When I first saw the blurb “A novel in seventeen points of view” on Violent Ends, I thought it’ll be a book like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves which had, for the lack of a better term, gave me one of the biggest mindfucks I’ve ever experienced. I thought, if my brain fizzed out while I read the six ‘voices’ of The Waves, how about one with seventeen ‘voices’?
(Un)fortunately, this is not the case. Violent Ends is an anthology—a compilation of short stories by various authors (I know, how did I not notice that?). These stories are all tied to each other by a boy named Kirby Matheson, who one day, opened fire during a pep rally in his high school and then, killed himself. While I think having seventeen points of view on a tragic event would be an interesting read, the book became a little bland after the midpoint because by then, the stories have begun to feel the same to me.
**Warning: Super Long Review! Skip to ‘TL;DR’ after the first two paragraphs if desired/in order to avoid (most of the) spoilers**
Violent Ends begins with Miss Suzie by Steve Brezenoff. Protagonist Susanna Byrd is a nine-year-old girl obsessed with honey, and it’s her birthday. She meets a young Kirby and well, she’s mean and rude. She’s not on the same level of meanness as the boys who bully Kirby, but she’s definitely mean. Of course, I understand that she hit and said awful things to Kirby because she was upset, and I understand that kids may not really know much about the effects their actions could have (there are adults who don’t really think about that as well, after all). She’s just a kid, but she’s just not the nicest kid. Truthfully, half of me is incredibly annoyed by her and the other half is praising Brezenoff for writing a ‘more than ordinary’ kid. So yeah, I’m pretty much on the fence about her character. Other than that, I don’t feel much for the story. The characterization is good but the plot is so-so. [3/5]
The second short story is Violent Beginnings by Beth Revis which centres on Teddy whose school is near Kirby’s. He’s in art class when the shooting happens in Kirby’s school, so information regarding the shooting is first revealed in this short story. Additionally, we learn that Teddy used to attend summer camp with Kirby. He’s conflicted about the shooting and his own memories of Kirby, he thinks about the what-ifs but as usual, it’s too late to change the past. Basically, this short story asks if there are truly any crystal-clear signs that lead up to a tragedy in real life. If it’s an accumulation of events that pushes one over the edge, or simply one event that becomes the breaking point. [3/5]
Written in a suspenseful and slightly-theatrical/poetic manner, Survival Instinct by Tom Leveen is about Zachary who’s abused by her father, and who’s one of Kirby’s closest friends. It’s heart-wrenching and tear-jerking the way stories about abuse generally are, and my heart goes out for her. Although I’m happy that she’s freed from her father in the end, it felt a little unrealistic—slightly too coincidental since her mother who used to be alcoholic suddenly shows up, saying that she’s been sober and looking for Zach for years. Aside from that, this short story shows Kirby’s more caring side, and in a small way, it’s complementary to Presumed Destroyed as both show characters who hesitate from taking action and characters who eventually do take action. [4/5]
The Greenest Grass by Delilah Dawson is in the point of view of a bully, granted one who doesn’t willingly bully Kirby and who used to be Kirby’s friend, but a bully nonetheless. Popular cheerleader Lauren suffers from the pressures of popularity and cheerleading, constantly starving herself to remain at the top of the cheer pyramid and living a fake life just to remain relevant to the popular crowd. She’s one of the people that Kirby ‘saves’—from herself when she attempted to commit suicide, and from him when he opened fire at the pep rally she would’ve have attended for sure had he not asked her to do otherwise. Like the previous short story, this one shows Kirby’s more caring side and it’s one of my favourites from this anthology as well, despite the clichés. [4/5]
Jenny is Kirby’s sort-of-not-really girlfriend in Feet First by Margie Gelbwasser. He’s her marching-band saviour and she’s his marching-band damsel, and well, as cringe-y as that might sound, this short story provides a better insight on who Kirby is as a person than the previous ones. It also questions whether a person can truly know someone else. Though, I feel that the before-after narration style didn’t really bring out the emotions Jenny was going through well enough. To me, it made the story flat. [3/5]
The Perfect Shot by Shaun David Hutchinson follows transgender female Billie, one of the people who died in the shooting. She’s the new kid, who’s bullied as well, in her high school with a cop father and a love for photography. It is this love that leads to her stalk Kirby in order to obtain the ‘perfect shot’, and it is this love that has her infatuated with him as well. Unfortunately, the moment she gets a shot of the “real Kirby Matheson” is also the moment she gets killed by him (p.134). This short story is another favourite of mine because of how well it’s written. I like the subtle hints about Billie being a transgender, and I like how it shows that anyone can become a stalker (though, stalking isn’t a good thing of course). Though, it’s rather sad that the only confirmed QUILTBAG character dies. [4/5]
The Girl Who Said No by Trish Doller is my second-least favourite in this collection. Morgan is the best friend of Sydney who died in the shooting (while she survived her wounds), and she is also the one who rejected Kirby when he asked her to the winter formal. Though, I think that Kirby wasn’t exactly hurt by her rejection since we get the hint later that he simply asked her because he promised his sister so. Anyway, this is my second-least favourite because of the way the short story is executed. The separation between senior year and junior year made the story less impactful and more like a bunch of excuses for the reader to feel sorry for her/be proud of her for making her own decision since her best friend’s death. I’m sorry, I’d reason that the author is simply writing about a character driven by self-importance and all that, but I give zero shits about a girl who rejects her supposed love of her life because she finally realises that she can say ‘no’. What’s worse is that this same girl is certainly going to say ‘yes’ to the same love of her life later. Like, what the hell? Don’t toy with other people’s emotions! You’re desire to act out on your new bravery doesn’t mean you get to be a bitch to other people, smh. [1/5]
Pop by Christine Johnson made me the angriest despite being my third-least favourite. I hate Mark and Katelyn for teasing Kirby simply because he crushed his Pop-Tarts and tossed them into his locker. Hate how both of them think that they have the rights to say things like “Hey, what’s the deal with the Pop-Tarts?” and “Oh, hey, you’re the Pop-Tart guy! Where have you been?” when Kirby obviously didn’t want to be social with them (p.158-159). There’s a fine line between being friendly and being a busybody, and both of them belong in the latter category so Mark has no right to act indignant when Kirby tells them to “mind [their] own fucking business” (p.159). He has no right to tape Pop-Tarts on Kirby’s locker in retaliation as well, since he knows that Kirby hates them. In short, Mark only cares about Katelyn and never thinks about other people and their feelings, while Katelyn, despite being aware that Mark had done something shitty, pretty much brushes it off. Based on this alone, I’d give it a low rating. However, if this is Johnson simply writing brilliant and realistic characters driven by petty emotions and self-importance, then she has done a brilliant job. [4/5]
Presumed Destroyed by Neal and Brendan Shusterman is pretty much a cringe-fest for me. It reminds me of elementary school when we had to write essays in Malay about ‘aku sebatang pensil’ (I am a pencil) or ‘aku sebuah buku’ (I am a book) and other subjects along that line. Though, when done right, I’m certainly okay with stories written from the point of view of inanimate items, non-human animals and plants. This short story, however, is too sentimental which makes the gun’s point of view more fake than realistic. I do like how it can prompt a reader to question whether weapons should be blamed instead of the humans who wield them, and whether the wielders are forced to use the weapons to better their lives in a moment of desperation or not. But, this sentimentally doesn’t do the prompts justice. It makes it appear as though the authors’ are trying too hard to force sympathy/empathy, hence why this one is my least favourite. [1/5]
At a glance, The Second by Blythe Woolston may seem like it has barely anything to do with providing insight to Kirby or the person he has become on the day he opened fire in school, but it does. It prompts the reader to question whether Kirby was afraid—whether he killed people to defend himself, to make a statement of his self-defence. In Feet First, Kirby tells Jenny that “I can’t let a damsel fend for herself if she’s used to being saved” (p.112). This can be an allusion to his own reasons for the shooting. Maybe Kirby’s used to fending for himself, maybe he’s never been saved. Maybe he thinks that there are others just like him so he decides to make a statement of him fending for himself for the first time, to make the bullies think twice before they hurt someone else. Furthermore, The Second also prompts the reader to think of how the general public and the media create divisions between shootings at different locations and murder done with different weapons, which to some extent, assigns and causes the association of different levels of sympathy. In this short story’s words, “[i]s there a difference between shooting a six-year-old in a classroom and killing a six-year-old in a movie theatre?” [4/5]
I didn’t feel much of anything besides ‘meh’ when I came to Astroturf by E.M. Koki. The protagonist had his life ‘stolen’ from him by Kirby Matheson, which is incorrect since his life only got turned upside-down when his father left both him and his mother. While this short story does provide a little background to Kirby, it’s basically just the protagonist blaming someone else instead of the actual person who caused it, for just about every bad thing in his life. There’s also a dash of him pining over a fellow waitress who thinks he’s crushing on Kirby due to all the staring/scrutinizing. [2.5/5]
Grooming Habits by Elisa Nader was sort of a mindfuck because I didn’t think the protagonist (who’s characterization is done really well) was a teacher until the end. The whole time I just thought she’s a student who’s also a stalker insanely obsessed with Kirby. So yeah, mindfuck. Aside from that, I assume that Ms Leeland here is the deceased teacher mentioned in Violent Beginnings (p.30). She may have raped Kirby, may have not. May have had a romantic relationship with him, may have not. If her advances have been rejected by Kirby but she continues them, Kirby may have viewed this as another aspect in his life that’s messed up—another moment that calls for him to fend for himself. It’s pretty much guesswork here because we aren’t shown the results of her finally contacting Kirby to see her in her classroom. [3/5]
Hypothetical Time Travel by Mindi Scott shows the aftereffects of the shooting on the shooter’s family. When a shooting occurs, many want to know why. They want to know what causes a person to become a killer, and during this course of pointing fingers, the people linked to the shooter are usually villainized—especially family and friends—despite how they are usually the ones in the dark as well. Thus, there is conflict within Kirby’s family as they try to grasp the fact that a family member has killed, that their wish to bury the family member they’ve always loved would highly likely be met with backlash. Their lives have also been shaken and they may even think that they no longer deserve normalcy or happiness. With that written, Hypothetical Time Travel is a moving short story, written well and with an understanding that amplifies the emotions the characters are going through. [4/5]
All’s Well by Cynthis Leitich Smith is about being at the wrong place at the wrong time, and how fear can cause someone to dismiss logic and reasoning. Ruben, the protagonist, is like Kirby in the sense that they both like superheroes, sci-fi, horror and fantasy. He’s a little awkward but he’s a genuine kid who just happens to like writing “violent” stories. Due to this preference, he’s flagged by his favourite teacher as a possible ‘next Kirby’, but things are soon cleared up. Out of all the characters in this anthology, I connected with him the best since we mostly share the same interests and I’ve been in a similar situation as him. So, it’s rather unfortunate that the short story is too brief here since it causes everything to happen way too fast and in process, making it a little flat. [3/5]
Burning Effigies by Kendare Blake centres on a bunch of kids who smoke a lot and skip class a lot too. They weren’t at the pep rally when the shooting started, but they were on school grounds. One of them, Alice, has a crush on Tyler who Kirby killed. She’s envious of said Tyler’s girlfriend who got the chance to be his girlfriend while he was alive, and she hates Kirby because she can’t think of Tyler without thinking about him either anymore. Despite this, and her active hatred of Kirby, she’s oddly dissociated with everything. In other words, Reading Burning Effigies is like wading through a fog with a half-clear head. Moreover, I don’t feel like there’s a point in having so many characters mentioned in this short story if they—particularly the ‘main’ ones—aren’t going to change and become more three-dimensional characters. [1.5/5]
The second last short story in this anthology is Holes by Hannah Moskowitz, written in the point of view of Laura who used to live next to Kirby as a child. She doesn’t remember much of him, yet the members of her school’s paper—which she’s also a part of—wants her to humanize Kirby in order to appear “edgy” and “ahead of the times” (p.301). She doesn’t know what to do but her friend advices her to “tell a story” so she does (p.303). She lies about how Kirby saved the fireflies she caught as a child—says that he poked holes in the jar so that the fireflies won’t die, when in truth is that he shook the jar until he killed them all. Or well, maybe it’s the other way around. She told the truth and later lied to the reader. Whichever it is, I found her choice of having Kirby remembered in such a way interesting. [3/5]
In History Lessons by Courtney Summers, the last short story of this anthology and in a way, we’ve come to a full circle. The bullies and Susanna Byrd from Miss Susie return, and we’re informed that Nate and Jackson are the one who held onto Susanna while Rick wanted to crash into her with her scooter. We’re also informed that Nate is the one who had beaten Kirby bloody while Jackson is the one who poured over books with Kirby. So, why is Jackson the one who’s dead and not Nate? I had a thought that maybe it’s because he wants Nate to be haunted by him and Jackson’s death. After all, they—even Jackson because apparently Nate is a pro at convincing him to be mean—treated Kirby badly despite growing up with him. However, Nate doesn’t feel guilty and he doesn’t really care, but this is only a façade. The guilt is gradually eating at him and by the end, he realises it, though he chooses to hide it. Summers does a good job at writing unlikeable characters and making them human, but it lacks her usual brilliance which is perhaps due to the constraints of the short story. [3/5]
All the short stories provide some background on Kirby—turn what media and many others easily separate into black and white, to grey—but unfortunately, they don’t make Kirby human. On one hand, I think that these short stories are prompters, here to prompt the readers into thinking about things beyond the surface. On the other hand, I think that they’re shallow. If the characters dislike or hate Kirby, there is no substantial reason to why they feel this way (or well, none of the reasons felt substantial enough, or seem to be felt strongly about by the characters themselves, to me). This does happen in real life, but there are also people with substantial reasons for hating/disliking someone in real life. So yeah, I did hope for a story or two to have a character like that—particularly since the characters who liked Kirby had substantial reasons for their liking towards him.
Moreover, I was taught that a short story is driven by the human universal—that because it should have a fully developed theme while being shorter and less elaborate than a novel, it should rely more on the characters. Plot doesn’t have to be the most salient aspect because short stories are moments of a character’s life. In Violent Ends, however, most of the short stories lack the ability to convince that there’s emotion and many of the characters are too two-dimensional. The authors focused a little too much on plot which all sounded the same in the end, thus pulling down the one that are good.
Also, where’s Mia Kim’s story? There’s one that touches on every person who died in the shooting, except for her. I’m thinking that I’ve simply just missed the part where she’s more than just a name, but I’ve read this book twice and I don’t see a part like this anywhere.