Over two decades ago, author and novelist Don Delillo published the short story “Videotape,” about a young girl who unwittingly films the murder of a man in a car behind her family’s van. Written in second person, the story manages to capture humankind’s rejection of, as well as fascination with, watching death play out on screen.
“The tape is superreal, or maybe underreal,” wrote Delillo. “It is what lies at the scraped bottom of all the layers you have added.”
I thought of “Videotape” after hearing about the Virginia shooting and taking in some of the images and facts, chief among them the chilling detail that the killer filmed the murder and made it available to the public on Facebook while fleeing police. The video remains available to anyone determined to find it. This feels very much like the footage that Delillo described when he wrote:
“You keep on looking not because you know something is going to happen — of course you do know something is going to happen, and you do look for that reason, but you might also keep on looking if you came across this footage for the first time, without knowing the outcome. There is a crude power operating here. You keep on looking because things combine to hold you fast—a sense of the random, the amateurish, the accidental, the impending. You don’t think of the tape as boring or interesting. It is crude, it is blunt, it is relentless. It is the jostled part of your mind, the film that runs through your hotel brain under all the thoughts you know you’re thinking.”
As writers go, Delillo is in an elite class. Some might argue he’s the greatest living novelist, despite not having turned out a significant best seller or even a particularly good book in years. But whether he’s “the best” or merely “great,” he’s the dark prince of modern lit, tuned to the primal urge, the macabre subtext, the irrepressible side of human nature extant despite all the evolution. His voice captures and articulates the dark absurdity of life in a matter-of-fact way.
He didn’t predict the crime as such, but he saw it coming because it was inevitable.
“This is a crime designed for random taping and immediate playing,” he wrote. “You wonder if this kind of crime became more possible when the means of taping and playing—playing it immediately after the taping—became part of the culture. This is a crime that has found its medium—cheap mass production, the sequence of repeated images and victims, stark and glary and more or less unremarkable.”
This could be Delillo’s thesis statement: The medium isn’t just the message, it’s the murderer of the message. Violence only proliferates in captivity.
“They show it because it exists, because they have to show it, because this is why they’re out there.”