Maxwell Schwarz: The new American ghost story and other midwestern tragedies

Tuesday, March 31, 2020 - 4:19pm

Farewell, our adopted Michiganders. Sudden virus has taken the Midwest, turned it upside down and shook the life out of it like an old piggy bank. Streets are empty. Human interaction has vanished from our lives. Memories of people hang like smoke in the room. Counting Crows once sang, “If dreams are like movies, then memories are films about ghosts.” The flat, gray expanse that is Ann Arbor is haunted by these ghosts. By you, by the Arborites holed up at home, by the gothic mythology woven into the fabric of this region.

The true horror of the Midwest is the excessive generalities applied to it. Midwesterns are not one people. Michiganders and Kansans are no more Protestant and hardworking than New Englanders or Southerners. It is not all cornfields and folk tradition. The cornfields hide no monster other than the rising suicide rate among farmers. The folk traditions mask nothing besides our industrial fallout and the sharp segregation of our cities. The Midwestern identity is not one identity, but rather the quiet and torturous struggle between these competing identities.

The western corners of the Midwest — Nebraska, the Dakotas, Kansas — know this pain. Take Prairie Madness: the deep isolation and torrential winds often caused prairie settlers to suffer, succumbing to depression, violence and even suicide. Some farmers still claim to hear voices in the fields. Similarly, the Midwest’s literary canon chronicles not the self-sufficient do-gooder of popular consciousness, but the trauma of isolation.

Gene Wolfe’s “Peace” is one such example. Published in 1975, the novel tells the story of Andrew Weer, an elderly man in a small Midwestern town, through scattered memories and dreams. The narrator’s memories are often nonlinear, transcending both time and the traditional bounds in which memories exist. While its patience may at first seem gentle, this novel is truly harrowing. Weer’s narration is contradictory and ambiguous. Scattered like breadcrumbs are hints of murder. It is a meditation on the danger of religiosity and the inevitability of sin. Perhaps most terrifying of all, Weer is likely dead, his narrative told by his ghost. But it is worth wondering whether he’s truly dead, or if he has always been a ghost — another Midwesterner floating through his conflicting, claustrophobic landscape.

“Universal Harvester” by John Darnielle is a novel with similar disturbances. This novel tells the story of a video store clerk in 1990s Iowa. When some video tapes come back with strange clips spliced into the tape, so begins an unusual and patient tale of obsession and terror, set against the backdrop of the isolating rural landscape. People might cry out for help in cornfields, “but nobody usually hears them. A few rows of corn will muffle the human voice so effectively that, even a few insignificant rows away, all is silence,” Darnielle writes. It is, at the same time, both a reflection of belonging and grief, and a realization that the true horror of life is scattered among the daily banalities. The narrative shifts, splits, mutates. The ghost and the narrative are one and the same.

While not Midwestern — it takes place in Dallas — I cannot help but return to the 2017 film, “A Ghost Story.” Starring Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”) and Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”), this film is heartbreaking, quiet and caustic. Affleck’s character passes away, but returns as a ghost, draped in a sheet like a child. He watches the life he knew — and his wife — slip away from him. Shots in this film are long, dragging like Affleck’s white sheet along the ground. But Affleck’s pain — one of confinement, of dormancy, of helplessness — feels pertinent and relatable for both the identity-conflicted Midwestern and the quarantined alike. Affleck’s struggle to communicate and his longing for affection are poignant and understood best in this era of agonizing torpidity.

The world is quieter now, hollow and overcast. Like a decrepit house come nighttime, the ghosts have come out. But they were always here. The isolation, the claustrophobia, the loneliness. Once you exit the once-crowded Ann Arbor streets, everything goes flat. Pickup trucks sag rusty in fields. Gas station lights are the only evidence of life for miles. The cornfields are alive with whispers. For those of us left in the Midwest, we again become the ghosts from which we once hid, trapped with nowhere to run in our enforced confinement. We have all become, like the Midwest, full of ghosts. So have our memories.