Paul Auster

Bloodbath Nation

Epitomizes Auster's polemic against the American gun obsession.

Jan 28, 2023
Dimitris Passas

"Peace will break out only when both sides want it, and in order for that to happen, we would first have to conduct an honest, gut-wrenching examination of who we are and who we want to be as a people going forward into the future, which necessarily would have to begin with an honest gut-wrenching examination of who we have been in the past".

Let's begin with the cold, hard facts: Between 1968 and 2017, more than 1.5 million Americans were killed by guns; the U. S. population owns 393 million guns, more per 100 people than any other nation in the world; in fact, the arithmetical quantity of guns outnumber that of the American citizens today. Ιncidents of mass shootings have become a national rite and the common perception among the population regarding those atrocities equates them with trivial events such as traffic accidents, an indication that the Americans still fail to grasp the gravity of the matter and respond in a mature manner. The gun epidemic is a social plague that concerns solely the U. S., as America is a unique case among the developed countries with the right to possess firearms being inalienable as the subject of the constitutional Second Amendment which states: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed". The crux of the matter concerning gun ownership in the United States is that it is inextricably linked with the myths that bind the collective consciousness of the Americans together as Gary Younge observes in the Guardian review of Bloodbath Nation (read it here): "There is an atavistic attachment to firearms in America that places the gun at the center of some of the nation's most cherished myths". Furthermore, it speaks to notions of masculinity and self-sufficiency as the state is deemed unworthy of protecting its own people, thus that responsibility inevitably falls on the shoulders of the individual who acquires a gun as a means of family safeguard.

In the little more than 150 pages of his latest treatise, Auster attempts to unfold his polemic against the American obsession with guns in a systematic manner, examining the subject from various different perspectives, historical, sociological, and even personal. It should be highlighted that Auster's family bears a trauma connected to gun use as when Paul's father, Sam, was only 6 years old, his grandmother shot and killed his grandfather. Later, in court, the grandmother was acquitted on grounds of temporary insanity, nevertheless the fatal event caused a major upheaval within the family's ranks and it is something that the author will never cease to remember for the rest of his life. Bloodbath Nation is a hybrid of a book genre-wise as it blends elements from both essay and memoir, crafted by a skilled wordsmith who is internationally known as a fiction writer, thus it has to be the main theme that attracted Auster, in the age of 75 now and with a precious legacy securing his standing among the most popular American storytellers of the last decades. However, if that is the case, it comes as a surprise that on a final note, the author doesn't provide a concrete suggestion concerning ways to stop the phenomenon which has cost millions of lives in his home country. The thing is, that the parts in which Auster adopts a wider scope in his histological analysis of the subject matter, his arguments seem more consistent and organized while when he switches to the microscopic level, which concerns the individual's behavior towards guns, his case visibly weakens, leaving the reader feeling unfulfilled.

Bloodbath Nation consists of five essays and each one examines a different aspect of the American gun epidemic paradox. First and foremost, Auster stresses that in order to see where we are headed in the future years, we should first dig deeper into the past in America's history: "In order to understand how we got here we got to remove ourselves from the present and go back to the beginning, back to the time before the US was invented". Thus, Auster reverts at the birth of the American nation which coincided with a major communal sin: The slaughter of the indigenous American Indian population that cost the lives of several thousands from 1800 to 1900. It is there that the author locates the first experience of his fellow countrymen with guns and in the course of the essay, he strives to illustrate the role of the weaponry in a mass murder that initiated the workings leading to the birth of the new nation. Then, he moves on to probe into the second cardinal American sin that is slavery and the constitutional racism that still today frequently raises its ugly head causing riots and unrest in the streets of major American cities. However, Auster doesn't dwell extensively on these two themes as he moves on to link gun use with more critical moments in the history of the United States: Second Amendment, Vietnam, The Black Panthers, and even Donald Trump make their appearance on page in order to support the author's main argument and seal the historical significance of gun use within the country.

The text is abetted by a series of photographs, the work of Spencer Ostrander who travelled for two years in the American inland and took pictures from sites of mass shootings that took place during the last few decades. The photographs captured only locations and not in a single one is there a human being or a type of action depicted. For that reason, in a brief author's note that opens the book, Auster describes them as "photographs of silence" or, as Stuart Kelly in his review of the book in The Scotsman (read it here) puts it, "mute testaments". Their effect to the reader is palpable, evoking feelings of apprehension and impending doom, the absence of any form of life adding to the eeriness of the shots. Regarding the aesthetic aspect of the images, Kelly writes: "The aesthetics of the photograph is somewhere between the cinematography of David Lynch and Andrei Tarkovsky: dereliction, abandonment, the persistence of electrical wires, a feeling that teeters between horror and wistfulness". The point is that the photographic material complements the text well as the latter also elicits -at least sometimes- a visceral reaction from the reader, the effect being more prominent to the non-American readership. Auster concludes by writing: "Ostrander showed up with his camera and transformed them (the places) into gravestones of our collective grief".

The book features a kind a villain in the guise of the notorious National Rifle Association, the organization unwaveringly advocating in favor of gun ownership since its foundation in 1871. Each incident of mass shooting is turned to an argument supporting more guns instead of less, addressing to the population's most primal instincts. Another clear indicator of the author's set of beliefs concerning the book's subject matter is the fact that a part of the book's proceeds will be donated to the Violence Policy Center, a nonprofit organization working to stop gun in country where 40.000 people per year die from gunshot inflicted wounds. While, in general terms, Bloodbath Nation is a well-researched study on the American gun obsession, it fails to endorse a crystalline proposition that would open a new path in the understanding of this particularly disturbing reality that seems to resonate with a large portion of the society for reasons that Auster -almost superficially- explains without truly delving deep into the inherent flaw of the American collective awareness that the people seem powerless to acknowledge and eventually abolish. Historical analysis is fine and helps the reader better comprehend the complexities and nuances of the main theme but a more steadfast argumentative logic would give the book what so desperately lacks: A transparent orientation towards its subject matter. Those who were never convinced by Auster's oeuvre, doubting his value and ranking among his peers in the American literary scene, should not be quick to skip this title as it bears none of the author's well-documented flaws as existing in his latest works of fiction. Bloodbath Nation should be read as a dissertation on a tough subject that still today divides the American nation, offering a substantial amount of information, particularly to those who live outside the U. S. and ignore this sad reality.


Bloodbath Nation
Paul Auster
Grove Press

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