The Violence of John Jeremiah Sullivan’s Unreliable Nonfictional Narrator

Nonfictional Techniques tracked:
-Framing information: supplying facts, but selectively
-The purpose of an unreliable nonfictional narrator: revealing a greater truth via your lies


In John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Violence of the Lambs,” the penultimate essay of his Pulphead collection, the narrator pulls the figurative rug out from under the reader at the very end by telling us that he’s made up about forty percent of it—specifically a character called Marcus Livengood. Some readers believe that here Sullivan is

…doing one of these not-so-clever clever things that seems to be happening in creative non-fiction lately: poking holes in the idea of “truth” in a way that is lazy and not particularly interesting.

Rereading the essay with the knowledge of what he’s fabricated, however, is very interesting. I would argue that the character of Marcus Livengood is in fact a personified section of the narrator’s (and the culture’s) own psyche, one that has interpreted a certain sector of information that he’s been confronted with—specifically, an increase in animal attacks—in a very specific worst-case-scenario type of way. He brings this section of the mind that’s capable of thinking the worst to life, perhaps symbolizing how many people let this one part of their brain run their lives.

Sullivan does not fabricate any of the animal attacks he cites:

I assure you I don’t know enough about even the normal goings-on in the animal kingdom to fabricate this many anomalies.

The phrasing of this assurance is supposed to reinforce his credibility in other areas as well, that he wouldn’t fabricate other things besides just “goings-on in the animal kingdom.” It’s true he is not making these “anomalies” up outright—rather, he selectively shapes facts to make them seem scarier than they are. That is, his descriptions of these attacks are often true in content, but not in substance. The narrator, all the while, urges us to look these things up to verify them—a tactic that on first read seems to underscore his credibility to such an extent that we don’t even feel the need to look them up because he is so confident in their reality that we’re persuaded to take him at his word. But, if you actually do look them up, you’ll notice some exaggerations in his accounts, such that we eventually come to understand his overtly stated purpose as a sort of inversion of the essay’s true purpose:

Across numerous species and habitat types, we are seeing, in crudest terms, animals do things we haven’t seen them do before.

I tiptoe around saying anything direct here because of what I hope is an understandable sheepishness in reporting on this subject at all, so sharply does it smack of quackery and gullibility; on top of that, it should be clear by now that I take no pleasure in freaking anyone out.

So the true purpose is, then, to show us how easy it is to look at this information and freak out—to show us that jumping to worst-case-scenario conclusions is, in fact, our culture’s default mode of processing information.

The narrator begins the essay by explaining that he was assigned to write about the future of the human race, that in the course of his research he became relieved by the realization that no one can know the future, and that his outlook on life in general had therefore become more optimistic until “I was introduced to a person called Marcus Livengood.” Once you know Marcus Livengood is not real in the traditional sense of being corporeally separate from the narrator, you might pick up on the use of the word “called” instead of “named,” as well as the fact that this name sounds an awful lot like “living good,” which the narrator was just saying he’d been doing until he encountered this entity.

This entity called Livengood is in fact the opposite of living good. He is a particular corner of the narrator’s mind infused with breath and blood, that which is capable of shaping evidence to fit a predetermined conclusion rather than remaining open to all the different possible conclusions that that evidence could support. That is, when the narrator is presented with all this data on animal attacks, when he’s faced with the phenomenon of animals “do[ing] things we haven’t seen them do before,” there is one paranoid part of him that cannot help but think about the worst-case scenario. Were he to have presented us readers with the attack data and then presented the character of Livengood’s thesis as his own—that these increased attacks are part of a pattern that will continue to increase until a full-scale war erupts between humans and animals—we would likely think he was crazy. And it is crazy, but such worst-case scenarios are becoming standard fare on news broadcasts. We’ve been conditioned to deduce the worst from the information we encounter. We’ve been conditioned to fear. Which is exactly what this essay is about. Sullivan takes the factual information he’s dealing with—animal attacks—and intentionally frames them for maximum fear-mongering.

Take, for example, the description of Steve Irwin’s death:

The fact remains that in roughly three hundred years during which human beings have been both (a) swimming, unknowingly or not, above giant stingrays in shallow water and (b) recording unusual things that happened to them in the ocean generally, there has been not a single instance of a stingray spiking someone to death in the heart, which is what happened to Irwin. The barbed end of the stingray’s tail—over which, I’m told, rays have unholy power of control and accuracy; they kill tiny, tiny fish with it—passed directly in between two of Irwin’s ribs and into his left ventricle. He stood up, pulled it out, and died.

A quick look at Wikipedia will tell us something Sullivan doesn’t: Irwin was filming the stingray from behind, and the stingray reacted like it thought Irwin was a shark, attacking it—so it probably wasn’t going out of its way to attack a human, as Sullivan’s account implies; it was self-defense. Irwin was also stabbed hundreds of times by the barbed tail, one of which struck him through the heart, while the way Sullivan presents it, it sounds like the stingray took one very deliberate death-intending stab.

The account of the second stingray death is equally problematic: Sullivan conveniently leaves out that Bertakis grabbed the stingray to try to remove it from his lap before it stabbed him:

Bertakis and the ray were staring at each other, and it was flexing its tail. And then, bang.

In the midst of these attack accounts, Sullivan starts giving a lot of prevalence to what are isolated incidents:

…there is but a single recorded fatal attack by a wild but healthy (that is, nonrabid, nonstarving) wolf on a human being. It happened in 2005, in Alaska.

He acts like this isolated incident is evidence for his theory, since no wolves have attacked until now, but with one attack it’s still just an isolated incident that doesn’t prove anything.

And while it may be true that the aggression of beavers has increased in Belarus, he doesn’t mention that the most vicious attack, which is probably what made the beaver aggression noteworthy in the first place, was provoked by a guy who was trying to grab the beaver. The guy went to the beaver, but Sullivan makes it sound, as people might mindlessly infer after hearing about the attack, that the beaver went to him. On first read I’ll admit I was struck with terror by Sullivan’s conclusion to this particular tidbit:

Not comforting is a related report out of Washington, D.C., that states, “Beavers are expanding rapidly into cities.”

But if you don’t go up and try to grab one, it probably won’t be an issue.

And finally, in one of the last conversations the narrator has with Livengood:

“Have you ever heard the big Bloop?” he asked. “You should look it up.” He was sick of telling me things. He started looking around for the check.

I did look it up when I got home. Six years ago one of the navy’s spy microphones, a thing they had hanging way down in the ocean to listen for Soviet submarines, picked up the sound of something alive—its voiceprint made that clear, that it belonged to something biological—only, in order to make a sound this large, the animal would have needed to be vastly larger than any animal we know about. It left a mark on the seismograph something like what a small undersea tectonic event would have done. Microphones three thousand miles apart both captured it. You should look it up.

If you do look it up, you will see that the navy at least believes now that it has solved this mystery, that while the sound seemed consistent with something biological, it also turned out to be consistent with the sound of a giant ice shelf cracking. That probably implies its own problems, but I’m personally more comfortable with that explanation than trying to conceive of an animal that big.

Some might argue that Sullivan created Livengood to add credibility to his theory about the animal war, but Livengood is pretty much treated as a quack in the text—the narrator makes it very clear that the academic community has rejected him—his status is “nonexistent” there. Looking closely at specific references to Livengood himself, one might see a pattern developing—physically, he resembles a purveyor of fantastical wars (“I’ve never seen a person easier to describe physically. He looks like a young George Lucas.”), he was inducted to the “Rogue Scientist Lodge,” a claim the reader immediately understands to be untrue, and his data makes the narrator look “like a person whose mind had just been destroyed by a satanic video game.” The narrator is, in fact, dealing with mind games, mind games he’s playing with himself as much as the reader—the mind games he plays with the reader replicate the mind games he plays with himself, dramatizes them. He’s freaking himself out, and now he’s freaking us out, too. There was somewhere in the back of my mind that didn’t think this line sounded like it was spoken by a real person:

I said, “It’s impossible.”

Then he looked at me and said, as if not having heard me, “Hey! You need to go to Africa with me!”

If we understand Livengood as a part of Sullivan’s own self, then here Sullivan is trying to rationalize the fear away—“It’s impossible”—but instead of being able to accept that, letting the fear about the sliver of possibility of its truth carry him away.

In the narrator’s final talk with Livengood, Livengood says:

“Part of keeping going in a professional capacity for me is keeping my mind off of stuff like that.”

This is, of course, Sullivan himself talking, but the essay is Sullivan unleashing this evil corner of his mind until it has full reign, until we get to the point where Livengood is openly speculating about the animal-human war and all the things we don’t know about, like gigantic undiscovered sea animals.

By the conclusion, the once “skeptically curious” narrator seems almost to have fully bought into Livengood’s theory, and the tone grows so tongue-in-cheek you start to think he’s got to be making fun of this perspective he’s manifesting:

We gave them so much. That’s what galls me. What did they have before us? What did they do? We gave them jobs, we put them on television, we cried for their losses. It seems their idea of repayment is the tooth and the claw. I don’t think we need them. Everything we need we can make from corn.

This tongue-in-cheek tone continues as he concludes that animals will have started this war because they’re jealous of the things we have that they don’t, like opposable thumbs, which we’ll use in the future war to fire weapons at them. But if we think about it, Livengood’s theory doesn’t even fit the evidence. If it’s going to be an animal-on-human war, how does the animal-on-animal violence fit in? Sullivan leaves the reader to ask these questions—he’s not going to do all of the work for you.


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