Sep 7, 2010

The Complicated Story of the Death of Carlnell Walker
An introduction

It’s almost impossible to predict the social forces of corpses.

Some seem to have the mass of a sun, and exert this great gravitational pull, pulling whole solar systems of communities into an orbit. Dead soldiers are often like this. Dead police officers, and sometimes people killed by police officers are like this. Black people killed by white people or white people killed by black people – any corpse that has a clear racial-conflict story. Victims with certain stories, certain simple narrative accounts that seem to almost create communities around their corpses. What happens, here, is that the death seems to evoke or invoke an account, a story that is told or that the community can tell itself, and this story constructs the community. There’s a narrative identity formation that happens around the deceased.

Other corpses, though, can’t quite be transformed so simply into stories, or the stories aren’t so simple. They’re deeply complicated and conflicting narratives. These corpses have very different social forces.

Carlnell Walker was one of the complicated dead. In 2006, in July, in a rental house just south of Atlanta, Georgia, homicide detectives opened the rusty trunk of a broken-down sedan and found his body, bloated, bloody and rotting. The body was badly decomposed. The detectives told me the smell, the stench, was overwhelming. I had just started working for a little newspaper, there, where I ended up writing and reporting on 100 murders, which occurred during the 2 ½ years I was a crime reporter there. Carlnell Walker was the first murder, though, and I really struggled to figure out how to write a story around this corpse. Sometimes, I would find, writing such a story would be fairly simple – a neat narrative would just offer itself, there was a story that was apparently just there, that the community was telling to itself as it orbited around the body – but sometimes, as with Walker, everything was complicated, and the narrative would seem, whichever way I wrote it, to break down.

I’m particularly interested in what I think of as narratological break downs. In cases where to be accurate – to be honest – the story has to become overcomplicated, the structure of the narrative has to be broken, the unity we want with stories and usually get with stories has to be folded back on itself, or frayed, or fragmented. I’m interested in cases where, in order to work, a story has to not work.