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Serial and Literature

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“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed
ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Crack-Up,” Esquire, February 1936

Serial has become gut-wrenching to me, in the way that every good novel I’ve ever read feels like it’s re-organizing my thinking with fire. It is instructive, artful, and intricately organized. It is also a painful path to walk, but the million-odd folks who are listening to it together are embracing that complex ambivalence. Most of us know by now that there will be no smoking gun or creaking prison door swinging open. However Serial ends, it leaves a wake of pain. Whether Adnan is innocent or guilty, two horrible things have happened: the lives of two potentially vibrant, intelligent, kind people were lost. Their families grieve them.

This is why I’m still surprised by listeners who have clearly chosen a side, because, while this narrative invites that choice, it isn’t about binaries. It’s about keeping our brains supple enough to follow the voices, to hold both possibilities at the same time, and to feel the weight of them. We are not the jury in a courtroom. We are instead, if we are paying attention, privy to a brave and honest act of humanistic inquiry in which we entrust Sarah Koenig to arrange a story that will teach us something.

At the same time, though, we’re also building it. Serial’s format and our methods of digital engagement mean that, in many ways, we populate and re-write the story in ways that include fanfiction and crowdsourcing but go beyond that. In our “Conversation” installment last week, both Adam and Rabia reflected on the crowdsource, community ethos of the users on the Serial subreddit. They are making the story as well: the user who offers to pay Jay $25,000 for an interview, NippleGrip who weaves intricate fanfictive posts full of shock and humor, and, most poignantly, the user identifying himself as Hae Min Lee’s brother who critiques “entertainment” quality of the podcast. “Sorry if I sounded scornful,” he writes at the end. “It wasn’t my intention.” That painful reminder is also part of the Serial metanarrative now.

In the most recent episode (Ep. 9: “To Be Suspected”), I couldn’t avoid constantly coming back to Albert Camus’s The Stranger; it’s the fictional account of a quirky loner who goes on trial and receives the death penalty for a murder. Mersault, the main character, is certainly guilty of killing, but The Stranger mediates heavily on the strange and damning assumptions of others.  Mersault does not cry at this mother’s funeral; he does not cultivate a healthy, romantic relationship with his girlfriend. Clearly, the Prosecution argues, this is a proof that he has the heart of a killer and should be put to death. At the end of the novel, Mersault is lead off to his execution to the jeers and taunts of an angry crowd, and he embraces it as a moment of existential clarity. The novel is a chilling reflection on the ephemeral nature of justice, rumor, and impression.

After observing others in the courtroom, Adnan writes in one of post-sentencing letters, that “Afterwards I was thinking, my god, no one believes in me. Krista, I could never explain how that felt.” This is a moment of complete dread, when being believed is a matter of life or death and agency is stripped away. Camus’s narrator accepts this dread with nihilistic exuberance. Adnan’s response is “I refuse to be miserable,” which is a more humanistic triumph.

Courtrooms are not clean laboratories for experiments in truth. It’s maddeningly frustrating to watch others determine “what you did” — to puzzle out answers to questions that you already know. They might arrive at what happened or they might not, but either way, it’s chaotic rhetorical mess. Inherently, we place trust in this flawed system because it’s the most rational thing we can come up with. I don’t presume to make a decision on whether Adnan is guilty or innocent after listening to nine episodes of a (fantastic) podcast, but I keep returning to the idea that groups of people can solve “truth” problems like this better with increased connectivity, organic collaboration, and a new approach to digital citizenship.

 

 

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