When last month I sat down to write a review for the Taipei Times of a new American novel, I little thought real life would before long be imitating art in a truly hideous manner.
Patrick Quere’s Grognard (reviewed in the Taipei Times on Oct. 10, 2010) features a young man, Felix Moullec, who experiences the deaths of his father and grandfather, then goes on to record how, in his youth, he and a friend casually killed a local hobo, and then went on to murder a prostitute, dismembering her body and depositing its parts in the garbage.
Now a friend of the author, Beau Bruneau, 29, is in police custody, suspected of having murdered his 62-year-old mother, Nancy Bruneau, in a manner similar to the murder of the prostitute described in the novel. Quere admits his character Felix was largely based on Beau Bruneau, and the author was in fact the last person Bruneau tried to call before the murder was committed.
An article in the Miami Herald on Nov. 1, citing a police report, described the event. “When police found the body of Nancy Bruneau face down on the lawn of her upscale Hollywood Lakes home, they also found a cinderblock, a knife, and a hammer — all covered in blood — nearby. They also found human organs — presumably Nancy Bruneau’s liver and brain matter — scattered about,” the report said.
According to the report, at about 11am on Oct. 30, Beau Bruneau called 911 and said he had tried to kill his mother.
“I hit her. Then I hit her with a hammer, and then with a brick,” Bruneau reportedly told the dispatcher, who asked him if his mother was conscious. “No, she doesn’t have a brain, sir,” he reportedly said.
Grognard has now been withdrawn from circulation.
“I thought it was the ethical thing to do at such a tragic time,” Quere said in an interview with the Taipei Times. “My only comment at this tragic time is that it was a shock to me. I never thought the written word, especially in fiction, could compel something so horrific. I believe that from a mental health standpoint something can be learned by this.”
The book’s publisher, Lawrence Knorr, said: “Everyone at Sunbury Press is deeply saddened by the events in Hollywood, Florida. What occurred is every fiction writer’s nightmare — that fiction would become fact — especially when a loss of life is involved. We discussed with the author suspending the sales under our control. We decided to halt all direct sales on our Web site and all wholesale shipments. Our reasoning was we did not want to be seen as profiting from this horrible event. At some point, we plan to re-release Grognard with a foreword explaining the events and our advocacy for mental health awareness.”
Killings and suicides mirroring events in fiction, film and real life are nothing new. The most famous case historically is the spate of romantic suicides imitating that of Goethe’s fictional hero in his 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther. More recently, The Matrix was blamed for the Columbine school shootings, and the suicides of Kurt Cobain and Marilyn Monroe both led to fans tragically emulating their idols. In all these cases the mental stability of those who did the copying must be in serious doubt. But the world is full of such people, and the real issue is the extent to which an artist should take their existence, and their possible actions, into account before he or she publishes.
Writing in response to the book review, Knorr said Grognard was not about “gratuitous violence or sex or drugs,” but “about the decline of American society and the protagonist’s struggles in the post-postmodernist world. The barbarians are at the gate. Support systems have failed. Families are screwed up and broken. The American empire is in its death throes and Felix is living through the impacts.”
When fiction becomes fact
Late last month author Patrick Quere became embroiled in a murder case. How does it feel when someone apparently imitates your fiction?
Taipei Times: You say you based Felix partly on your friend Beau Bruneau, but elsewhere you’ve suggested that some of the character’s life is autobiographical. Can you expand on this? What’s your attitude to Felix?
Patrick Quere: Felix Moullec is a man who is in a psychological downward spiral. He is the guy next to you in the store, the face in the crowd who carries this silent burden that only he can see. Felix is like Beau Bruneau in that respect. Watching my friend’s psychological decline was my inspiration to create Felix, or at least that aspect of him, that hidden darkness. Labeling it autobiographical was somewhat of a double entendre because these are things that I personally have witnessed because of my close proximity. It would be more properly explained as being both somewhat autobiographical and somewhat biographical, but keeping within the bounds of literary fiction.
TT: Your publisher, Lawrence Knorr, wrote to me after my review appeared and said the book was an extensive overview of the decline of American society and the former American middle class. Do you endorse that view?
PQ: I thoroughly endorse how Lawrence describes Grognard. I believe you were not aware of this [the book’s social commentary] because of the grandiose expectations that the US holds, which is part of its inherent mystery to those who are foreign. Being an American citizen is somewhat like belonging to a secret society of disappointment.
TT: Beau Bruneau seems to have a long history of mental illness. How did he seem to you? Was he a literary intellectual too?
PQ: Beau Bruneau was always troubled. His mug shot looks exactly like his high school yearbook photograph. He was deadpan and unemotional always, unless he was on the born-again Christian crusade or deeply afflicted with some psychotic inner call, if you will, where he became paranoid or verbally violent. One note: I have noticed that the media reports [Bruneau suffered] trauma to his head from a car accident, which is thoroughly untrue. He tried to kill himself by jumping off the third story of a parking garage. I was there when it happened. His mother covered it up, apparently saying that he was hit by a car. I have other eyewitnesses to his unsuccessful suicide attempt. He was not an intellectual. He was a shell. And, at times, an echo of scripture.
TT: What’s your attitude to violence in fiction? Has it changed?
PQ: Violence in fiction is an incidental. Almost always it serves as a social commentary. Some of it is for shock, which I abhor, but the violence in Grognard is not improbable but believable, and even, as we have seen, unfortunately prophetic.
TT: How has this affair affected you?
PQ: I am deeply affected by this tragic event where life has imitated art: my art. I felt angry and depressed about the whole thing. This tragic murder in replication of my novel made me do something I have never done in my life: I reproached myself. I have had time to reflect on the matter as a whole, and realize that Grognard now is stained with blood, and that stain will remain on my book. The killing was tragic. I did not compel him to do it. Look at the Bible, another good work of fiction, look how much blood stains this holy text. Grognard is speckled with but a drop of blood in comparison.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
Excerpts from the Taipei Times’ review of Grognard:
“This seemingly gratuitous horror appears very American from the perspective of the other side of the Atlantic, and maybe from East Asia as well. And it’s very hard to see any over-arching social or philosophical vision that serves to give any point to Patrick Quere’s gruesome story.”
“As for his depiction of family happiness that degenerates into casual murder and brutal evisceration, what purpose does that have? The only likely one I can think of is that it offers a vision of US society as a whole as a kind of nightmare — placid on the surface, but savage, self-serving and without any genuine qualities, underneath.”
The full review can be viewed at bit.ly/azGARW