I spent the morning on myspace looking at pictures of my dead ex-boyfriend. The phrase my dead ex-boyfriend is syntactically ambiguous you can’t tell from it whether this boyfriend and I were together when he died. We were not. We’d been broken up for about two years. We were together for three then apart for two then he died. He died in a car crash that’s how he died.
His name was Jesse but in the years between our breakup and his death he went by Jesse Ray meaning his new friends and his new girlfriend called him Jesse Ray. I never called him Jesse Ray. No one from our old group ever called him that. We all grew up together don’t talk about him much now maybe because we don’t know what to call him.Complete story available online at Granta
I’m not sure if this is fiction or memoir. Vulture refers to it as autofiction, a kind of blurring of the two genres; if you google the term, you’ll find it’s been around since the 70s but is resurging thanks to Knausgaard. I don’t quite get the distinction between autofiction and the “thinly disguised autobiography” which has been around much longer, or, for that matter, the Roman à clef. Given my annoyance with embroidering the truth and still calling it nonfiction, I’m fine with the “based on a true story” approach. But Granta calls it fiction; here in Pushcart, it’s ambiguous, since it’s listed in the Index as fiction, but the notation is missing in the text itself.
Why does it matter to me? I’m not sure, other than I don’t do well with uncertainty. Would I read it differently one way or the other? Not really. Maybe the problem is one of displacement: I can’t really get a handle on it, and I’m focusing on genre as a reason. But enough navel-gazing.
The story is about the narrator’s relationship with the chaotic Jesse, who has “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness” – the name of a punk-rock band, by the way; the header image above is from one of their videos – tattooed across his collarbones. “I don’t like sweet boys. I liked filthy weirdos who scared me a little and I still do”, she tells us, as we hear about their time tog’ether, he returned from college, she about to depart. “There is no story – he was there and then he was gone.” She found out about his death from her sister, who found out about it on Myspace.
Oddly, it’s Myspace that feels to me the center of gravity in this piece. Odd, because it’s such a vibrant portrait of a guy who lived on the edge, full of enticing details about sex and self-destruction and, yes, life. And odd because I never had a Myspace page; I only briefly used Facebook, back before it became a marketing tool, so why should I be interested? Maybe because Watkins puts it front and center in her opening: “The uncooperative cadence of the phrase my myspace perfectly encapsulates the awkwardness of the early oughts when our story begins.” I don’t think it’s by accident that she changes the more typical “aughts”, meaning the first decade of a century, to “oughts” in a story about a guy who didn’t do oughts.
The narrator – be it a fictional stand-in for Watkins, or a totally fictional character – effectively expresses this intense connection, a connection that breaking up and moving on did not lessen. Is this the product of an intense relationship? Or is it more a reaction to the circumstances, the first loss of a peer? Or maybe it’s displacement, a kind of aggregate mourning connected to the death of her mother, who died while she was at school, and her husband’s former girlfriend, who died in Bolivia doing field work, all the dead bodies unseen, leaving an open wound.
Toward the end, the narration changes and the writer addresses Jess; at this point, the language sometimes becomes chaotic, with run-on sentences and just thoughts pouring out.
Jesse, I wish you were here. America is violent and queer as fuck. The snowbanks are rising and every morning I drive over a frozen river past a mosque an elementary school this week sent a letter threatening a great time for patriotic Americans. I pass a kid who looks like you walks like you did I pass a sculpture by Maya Lin called Wave Field which is like a bunch of waves made of grass covered in snow so like a bunch of bumpy snow. Pretty cool. I drive to a strip mall and smoke weed in my SUV and do rich bitch yoga with these fierce old dykes and Indian grandmas and public ivy sorority alumni and other basic traitorous cunts and for $20 each we all come out an hour later looking like we just got fucked all of them my sisters.
In my quick tour of the internet looking for comments on this story, I see that those who mention it, whether they encountered it in Granta (it was in the Best Young American Novelists of 2017 issue, so it got a pretty wide spread) or elsewhere, were extremely impressed. I feel old.