Our narrator is nameless, perhaps because he is an everyman, but more than likely, it is because names lack any usefulness these days. When a single person can have twenty Facebook profiles linked to twenty emails linked to twenty Twitter accounts, all with varying themes. When the most enduring friendships are often online, between people who have never met in person, why even use your real face let alone your real name? For that matter, what use is a past when your future is limitless, and therefore, tied to whatever happens today? This lack of identity is even afforded our antagonist, who goes not by a name but by a phrase—That Guy—one in a million, emerging from any crowd to spout off directions or claims or jokes in bad taste. That one in a million person who gives you an offer you can’t refuse because you don’t even understand what is being offered, and by the time you do it is too late, you have already committed. That Guy and the One Who Need Not be Named are the two roles 21st century society has placed on us. We are either taking charge or receiving orders, and our actions have become so incognito that the consequences of them are far off from any emotional connection. A town going up in flames is seen through a screen, and it might as well be a movie.
This is the world Chris Campanioni places the reader in, in his novel Tourist Trap, originally written in 2006 but published in 2015 and is more relevant than ever. It takes the topic of terrorism and strips it of personal terror so that we can observe it’s spectacle and ask ourselves—‘Why does this not bother me more?’ Sure, maybe you are disturbed, perhaps shocked, if the bomb blasts and gunfire happen in a place your mind does not associate with war zones, which is to say, in wealthy countries. You may go on your social media to change your profile picture to said country’s flag as though you are making a grand statement, but the only thing such an act does is help you judge those friends who did not do the same. You may retweet statements of loss from victims, pictures of human kindness, all to show just how compassionate you are, but do you really suffer for them? Is this tragedy truly life-changing for you? Or are you just going through the motions. What are twenty deaths, fifty deaths, a hundred deaths, when The Avengers probably caused far more battling Ultron and anyway, it’s not like you’ve ever been to that city personally, you might have wanted to, but it is a far off world on the other side of the planet as far as you are concerned. And you can’t bring yourself to even pay attention to the event for very long, after all, your favorite show is on tonight and life is just so busy yet, so boring.
Campanioni knows this sentiment and cloying morality and places it into the mind and heart of a narrator who embodies that pervading sense of busyness masking malaise, a life of pre-ordained decisions that matter very little but get him through the day, a life in search of meaning but too distracted to dedicate more than a fleeting thought to it, and takes him to the logical conclusion of such detached complacency by pushing him toward the profession of tourism. The job, after all, embodies the sort of distraction and leisure many a first world suburbanite was made for. Traversing countries and cities and waves of faces worthy of a United Colors of Benetton ad, making money for doing nothing, nothing that is, until buildings start blowing up and That Guy is pointing out that the ad was never for tourism at all, but rather, for terrorism.
And perhaps if the narrator had been paying attention to his life he would have known the difference. Perhaps if he had invested in developing his own sense of right and wrong rather than relying on others to tell him via the latest trends on TV and the internet, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself, yet, even after knowing the truth, he cannot stop because it just seems so unreal, so unlikely, so not like him, but who is ‘he’ anyway?
Is this not the story of our modern lives? We are bombarded with stimuli, most of which is negative. Bombarded with tragedy, mass death, mass extinctions, mass outrage, and while we would like to do something to put a stop to it, the chaos surrounding us seems so insurmountable, it is much easier to just reach for your phone and update your status and forget about the pain you would rather didn’t exist, either within you, or caused by you.
“You have to acknowledge the fact that God might be dead.”
“We’ve solved the death problem. It’s called the Internet.”
What is death anyway but yearning to feel something. When life is no more than dull repetition, death promises catharsis. That you don’t even know what that catharsis is from is beside the point, and anyway, it need not even mean true death, when your words live on in a digital loop in a digital world more real than reality. Death presents itself more as a new beginning than an end, and more than that, minus your physical presence, death offers the chance for your image to become myth, your words to become legendary, so that death creates not only a new life, but a better one.
But eventually you will have to acknowledge the reality you have been trying to avoid, and the pain that it brings, and the truth that death is ugliness minus glamour, and that fact haunts you, so much so that you delve deeper into denial and continue telling yourself you are a good person and this retweet will change the world, move the masses, make a difference because you care goddamnit. If only other people cared as much as you.
That Guy, the guys who see past the bullshit of these nameless masses, they will make you feel that pain, make you see that those bombs going off, those images of carnage, they aren’t movies, they aren’t TV, for the least fortunate of the world, the people you say you care so much about, it is realer than real, and there is nothing boring about life. In fact, life is terrifying.
And you, Campanioni makes clear in the final pages of his book, will soon know how terrifying life can become when all your barriers melt away and the world you’ve helped create comes looking for answers.
And no goddamn Facebook flag graphic will fix any of it.
Jonathan Marcantoni is the author of three novels and a regular contributor for Latino Rebels and Across the Margin. He is a professor of writing and rhetoric at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. For more of his work, visit jonathanmarcantoni.com. @Marcantoni1984