I’ve talked before about the flying snowman point, the point at which a reader or viewer is no longer willing to suspend disbelief to enjoy a story. There’s a similar thing that happens when certain things are depicted in the narrative, things that are so off putting that they ruin things, or at least leave a sour aftertaste.
I’ve read some people for whom that thing is rape, either survivors who don’t want to relive their trauma or people who just think it’s something that is too casually thrown around in fiction. For my wife it’s animal abuse or neglect. She can rarely push past that, once it comes up. I’ve always thought of myself as tougher than that, able to shrug off anything in the service of a narrative. A reader’s version of a cast iron stomach. Apparently, I was wrong.
Last year my wife and I took our belated honeymoon in Cambodia. It’s a beautiful, historic place, filled with friendly people. But it’s also the scene of one of the worst authoritarian regimes of the 20th Century. During the reign of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s up to 2 million Cambodians died, either worked to death in a program of rural fixation or outright murdered as enemies of the state.
While we were in Phnom Penh we went to the Killing Fields outside the city, as well as the Tuol Sleng prison, from which many of those doomed people came.
Tuol Sleng is a former school and it’s been left largely in the same condition in which the Vietnamese found it when they rolled into the city in 1979. In fact, rooms in which prisoners were murdered just ahead of the Vietnamese advance still have blood on the walls and ceilings. Of the 17,000 of people sent to Tuol Sleng only a dozen survived (we met one of them). It’s easy enough to be horrified at the place just be using your imagination.
Not that you’re limited to that. Several rooms are given over to exhibits about what went on there. In one room there are implements of torture, as well as paintings done by a survivor of the various torture techniques. Take a look at this picture:
See the painting in the right, behind the rack upon which victims would lay while their fingernails were pulled out? It depicts waterboarding, simulated drowning, which was a crime against humanity when the Khmer Rouge did it, a war crime when the Japanese did it in World War II, but mere an “enhanced interrogation technique” during our glorious War on Terror. Whatever it’s called, it’s torture and the thought that it’s been done in my name turns my stomach.
Which brings me to Channel Blue, a comic sci-fi novel by Jay Martel. In the book a down and out Los Angeles screenwriter, Perry, accidentally learns that the Earth is actually a huge reality TV show run for the benefit of an alien race. Even worse, ratings are down and the show’s been cancelled – in other words, the Earth is to be destroyed. Perry does his best to save it, but each attempts tends to fail miserably and leads to Perry suffering in all kinds of ways.
The other night, while going through another of these episodes (it gets kind of tedious), Perry is identified as a potential terrorist, taken to a secret location, and waterboarded. Not for any good reason (he’s back on his way quickly enough), but, there it is – a depiction of waterboarding in what’s otherwise been a funny, light bit of entertainment. It stopped me cold.
It’s not that I object to any depiction of torture in literature or film. But it’s one thing to depict it as part of a serious work, perhaps shedding light on the brutality of the whole process. It’s quite different to put it in a comedic work even if the act itself wasn’t played for laughs.
But if that’s true, what about one of my favorite books (and others) of all time? Very early on in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy the entire planet Earth is destroyed. It’s played completely as a joke – the Earth is destroyed to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Billions of people are killed. That’s never bothered me – why not?
I think it comes down to realism, oddly enough. Realistically, the Earth is not going to be destroyed, certainly not to make way for a hyperspace bypass by an alien race spouting awful poetry. The idea is so absurd that it’s not worth taking seriously. By contrast, waterboarding of alleged terrorist suspects is something we’ve done, and not in the recent past.
I’ll admit this is probably not a rational response. Most things like this are more visceral than intellectual (although not all). There’s nothing wrong with that, so long as people recognize it. I guess I do now.