Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Che Pieper’s fiction piece, Grudge Match
John: This piece raises interesting questions about truth and identity. If the narrator comes to believe that he is the wrestling character he is paid to depict, is he in fact that character, even for a brief moment? And can we excuse, or at least understand his behavior in these terms?
Che: As far as I can tell (and that’s not far) personal identity and control over a personal narrative/truth is just about as close as this story comes to having a big-T Topic. The narrator, in establishing his own identity, frames himself by a lack of control—as a second Fenris, chained, or as a bull in the Labyrinth. Even when shaken out of his persona, it’s his limits that he is most aware of—”I am getting old,” “Never succeeded in the way I hoped I would.” His identity comes out of desperation and hopelessness, but from that he comes to a place where he’s uncontrollable—there’s a reason his producer flees when the match ends the way it does. That being said, this persona remains something that he has constructed. The world is not, really, all out to get him. Mr. Fantastic is not really his mythic antitheses—or, Jordan isn’t, anyway, not in the usual way we think about factual truth.
So while, yes, I do think he does become his character, and we can understand his actions better through the eyes of this character, I do think it’s hard to excuse anything he does when we remember that He (the narrator, outside of the ring, and not the Bull of Righteous and Bloody Slaughter) is the one responsible, in the end, for the world he’s made.
The narrator, at least in his wrestling persona, is the embodiment of what has become known as toxic masculinity. His reaction to feelings of insecurity is bluster and aggression. Any ideas on how people like this could choose a different path?
I don’t know that there’s an easy solution for people like the Bull, partially because I don’t think there’s an easy cause that we can point to and say “that’s the thing that makes him toxic.” Everything he does plays into everything else—his age, Mr. Fantastic’s beauty, his sense of failure, his desire to be powerful, and the role that he’s been cast (and cast himself) in all pile together and make it hard to find an easy fix. The allure of the antihero (or anti-something, anyway) is strong for people in crisis, and as far as I can tell the only real path out is to step back, reexamine, set aside the biases and presuppositions which you’ve brought to the judgement of your life, and remember that it’s never too late to start over. Even Mr. Fantastic is called “the Sinner Reformed”—maybe someday I’ll write another story and figure out what he’s making up for.
It strikes me that this emotional progression also can be seen in fundamentalist movements of all types, where challenges to the core belief system are met with ever-increasing levels of extremism. Do you think the narrator would be equally at home in a religious cult or radical political party?
Maybe? It’s hard to say, because I think that there’s a degree to which what he’s really reacting to is a perception that he’s lost power over his own life and his own story. This is a pretty common sentiment, I think, and it’s one that’s used by a lot of the sort of groups you’re referencing, but I don’t know that saying radical political groups generally or cults generally are going to appeal to him, partially because I think that fear of lost control will cause the Bull to push him away from any group which tries to feed him a narrative.
The hypocrisy, of course, about him rejecting cults, is that he’d love to found one—and they’d be his, and he’d be free.
Even in the face of the narrator’s actions, there is a certain pathos about him. Does a person like this deserve our compassion?
Yes. I’m fundamentally of the belief that all people deserve compassion. That being said, I don’t think that there’s any dissonance between a fundamental stance of compassion and compassionately punching someone in the teeth.
Do I think the Bull deserves deference? No. Respect, in a traditional “listen when I talk, don’t doubt what I say” sort of way? No. To be given a platform or taken seriously, as a neutral or heroic figure? No.
But compassion, and maybe even pity? Always.