George Saunders, help me.
Then a guy walks in with a megaphone. He’s not the smartest guy at the party, or the most experienced, or the most articulate. But he’s got that megaphone.
— George Saunders, The Braindead Megaphone (2007).
George Saunders asked me to imagine a party. It’s a fine party, diverse. People are talking, making nice. Some talk about the cheese platter, preferring or avoiding the spicy cheese respectively, others about all the construction in the neighborhood and what’s-to-be-done, others about their recent breakup and what’s-that-new-app. Then, says Saunders, a guy with a megaphone walks in. In my mind, this guy is orange and has no neck and he starts a rumor that J by the cheese platter ate all the good spicy cheese and he wasn’t even invited. It doesn’t matter what he says; what matters about the megaphone guy is that he’s loud. The guy can’t not be heard. Everybody listens. Some listen because they also hate J and want him gone, others because it’s fun to watch a neckless guy yelling — it makes them feel better about their own neckfullness. Regardless of one’s own stance re: the megaphone guy’s ideas, the megaphone guy’s ideas are now ubiquitous. The megaphone guy’s ideas and how the megaphone guy expresses his ideas — his syntax, his diction — are resounding off many tongues, filling everybody’s ears again and again. Everybody is talking about the megaphone guy’s ideas by the oatmeal-chia cookies, in the bedroom by the pile of coats. Everybody transforms from what they were before they encountered the megaphone guy into, now, a spectator of the megaphone guy. What were they saying about their ex-boyfriend’s cologne and did they even like that spicy cheese to begin with? Their whispers, they know it, have become room-tone buzz to the megaphone guy’s bombasts. What’s the point of talking? What’s the point of thinking? Where’s the bar?
Now good and drunk, everybody can abandon the shame of not remembering themselves. They take some delight in talking about the megaphone guy, parodying him, repeating his phrases and mannerism. It makes them feel special, included. They talk about the megaphone guy with their uber drivers on the way home. Everybody took videos of the megaphone guy and they post these videos on their twitter/book/gram/tumblogs. Dislocated from context, the megaphone guy is almost funny — he’s different, he’s strange, he’s something to see, and short of being seen themselves they want credit for having seen something, because they can’t quite remember how it happened, but the megaphone guy made them feel small and dumb and they want some of his bigness, his voice, for themselves. They post and share and soon the megaphone guy and the megaphone guy’s ideas explode into viral-immortal life, J be damned.
The party ends in a blur. That party was not fun. Everybody needed a fun party. Everybody was hoping they’d eat something nice, talk, make some eye contact, feel a little important. But somebody ruined that party, who’s to say who. Everybody gets home, and let’s be honest, their home is not as nice as the party host’s home. How did the party host get such a nice home? Does the party host think she’s better than everybody? What does J’s home look like? That the megaphone guy has a home does not occur to everybody. The megaphone guy doesn’t even really have a face, obscured, as it was, by the megaphone. That the megaphone guy is a person, has a body, sleeps, shits…it’s hard to grasp. Speaking of bodies, everybody is still hungry, still a little drunk, so everybody opens their fridge. In the fridge there’s a stack of kraft singles and half a loaf of plain white bread. Everybody wishes they’d eaten more spicy cheese at the party host’s party. Everybody turns away from their sad fridge. Everybody is very depressed.
In bed, the lights off, the heater clanging — that fucking heater is always clanging, who can sleep? — everybody is thinking about J. Maybe they don’t believe that J wasn’t invited to the party, maybe he didn’t steal the spicy cheese per se, but well, do people really like J all that much? Let’s not forget back in 2001 when J’s friend showed up at the party and knocked over the entire cheese platter. That guy, wasn’t he J’s friend? or, like, his brother? They look alike. It feels like they’re related. Anyway, when you look at J a certain way, doesn’t he look like he’s been eating too much spicy cheese? Doesn’t he have a kind of bloated look? It’s vague. It’s hard to describe, but it just feels like J’s been eating too much spicy cheese, and, well, he must have done something wrong. It just makes sense, kind of.
Everybody sleeps fitfully, as usual. To be honest, it’s probably because everybody’s phone is buzzing a lot, and everybody should really turn their phone on silent when they sleep. Everybody does that sometimes, but not other times. They knows it’s in their best interest, but maybe it’s kind of exciting to hear their phone buzzing? Like everybody has something to wake up to? The next morning, the first thing everybody looks at is their phone. Whenever everybody is anxious or bored, they check their phone. The party host posted a comment on everybody’s video from the party. It reads: “J doesn’t deserve this. How dare you spread this hateful rhetoric.” What?! But it wasn’t even everybody’s fault that the megaphone guy was acting like that! It wasn’t everybody who said those things! How could the party host be blaming everybody for simply witnessing events that occurred at her party? What did the party host mean to suggest? That everybody is a hateful person? A bad person? Maybe J did steal the cheese. How did she know? And what does “rhetoric” mean anyway? Everybody just wanted to feel included in the stupid pretentious elitist party host’s party, eating her stupid fancy spicy cheese. Well excuse everybody for trying to get along nicely. Everybody doesn’t even want to go to the stupid party host’s parties anymore. Everybody hopes that the party host never throws anymore parties again.
Meanwhile, across town, in a cold, heaterless home, J sees everybody’s video spiraling out into the twit/book/gram/blogosphere, hears his good name decried, feels the shame of the megaphone’s accusation in the video’s reverberations, even by those who claim to be defending him. Even in quotation marks, even if crossed out, footnoted, annotated, explained to be false, the phrase “J stole the spicy cheese” is now resounding across the web, megaphoned into eternity. J is afraid. J did not steal the spicy cheese. J is not perfect, but J is not a thief. J was hungry. He was invited to a nice party by the party host. J basically never goes to nice parties, never asked to be invited to a nice party, but the party host sent him a barrage of messages pretty much insisting that he come. So he took his fair share of spicy cheese. So there was a limited amount of spicy cheese to begin with. When J sees the party host’s comment, shaming everybody for posting the megaphone video, J feels like he is supposed to be grateful, but he is not. He feels worse. Why was he dragged to a party by the party host just so she could let in an asshole with a megaphone? It’s like she staged it. It’s like she wanted it to happen. It’s like she created a problem so she could solve it. So she could be a hero. Doesn’t she just love throwing parties, dangling her spicy cheese and then pretending to recoil when something dramatic happens? Doesn’t it just tickle her? Doesn’t it just make her feel important to sober up the next day and admonish all the savagery that she caused? Well, J isn’t an animal, and he doesn’t need saving.
Maybe it is J who responds next underneath the party host’s comment on everybody’s video, or maybe it’s somebody else. Maybe somebody else works for the megaphone-guy, maybe somebody else is the megaphone guy, maybe somebody else is a Russian troll, who can know? But everybody is waiting, everybody swipes, everybody’s head hurts, and when the response comes — “Fuck your parties” — everybody is relieved. Yes, everybody thinks. Fuck your parties. Fuck parties, and fuck you.
Under sterling silver track lights, dimmed and useless given the sun’s cold but bright rays raining through the kitchen’s skylight, elbows on a marble counter recently redone and now streaked with wine and crumbs, the party host is not hung-over exactly, but she is tired. Her back and shoulders ache. Her armpits feel warm and weak from lifting chairs and uncorking bottles. Her temples throb with the satisfaction of another party over, another group of neighbors fed and watered, entertained, briefly but significantly uplifted from whatever keeps them down, and it’s only the reoccurring virtual memory of the megaphone guy and his lies that twists something in her gut, below the belly button above the groin, a natural unpleasantness she’s grown accustomed to, that she feels more or less always, like an internal bunion. It’s always something with parties. Each something is a different something. And she feels these somethings uniquely, but always in the same place, gut-wise.
As she swipes, she sweats, pointer finger steady scrolling through everybody’s comments, their curses, their hate. Twist goes the gut. Poor J. Poor poor poor poor J. J who is good and honest and true. J who represents everything these parties stand for. Everything she stands for. Honest hard work. Decency. Fairness. She does not believe this is her fault and yet, if somebody were to blame her, she would tell them, clear eyed and heavy-hearted: yes, this is my fault. And it would feel like her fault and she would grieve. That is her way.
Truthfully, J reminds her of someone. She thinks it might be her grandfather. She thinks it is somebody ancestral and familiar but distant. Somebody close to the earth, somebody who works with his hands. She didn’t know her grandfather very well and she doesn’t know J very well but she senses in them both the same dignity, the same condiments-of-the-earth kind of vibe. Her father used to tell her stories about her grandfather, how he did things, how he held things, like plates, napkins, cups, how he ate things sometimes, like cheese, and in her mind her grandfather’s hands seem to grip clear Dixie plastic with the same confident but relaxed grip of J’s thick-skinned hands, like they are both holding the tableware of a humble and appreciative God.
Thinking about J fills the party host with both levity and weight. Like she is both expanding and shrinking. Like a raisin inside of a grape. It’s a paradoxical kind of pleasure and pain that she knows well, that feels right, because really, the real truth is that the party host has always and now still believes that she uniquely deserves this kind of pain. She can’t explain exactly why. It’s a sense she’s always had, of both being very very bad and very very good, and her life has become a quest, a daily pilgrimage, for both those feelings of goodness and badness in succession and sometimes at the same time, and the throwing of parties, the offering of her lacquered floors to the shoed feet of neighbors near and far, the buying and cutting and plating and pouring, is both a punishment and it’s own kind of mercy. A house is like a body, and she opens hers doors and gives and gives and gives.
The braindead megaphone has no body. The braindead megaphone needs a guy. What of this guy who picked up the megaphone? Does he have a brain? He does, in fact. He has a brain. He has a face. He has a body, but no neck. He once had a neck. He lost it. It’s painful. To lose a neck. Because of the stares? People are cruel. But actually. There were no stares. People aren’t so much cruel as indifferent. Everybody stopped looking. This guy used to have a neck. A great neck. The best neck. A handsome neck. A rich neck. An educated neck. He lost it. It happens.
He wasn’t looking for the megaphone but the megaphone was there. He happened upon it. From certain angles, it covered up the lack. Of neck. And when he used it, people looked. Listened, and looked. Like old times. Good times. Turns out people need to look to listen.
So he brought the megaphone to the party. The host was an old friend. Not a friend. A person he knew. Same circle. Her parties were fine. Decent parties. Good parties. Ok parties. Could he throw parties? Sure he could throw parties. His home was nicer than hers. Nothing against her home, just his was better. A fact.
So maybe it bothered him lately to attend these parties with no neck and no stares. Not even a side-eye. Like everybody was trying not to look. At him. That hurt. Did everybody know how nice his home was? No. Everybody had never been to his home. Did he want everybody to come over? Sure. Whatever. Fine. If everybody wanted to see his home, he’d show them. He’d never really known how the megaphone worked. He thought he’d bring it. Why not? He’d say something friendly like: “Nice Faberge egg collection!” Or “The Taleggio is richer than the Camembert!” and then make a segue to something like “You know I have a whole collection of spiced Emmental in the fridge next to my wine cellar!” And he’d see. No big deal. No loss. No gain. Nobody hurt.
Nobody will tell you how the megaphone works: The megaphone listens. The megaphone is a mouth shaped like an ear. The megaphone hears everything. There is nothing said, nothing even thought, that the megaphone can’t hear. The megaphone does not understand, but the megaphone seems to know something that nobody knows: what a guy should say when he wants to be heard. And it’s often hateful. And it’s often the worst thing nobody is thinking. And if nobody heard themselves say the terrible, despicable, violent, vicious, heartless, inhuman, unloving, ungrateful, unconscionable things that the megaphone hears, nobody could never face themselves again.
Remember: the megaphone does not have a brain. The megaphone seems to know, but does not really know. Nobody knows. Let’s not forget the brainlessness of the megaphone. It’s important that we not imbue the megaphone with agency, with humanity. Because while the megaphone needs a human hulk to work its illusions, the megaphone itself does not have the brain or the body or the face of it’s hapless host. It’s tempting to hate the megaphone. George Saunders, help me; I want to hate the megaphone. My hate needs a body. My hate needs a face. My hate wants to squish, plunge, sink. When the megaphone speaks, I want to ball up its words, I want to squeeze them, feel them shrink, watch them bleed through my fingers, pummel them, bury them, eat them, anything to make them disappear. Everybody and nobody, can’t we turn off the megaphone? George Saunders, where is the switch? The megaphone won’t stop. I see it on my screens. I hear it my dreams. It’s in my body, my home. How can I remember: the megaphone is only plastic.
Amy Kurzweil is the author of Flying Couch: A Graphic Memoir. Her fiction has been published in The Toast, Shenandoah, Hobart, and other publications. Her comics and drawings have appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow her @amykurzweil.