaic objects depicting violence or death enchant modern audiences. “Compared to [the mummy]”, the narrator writes, “the hundred statues on the floors above them bore them. Old white stone, marble that was never mortal. They ignore the inorganic Aphrodites, Antinouses, Medusas. They can tell that this [mummified] girl, despite the two millennia condensed in her, is closer to them in time.” Now, compare this symbol of mortified life with the closing fragment, “Medusa,” which describes an “apotropaic mosaic Medusa” gazing up at visitors from the central hallway floor of the House of Literature in Rome, protecting the library by “warding off evil influences, turning them to stone.” A defender of letters against forgetfulness, Medusa stares down the evil of time, abetting literature’s quest to create something that outlasts marble. But what could outlast eternal marble? The answer is given not by Medusa but by the mummy girl: life. More than marble statues carved by human hands, or tomes of literature sweat out by human heads, what captivates visitors to the Palazzo Massimo is the one artifact among them that was once alive. Even as time fossilizes her corpse, the girl is still, somehow, breathing, speaking from beyond the crypt. The apparent lesson for literature is that, in its struggle to defy mortality, it should not strive to imitate stone but to imitate life.
A surprisingly vitalistic thought closes out a death-obsessed book. Sims must understand from experience that to model literature after self-regenerating matter is not a straightforward task. It may not be achievable at all. Medusa, after all, guards an archive that, with each passing generation, becomes ever-more sublime in scale. It is not obvious that her archive begets new life; indeed, such an archive may crush new life with its sheer dead weight. A Millennial Medusa, if she existed, would understand this better than her archaic predecessor.
Kelly M.S. Swope is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His most recent project is a documentary podcast titled Life on the Ark: The Zanesville Animal Catastrophe a Decade Later (2022). He hails from Granville, Ohio.
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