Dark places draw a crowd. If they didn’t, then CSI and Law & Order and their endless urchins, as well as cinematic thrillers and mystery novels with twisted killers at their core, wouldn’t be so popular.
Such works often scavenge their plots from real-life incidents. But that’s not what happened with Jodi Picoult’s new novel. In this case, the fiction preceded the genuine horror. The distance between the novel and the nightmare is slim enough to invite reflection on the uneasy symbiosis between art and life.
In an eerie coincidence, the subject of Picoult’s latest book, Nineteen Minutes (Atria Books), is similar to the ghastly events the unfolded at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Nineteen Minutes was published March 6, jumping immediately to the top spot on The New York Times best-seller list, where it has remained. The book was published in Great Britain last Thursday, three days after Cho Seung Hui murdered 32 people and then killed himself.
Picoult, author of 13 previous novels such as My Sister’s Keeper (2004) and Perfect Match (2002), has millions of loyal readers. Her stories skillfully place neighborly, likable characters in the middle of tense topical dilemmas—domestic violence, teen suicide, date rape.
This time, though, her tale appeared in proximity to an event it fictionalizes: a mass killing in a school. Picoult had just left her New Hampshire home for a book tour in England, her agent said, when Cho went on his deadly rampage in Virginia. Suddenly, the fiction of Nineteen Minutes read like the front page of the newspaper or the lead story on TV.
The confluence of events forced Picoult, who was hounded by requests for comment, her agent said, to issue a statement through her publisher and on her Web site. It read, in part: “As a parent, my deepest sympathy goes out to the victims and families of the Virginia Tech community. ... (A)ny time something like this happens it is tragic and raises questions. However, the one we should be asking right now is: How can we help this community heal?”
To be sure, there are differences between “Nineteen Minutes” and the Virginia Tech shootings. Picoult’s novel is set in a high school, not a college. As background for her book, she researched the 1999 killings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Yet reading Nineteen Minutes in the immediate wake of the Blacksburg massacre reveals many aspects in common, too: Peter Houghton, the shooter in the novel, is a sullen, disaffected loner who is bullied or ignored by his classmates, much as Cho seems to have been. The adults in Nineteen Minutes ask themselves the same questions that Cho’s family members must be asking privately. “There was the finest line between unique and odd,” one of Picoult’s characters muses, “between what made a child grow up to be as well-adjusted as Thomas versus unstable, like Peter. Did every teenager have the capacity to fall on one side or the other of that tightrope, and could you identify a single moment that tipped the balance?”
Peter’s thoughts, too, seem chillingly close to what Cho’s might have been: “You are the thing that used to be normal, but that was so long ago, you can’t even remember what it was like.”
Many artists explore real-life mass tragedies in their songs and their stories, usually long after the fact. The recent film Zodiac is about a serial killer who terrorized San Francisco in the 1960s and `70s. The 1972 Harry Chapin ballad Sniper chronicles the 1966 massacre at the University of Texas at Austin, during which Charles Whitman killed 15 people. Literature has never backed away from difficult subjects such as mass murder and serial killing. Zombie (1995), a widely praised novel by Joyce Carol Oates, records the jumbled thoughts of a psychopathic killer.
But Nineteen Minutes seems different. Based on information from a previous school shooting, the novel was published just before yet another wholesale slaughter by a misfit student with severe mental instability. It’s sometimes hard to keep track of what’s real, what’s fiction, and shortly thereafter, what’s real again.
The timing of Picoult’s novel, published within weeks of Cho’s vicious rampage, was accidental. But in its depiction of a serene, ordinary world blown apart by the rage of a single individual, her story—all too tragically—is timeless.