CBR Bingo: Series
I also didn’t want to write a story from the neutered and dispassionate center that most mainstream publications require. I didn’t want to hear from a person suffering and then give space to the person causing that suffering to explain themselves. Something I wrote in one of the first newsletters I sent out was that my only promise to the readers is that I will never hear both sides and I think I kept that one.
Luke O’Neil’s Welcome to Hell World: Dispatches from the American Dystopia is a series of essays that mix American culture and politics with personal reflections. O’Neil is a sensitive and acerbic writer who is able to talk about deeply personal issues without a trace of self pity. He also brings his social justice fury (and sadness) to bear on a wide variety of topics, including the carceral state, immigration, gun violence, addiction, racism, climate change, healthcare, politics and Trump.
[T]here comes a point in the swift descent into fascism where it’s no longer satisfactory for the state to merely injure an undesirable class of people eventually they have to start making an example of the ones who are trying to help them lest the rest of us go and get any wild ideas about what sort of humanity we have left.”
The book is not an easy read topic-wise, but O’Neil writes with brilliance, dry humor, despair and honesty. He is in the tradition of the muckraking journalist. There was the story of a five year old Iraqi girl who survived when her parents where shot to death by US forces as they were driving. The stories devoted to immigrant families being torn apart at the border. About police shooting to death people in mental health crises. The horrors of the Trump presidency. A woman kills herself because she can’t make bail. A man is taken away by ICE leaving his very pregnant partner at the gas station to fend for herself. Bombing of Yemeni children. There is his own vulnerability talking about his sexual assault and eating disorder, where he helps open a space where men can talk about deeply painful things that society sometimes sees as just the province of women, or judges men’s suffering as un-manly. Plus he can be searing in the best possible way:
It’s also a reminder that much like when it comes to getting sick or injured in America which needs to be done in a tragic but endearing enough way to go viral so people will pay your medical bills all you have to do to make it in this beautiful country is have your life fall apart in such a way that the news wants to write about it then hope the benign feudal lords will see fit to offer you a token reward as an aspirational example to the rest of us so we shut the fuck up.”
There were a few essays about digital mourning and connection that struck a chord with me. O’Neil talks about keeping text chains between himself and his late father, and describes the different ways people memorialize the dead online. One essay that particularly touched me talked about the You Tube comments that can be found under music videos that recount reminisces, or grief over things past related to the songs, or just a feeling a song gave the person. These are wisps of digital humanity and I’ve always found them touching and a spot of warmth in the otherwise howling void of the internet. O’Neil quotes some of the comments in that same spirit.
O’Neil’s essays are brilliant little gems that combine styles and content to create a sense of our dystopian world, but also the goodness and strength that exist. Not in any kind of facile or sappy way, but in a way that feels possible. I appreciated his cynicism and I appreciated his hope. I appreciated his art. He says at one point:
If you’re lucky you get to smuggle your sadness into something that tricks other people into paying attention to it like a book or a song and then they go and tell you how good you are for making it and sometimes even pay you money for it. It’s the perfect crime.”
As much as I feel I have a bad doomscrolling habit, reading O’Neil’s book didn’t feel like that. I felt a sort of relief that someone out there felt the same way I did, had been through some of the same things I’ve been through, had the same rage and fragile sense of connection that I have. He presents more than dystopia; he shares the stories of those fighting to survive within it, the stories of people helping each other, stories of empathy. This book transcends a mere recounting of everything that sucks. It has insight and connection threaded all the way through, in a compulsively readable format.