Making a Murderer

by Nicolas Liney

Karen Joy Fowler, Booth
Serpent’s Tail, ISBN 9781788168632, 320pp, £16.99

The key to Karen Joy Fowler’s Booth, a biofictional novel about Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth and his wild, sprawling family, is buried in the author’s notes at the end of the book: ‘I began thinking about this book during one of our American spates of horrific mass shootings.’ She doesn’t say which shootings. This was before the Trump administration (more on that later). Perhaps the Pulse nightclub attack in Orlando? Or San Bernadino?

It’s impossible to try and pin it down, and pointless: by May this year, there had been 26 school shootings alone, not counting numerous other attacks, like in Buffalo. The 27th was in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children and two adults were killed at an elementary school by Salvador Ramos. The public grief was predictably overwhelming. Less noticed was Ramos’ mother, Adriana Reyes. In a video circulated on CNN, Adriana sobs despondently and pleads in faltering Spanish: ‘forgive me, forgive my son . . . I know he had his reasons for what he did . . . please don’t judge him.’  Adriana’s lament gets close to the heart of Booth, which closes with the question that hovers over the Booth family after Lincoln’s murder: ‘what is it like to love the most hated man in the country?’
 There have been many novels on Abraham Lincoln — most recently, George Saunders’ masterful Lincoln in the Bardo — and more than a few on his assassination. Fowler herself has played with Booth and Lincoln in her short story ‘Standing Room Only’. Given her preoccupations, we might have also expected allegiances with recent ‘gun violence’ fiction, like Jennifer Clement’s Gun Love or How to Be Safe by Tom McAllister, or more substantially, the traces of Don DeLillo’s biofiction Libra, which tracks the life of Kennedy’s shooter, Lee Harvey Oswald. But Fowler is adamant that she did not want to write about Booth and the assassination: ‘I did not want to write a book about John Wilkes. This is a man who craved attention and has gotten too much of it.’
Instead, Booth is about the Booth family. The father, Junius Brutus Booth, the wildly famous and famously wild Shakespearean actor, is talented and unhinged. Already married (a secret that will later return to plague the family), he flees England for America in 1821 with his mistress Mary Ann Holmes, settling between Maryland and Baltimore. Mary raises six children in varying states of indigence whilst Junius tours, makes sizeable amounts of money and subsequently squanders it. Junius is sensitive, tyrannical, principled, a strict vegetarian and conflicted slave-owner (slavery propels the historical drive of the novel — this is Civil War land — but also belies the difficult ambiguities it presented in the domestic sphere, when even its opponents could find ways to accommodate and profit from it), and holds powerful sway over his family. 

The children love him and hate him. When he dies, his presence hovers over their lives. The sons, three of whom follow Junius to stage careers, grow to repeat his behaviour. They leave wives, drink, brawl, act stupendously. There is a tacit acknowledgement and acceptance of their actions as inescapable. When the elder brother Edwin is widowed, slips into drink and another relationship, his sister Asia ‘forgives him his drinking, as it’s a hereditary condition and his only failing’, but not the new woman. Asia, the most complex of the Booth children, realises the complicated legacy her father has bestowed upon them; she struggles ‘to keep herself free of taint’ but also ‘to protect and burnish the great name Father left them’. John Wilkes emerges quietly within a loud family. There are the flashes of adolescent violence we can expect from a future killer, but more hauntingly, he’s just like his siblings.

Family is what Fowler does best, as her poignant We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves proved. Booth lacks her previous novel’s experimental and speculative qualities, and bears closer affinities with the 19th-century family saga novel. It’s an annalistic plod with a heaving, ponderous structure that reveals all its architecture; there’s an audible sound of gears clunking into place with every transition to a new scene (‘now it’s 1846, another March coming round’; ‘1851 is a busy year for the Booth family’). Fowler’s style is monotonous, stifled by dull, indiscriminate reportage of fact and unimaginative imagery. Thoughts and images flirt constantly with banality (‘his legs give way and he must sit down, but maybe he doesn’t even need legs. He’s so light with joy that he’s floating’), and even Civil War, when it comes, manages to be reduced to cliché (‘The dead cover the ground like grass. The mud turns red’). Pillows are constantly drenched with tears. Chances constantly go up in smoke. Such writing is, of course, intentional: this is how history — and families — works, proceeding by way of backstitch and snag, repetition and mundanity. But there’s a deadening effect in Booth which undercuts its psychological realism and threatens to stop the novel completely in its tracks.
This would be all too much if it weren’t for the one pivotal scene which Fowler is committed to avoiding. Her trick is to use prolepsis and dramatic irony economically, with future tenses interjecting to remind us that the staid predictabilities of family life will, at one point, be irretrievable (‘years later, when Asia feels quite desperate to hear someone, anyone, say something nice about John’, old letters and newspaper clippings will provide a balm). As their father had done, John will mire the family in an alloy of introspection, arrogant defiance and divided allegiance. Again, it is Asia who provides the ruminative commentary on the inner conflicts that John imposes upon the family. She had written a biography of her father after his death, and now, following the assassination, she turns her pen to John, revealing unutterable, knee-jerk thoughts: ‘her secret book about John is much more personal. She doesn’t try to publish it . . . she makes him the hero he thought he was. She blames Lincoln for having gone to the theatre that night.’ 

It’s tempting to find connections with works like We Need to Talk About Kevin, where a murderer forces deep introspection and fragmentation within their family. But there is a more obvious debt to tragedy — Classical and Shakespearean — which lends its twin notions of inherited guilt and intergenerational curses (Asia: ‘she feels that the dark days of Father’s bigamy are returning’), and of the tensions that lie between devotion to family and devotion to state (Mary Ann: ‘I love my children above my country, I love my children above all’!). 

The underlying presence of drama in Booth is an obvious move, historically speaking. Junius Brutus Booth was the most famous Shakespearean of his time, and three sons, including John Wilkes himself, were actors. Life and dramatic art constantly overlap. The family communicate in slabs of Shakespeare, answer each other in lines and half-lines from a trove of dramatic references, and Fowler finds multiple Shakespearean models for the Booths — Lear, Richard III, Ophelia, Hamlet. The leitmotif of ‘life as play’ is an easy one, and at one lightly meta-literary instance of self-awareness, Edwin acknowledges this: ‘can a person ever be sure, even offstage, even in the parlour of his own house, that he isn’t simply acting a part? All the world’s a stage and etc., etc. You don’t have to be the son of a Shakespearean actor to have such thoughts. Everyone has them.’ Nonetheless, Fowler severely over-bakes the theme. Even at the end, when John Wilkes is finally cornered by authorities and fights it out in a barn, ‘the straw catches immediately, illuminating the scene as clearly as if he were onstage.’

But these clichés also reveal Booth’s most important aspects. Junius’s dramatic fame transforms private family life into a public theatrical affair, reflected through critics, fans, reviews and articles, and blurs the boundary between art and life. As infants, the siblings find it ‘impossible that people who don’t even know Father would know more about him than his own children.’ When Junius dies, the family is gratified by the variety of national mourning: ‘every American paper reports Booth’s death and most include long eulogies.’ There is an inbuilt need for constant performance and a desire for fame amongst the Booths that seems to foreshadow the reality-TV families we now know so well.

There’s also something deeper, more insidious, about the slip between life and drama, Lincoln’s assassination, and contemporary gun violence with which Fowler is so concerned. It was no accident that Lincoln was assassinated during a play and by an actor. Theatre can of course be violent — Sidney loved the ‘sweet violence of tragedy’ — but violence can be theatrical. Exploring his reactions to ‘domestic scenes’, Roland Barthes describes how ‘violence always organised itself into a scene: the most transitive of behaviour (to eliminate, to kill, to wound, to humble) was also the most theatrical.’ Gun violence — and particularly the phenomenon of mass shootings — is the performative act par excellence, follows its own aesthetic laws of stylisation, quotation, and anxieties of influence. 

In an article titled ‘The Columbine Legacy’, Ralph Larkin argues how post-Columbine copycat school-shooters would look to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold as their Shakespeare or Homer, with analytical appreciation of the basement tapes and website, surveillance footage and news coverage, before staging their own variations in an attempt to surpass and outdo. This also dovetails with media fetishisation of shooters and shootings, and the ease with which file sharing and live streaming has facilitated notoriety. When John Wilkes tells his family that ‘I’ll be the most famous man in America’, they think that he’s referring to the stage; we hear echoes of initiatives like ‘Don’t Name Them’ or ‘No Notoriety’. In a way, Booth is an effort to locate the first act of sensationalised gun violence in America, and to comment on the creation of violence as much as its consequent effects, whilst resisting the impulse to bear witness to it.  Booth is a work of sublation, a vanishing act concerned with exploring the workings and effects of the drama of political violence, without attending to it.
There is another key to Booth in the author’s notes. Fowler writes how ‘Donald Trump was elected to the presidency while I was still in the early stages of research. The shock and despair of this waylaid me for more than a year.’ Fowler plays the Good Liberal, disbelieving and despondent: she had been preparing to write the great Obama-Clinton novel, and was beaten into writing one for the Trump era. The connections between the Trump administration and its near-cataclysmic culmination, and the events leading to the Civil War, are unavoidable: Fowler notes how her final edits coincided with ‘the violent insurrection of January 6th, 2021’, when Confederate flags were carried through the Capitol.

But there are other, more interesting ways in which Booth can be seen as perhaps the Trump novel, where fact and fiction, private and public, reality and its melodramatic representation are bundled up not into self-sabotaging attempts at autofictional authenticity, but into a media-obsessed, emotionally-driven post-truth political narrative, in which history is completely up for grabs. This is why biofiction is important.  If Lukács saw 19th-century historical fiction as a way of getting readers ​‘to comprehend their own existence as something historically conditioned’, then biofiction might be said to be a way of comprehending how fictions and subjectivities condition history. Despite its flaws and prolixity, Booth seems to understand this, and motivates its biographical subject in ways that resonate with a quiet urgency now.