The Canon of American Tragedy: Luke O’Neil’s Welcome to Hell World

Saritha Ramakrishna

 

There’s a certain Twitter trope that I love to hate. The format is: “If you’re doing x, then you’re y.” As a construction, it presupposes that people who are doing x are unaware that they’re y, that there are so many living their lives like utter fools, oblivious to their y-ness. Maybe the person tweeting in this format assumes that people who are doing x will actually read the tweet and adjust their behavior accordingly, but I doubt it. That’s not the point of tweeting something like that. I often joke with my friends that what this amounts to is a kind of shadowboxing.

Some put all their rhetorical strength into bruising a phantom enemy—an imagined aura without corporeal form. This might sound like hell to a lot of people, but the condition of being online—the rhetorical loops and drops, the confessionals without context, the elaborately disguised bad-faith arguments—has its own staying power, which keeps me and every other person here scrolling, breathless and immobilized. Being online is about the sensation of the fight. It serves as a poor substitute for actual agency in the world. This is a country full of shadowboxers.

In the foreword to Welcome to Hell World, Luke O’Neil admits that he does not know what his book is. It covers a lot: loneliness and addiction in all their forms, absurdity and cruelty and how they’re often paired together, people as soft matter shredded by this nation’s exploitative systems. The collection hits upon all the major works in the canon of Americanness: opioid addiction, the border wall, climate change, pollution, the healthcare system, police violence, mass shootings, etc.

And just as important is the gaze on them—how the reddest brutalities are smoothed down by corporatized language, or shouted over by hysterical pleas for civility, refracted through social media and its churn, or blown up by CNN or MSNBC’s fluorescent newsroom. As I read it, O’Neil hasn’t declared this a “hell world’ just because there are a bunch of terrible and ruthless systems that ravage people’s lives. It’s also about how people try to position themselves morally to justify these systems, and how they are conditioned to treat even the most powerless people with a kind of cutting, hypocritical moral absolutism.

O’Neil is a Boston-based freelance writer and journalist whose Hell World newsletters had populated my inbox prior to the book’s release. I had previously only known him as one of the guys that organized the emo nights I used to go to in Cambridge, but I started following his work after his firing from a columnist position at The Boston Globe. (He was fired for recounting a joke he made when working as a server, wherein he expressed regret for not taking the opportunity to piss in Bill Kristol’s food.)

The style of the book is frenetic and unsubtle. Sentences are sparsely punctuated, evoking the visual style of scrolling through a feed. Reading them, I’m reminded of how heavy one’s body feels in a dream, when everything is too much to process; it’s often off-putting and hard to follow. O’Neil’s own struggles and observations are woven in with reporting and transcribed interviews. The result is a kind of melting effect on the psyche, one that blurs the line between “current events” (hah!) and their entanglement with people’s lives and feelings. An image of the cyborg comes to mind, one that feels the striated pain of the world through its digitized senses and its own very human anguish.

O’Neil wants us as readers to see the world as it is presented to us: emotive and associative, sloshing up against the walls of the platforms through which it’s conveyed. There is plenty of anger in Hell World—for the Sacklers, architects of the opioid crisis, for the insurers who deny poor people heart transplants, for the companies that make money off of baby jails. One of the book’s first vignettes focuses on the Iraq War and Samar Hassan, who was five years old when American soldiers killed her family. O’Neil writes, “I was trying to remember her name in September of 2018 as the weeklong destination wedding-ass funeral and around-the-clock 24/7 corpse watch for John McCain continued its interminable slog on cable news. I worried for a while I wouldn’t be able to bring something Samar said in an interview last year back to memory. I felt guilt for having left the specificity of her anguish slip from my mind.” 

Samar’s family represented just a few of the hundreds of thousands of civilians (or more, by some estimates) killed in the war. In the famous photo, her bloodied likeness gives form to what is, to many Americans, a bloodless abstraction. In the midst of the recounting, I think of how someone on LinkedIn might say that storytelling is the best way to reach an audience. If you wanted to tell someone that American empire is bad, they probably won’t feel that millions of Iraqis were wounded or maimed or killed in its name. You can, however, show them a photo of Samar.

But as O’Neil reminds us, Samar once said to a documentarian, “Everybody knows my story and saw my picture… but it’s not going to help with anything.” This is one of the agonies depicted in Hell World. O’Neil, like a lot of us who are steeped in the discourse, spends a lot of time considering the purpose of documentation. He demonstrates how virality is sometimes the only way to guarantee that someone stays alive or achieves some version of justice. O’Neil quotes a woman who went viral at a town hall, when Republican lawmakers were threatening to repeal the Affordable Care Act. As she describes, “Maybe if I put a human face and voice on it, give them something they can really recognize, like their daughter or niece, then maybe it would change their heart. Or at least change other Americans’ hearts.” The same is true for videos of police violence, where virality is a corroborator like no other. Virality also allowed O’Neil to raise thousands of dollars for immigration advocacy through a joke GoFundMe page, “Build a Giant Escalator Over the Wall.” (“The escalators are a metaphor please do not come and investigate me ICE or whoever I’m not really going to build a series of giant escalators it’s a joke to raise money for this good cause.”)

 

There is quite obviously a terrible flipside to this, which O’Neil recognizes. There are so many people who can’t turn their pain into a story for GoFundMe or their local newspaper. It’s extraordinarily difficult to fuse together the skillsets of a college applicant, beauty pageant contestant, job interviewee, and digital marketer to convince a faceless public or a wealthy benefactor to love you. Some painful narratives are not very neat either; they do not have clear beginnings, middles, and ends.

O’Neil writes of his exercise bulimia, “…sometimes I worry that I’m not the right person to be talking about all this shit publicly because I have not gotten better.” Of an 18-year old girl whose story was called into question after she was sexually assaulted by two police officers: “So much of human communication whether it’s in trials like this one or discussions online or political disagreement comes down to finding an inconsistency in what someone has said or done before and then using that as a means to cast doubt on everything…”

People are judged on the purity of their stories. Perverse moralities are weaponized against people with little to nothing. O’Neil describes the indignation of commenters under a video of people taking water from a Family Dollar during a hurricane (“This is why the 2nd amendment exists my dudes. Blast them”), or the judgment cast on a woman who was charged with the death of her own son because she tried to drive through a storm (“I’m sure she’s suffering but she had a choice and now she can face the consequences. Do I feel sorry for her, NO!”).  No one deserves anything unless they’re a perfect protagonist. If not, they get turned into something for lonely or bored or unhinged people to fight about online.

O’Neil is aggrieved by is the fact that people in this country (some far more than others) are not really allowed to fuck up without being condemned to destitution or imprisonment. The carceral state, the immigration system, et al. treat people as faceless, replaceable, and infinitely culpable. And most people don’t have an audience except maybe their friends and loved ones, if they even have that. Their only hope is for someone to change the country, or for someone more powerful than them to lift them and their story up into the limelight.

With this, O’Neil is a journalist that is unsure of the value of journalism.  The grainy black-and-white image of what constitutes a journalist—someone who exposes corruption and gives voice to the voiceless—seems obsolete, lost in a sea of adversarial tweets. For journalists and writers and other people who engage with ‘content,’ “we gorge ourselves on the sins of others until it sickens us hoping without any sort of proof that in the end it might help someone but knowing nonetheless that it won’t.” While this is hyperbole, and documenting the sins of the powerful does do something for the world, it does seem that the amount of words people write relative to the amount of “good” that’s done on their behalf is a vastly imbalanced ratio.

 

While reading Welcome to Hell World, I thought about this essay in n+1 from filmmaker Blair McClendon, who discusses the relevance of art to protest and the brutality it was met with this summer. “What are we doing here and why are we doing it? The big lie is that the world needs us. What we do is noble, we think, before ten- or twelve-hour workdays. Yet the only people I ever hear saying the world needs stories are the people involved in telling them. There is no need to defend the necessity of making art. It is not necessary—not like food, water, shelter, affection. It does, however, seem to be a fundamental activity of human societies. Filmmakers make films because we have the technology to do it and it is the kind of thing that people do.”

O’Neil understands this. Documentation, writing, and storytelling can be compulsive, rather than a means to an end. In this sensibility is a pathos that makes O’Neil’s work particularly salient when you’ve already read too many words written by too many strangers. It also seems that so many successful pundits or “thought leaders” have climbed to the heights they currently occupy through not only material advantage but an obsession with being capital-G Good, one that removes them from the minor tragedies and fuck-ups that come with living imperfectly. O’Neil’s voice feels grounded in a less pristine version of life, where he seems compelled to document how people live with their own failings, the failings of the people around them, and the failings of the systems they’re supposed to depend on. Sections about the nostalgic comments people leave on YouTube lyric videos or the text messages and social media profiles of deceased loved ones are written with more care and tenderness than the world or the Internet typically afford. Even in a dystopia where Facebook can write an algorithm to figure out if you’re going to kill yourself and maybe call the police on you, there is still, preposterously, beauty, endogenous to the passions, nostalgias, and feats of endurance that make up people’s lives.

Sometimes I can’t tell if Twitter-famous lefty writers actually do like people and have a zeal for living, or if they just love rhetoric and fighting online. But in Hell World, the way O’Neil writes about bodies in a locker room, the feeling of the ocean off the coast of Massachusetts, a man who bowled a perfect game on September 11, 2001, a heartbreaking account of being “orphaned” by Fox News—these tell me something about his sensibilities. Hell World is not a means to an end. It does not offer solutions to all the problems that it depicts. Rather, it is born out of a need to process a wounded world.

I don’t know what will happen in the rest of this year, or through the long winter that will follow. Things are obviously bad, and I don’t know if they will get better. The oceans are rising. Wildfires and sickness and slaughter are ambient. In one section, O’Neil interviews Grace McKinnon, a 24-year old social worker, who, through quick thinking and a cellphone video, likely saved a homeless man from being murdered by the police that had pinned him to the ground. As she says, “life is a precious gift.” Somehow, despite all the grief and suffering that Welcome to Hell World catalogues, you get the sense that O’Neil believes this too. ♦

 

 


Saritha Ramakrishna is a writer who also works in urban planning and environmental advocacy. Previous work of hers has appeared in The Baffler, Mask Magazine, Orion Magazine and Literary Hub. She tweets (informally) at @saritha___.