Col­lec­tive con­scious­ness

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down by Anne Va­lente

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Jen­nifer Levin

Since the mass shoot­ing at Columbine High School in Lit­tle­ton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, there have been at least 270 shoot­ings at schools in the United States, 50 of which were mass mur­ders or at­tempted mass mur­ders. Seven­teen years later, it seems like it could hap­pen any­where at any time. Al­most any pas­sage from the first 17 pages of Anne Va­lente’s de­but novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (Wil­liam Mor­row/HarperCollins), puts the reader in the cen­ter of a high school un­der such an at­tack. This one is in St. Louis, where Va­lente grew up. Her col­lec­tive third-per­son nar­ra­tive con­tains el­e­ments of po­etry, mag­i­cal re­al­ism, and re­portage — some­times of­fer­ing the reader a bird’s-eye view of the com­mu­nity and some­times hon­ing in on one of the four mem­bers of the year­book com­mit­tee: Nick, Zola, Matt, and Christina.

“Nick saw his teacher’s face change, a recog­ni­tion . ... She mo­tioned ev­ery­one to­ward the back of the room and be­gan push­ing her bulked desk against the class­room door. John Som­mers, a Trail­blaz­ers bas­ket­ball guard, broke from the group to help . ... Nick heard the gun­fire ap­proach. He felt him­self iced and im­mo­bile,” Va­lente writes. And then, a few pages later: “What Matt and Tyler heard … was Caro­line Black’s scream as she left the women’s bath­room next door. As she en­tered the hall­way. As she came upon Caleb. As she may or may not have had time to un­der­stand what was happening be­fore three bul­lets from his hand­gun ripped through her right shoul­der, her stom­ach, then through the frontal lobe of her brain.”

Some nov­el­ists wait un­til they are well into a book be­fore writ­ing the first chap­ter, but Va­lente told

Pasatiempo that she wrote the ac­tive shooter por­tion first. “I just wanted to get it out of the way,” she said. She didn’t set out to im­me­di­ately hook readers with graphic vi­o­lence — she wanted to be faith­ful to the way that such crimes are ex­pe­ri­enced. First there is ter­ror and blood­shed, then res­cuers and po­lice ar­rive, and soon enough, the me­dia shows up. “This is what we’re ac­cus­tomed to. This is how we take in this kind of news — we see these de­tails first,” she said. “But then what?” Va­lente reads from and signs copies of Our Hearts

Will Burn Us Down at 6 p.m. on Mon­day, Oct. 17, at Col­lected Works Book­store, and at 7 p.m. on Tues­day, Oct. 18, at Santa Fe Univer­sity of Art and De­sign, where she teaches fic­tion and lit­er­a­ture. Her first book was the story col­lec­tion By Light We Knew Our

Names (Dzanc Books, 2014), and her short fic­tion has ap­peared in sev­eral jour­nals and mag­a­zines, in­clud­ing The Kenyon Re­view and One Story.

“I had not re­ally tried tackling a novel up un­til be­gin­ning to write this book, and I had not writ­ten much about a fa­mil­iar land­scape like St. Louis,” Va­lente said. “The shoot­ing at Sandy Hook Ele­men­tary School hap­pened, and I be­gan to no­tice how the news fo­cused on that for three weeks or a month, and then drifted on to other things.” She won­dered what hap­pens in such com­mu­ni­ties when the me­dia stops watch­ing and the rest of the coun­try moves on, once some of the more sen­sa­tional ques­tions about per­pe­tra­tors and mo­tives have been an­swered. She wrote a short story to ex­plore the topic but saw that a longer nar­ra­tive was needed. Research for her novel in­cluded read­ing The Den­ver Post’s archived ar­ti­cles of the Columbine shoot­ing. “I wanted to get a sense of the time­line, how it was cov­ered days, weeks, months, and even a year af­ter the fact.”

Af­ter the shoot­ings in Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, which kill 28 stu­dents as well as sev­eral teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors, the houses of the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies burn down one by one, with no foren­sic ev­i­dence of how the fires ig­nited. Nick, Zola, Matt, and Christina meet to dis­cuss how they can make a record of what has hap­pened — and what is still happening — for the year­book, unsure whether this is re­quired of them or how they could pos­si­bly ac­com­plish any­thing mean­ing­ful or ap­pro­pri­ate. The re­la­tion­ships be­tween the teenagers are poignant and re­al­is­tic, as are their per­sonal pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. Nick, a research hound, throws him­self into the world of on­line sleuthing, while Matt con­tin­u­ally re­lives the mem­ory of a dead stu­dent in the hall­way and strug­gles to rec­on­cile his feel­ings for his clos­eted boyfriend, Tyler. Christina is a swim­mer whose older, very pop­u­lar boyfriend was shot but not killed, and their re­la­tion­ship frac­tures in the wake of the ter­ri­ble event. Zola, who was in the li­brary dur­ing the shoot­ing — the site of the worst of the car­nage — re­treats into her­self, un­able to ar­tic­u­late in thoughts or words what she saw or how she felt.

Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down is writ­ten in an ex­per­i­men­tal vein, a mode that al­lows Va­lente to play freely with lan­guage, in­clud­ing pas­sages that vary in length and style, and an un­usual nar­ra­tive point of view. “I’d writ­ten short sto­ries in the col­lec­tive ‘we’ be­fore, to ex­per­i­ment with col­lec­tive think­ing and play with split­ting in­di­vid­u­als apart from that, but I didn’t know that I would write from that per­spec­tive for the length of a novel,” she said. “The rea­son I came to write it this way is that in con­tend­ing with how I was per­son­ally re­act­ing to the news of mass school shoot­ings and gun vi­o­lence, I was re­ally strug­gling with whether it was my pain or my grief to mourn.” The char­ac­ters in the novel face these is­sues, as does the com­mu­nity at large. Prox­im­ity to loss and vi­o­lence — who was where and who lost whom — cre­ates a kind of hi­er­ar­chy among many of the high school stu­dents, who do not know how to com­fort each other. The cause of the fires, which kill the par­ents of the mur­dered stu­dents, is ap­par­ent in the ti­tle, so the heav­ily sym­bolic mys­tery is for the char­ac­ters to solve, while the reader knows from the start that they will never find the clo­sure they are look­ing for.

“I didn’t want to write a straight re­al­ist novel about a mass shoot­ing and what hap­pens af­ter that,” Va­lente said. “We are a cul­ture that seeks an­swers, that seeks im­me­di­ate re­sponse. When these events hap­pen, we’re so fo­cused on the mo­tive, on some kind of tan­gi­ble out­come, as if that’s go­ing to change any­thing or make it eas­ier for the fam­i­lies, be­cause this keeps happening. I think that’s why I turned to some­thing a lit­tle less tan­gi­ble, a mag­i­cal el­e­ment, to en­vi­sion what hap­pens when there are no an­swers. Of­ten, there are no an­swers.”

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