Fathom Mag

The Myth of Autonomy

A review of the June selection for Storied—It Needs to Look Like We Tried

Published on:
July 11, 2018
Read time:
4 min.
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A week ago, we celebrated the Fourth of July in America, memorializing one of our bedrock virtues—independence. It underlies our Constitution and profoundly shapes the way we view the world. So much of today’s political rhetoric flows from the theoretical font of autonomy. We vote, praise, and purchase what best serves “me.” In particular, a social logic has developed that gets lobbed about regarding personal behavior. It goes something like this: “Do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

A social logic has developed that gets lobbed about regarding personal behavior. It goes something like this: “Do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

But how can we know the ways in which our choices affect those around us? Are we so certain of ourselves to think that we can even make such a measurement, let alone determine whether or not the effects of our choices are good or bad? The simple fact is that our choices are never independent. They all have effects, which is the point on display in Todd Robert Petersen’s novel It Needs to Look Like We Tried.

At first glance, the book reads like a short story collection with an assortment of characters who would otherwise likely remain unconnected, ranging from a bride-to-be to a military vet with an electrolarynx. Yet it all traces back to a cross-country road trip and a driver’s unexpected stop that sets in motion a ripple effect into each character’s story over a period of a month.

In particular, their response to failure ties them together—failed marriages, careers, and mortgage payments—most often as a result of good intentions. Even more, many of said crises come by way of someone else’s choices. Each chapter enters at a point of decision, one that twists into a cyclone of relationships, responsibilities, and goals, all of which add to the burden of the choice at hand.

Petersen uses this to his advantage allowing him to craft immediately relatable characters by examining their response to situations beyond their control. In doing so, he tests their commitment (or lack thereof) to virtue, which is the crux of every great tale. But he does so in a way that creatively incorporates the influence of media, especially that of reality TV.

But true autonomy is a myth. Our choices always have effects.

Recent years have given rise to names like the Kardashians, Robertsons, and Gaineses simply by inviting viewers into their lives. And for better or worse, they’ve shaped our expectations for things like beauty, family, and the décor of our homes. That’s true for many of the characters in It Needs to Look Like We Tried as well, which Petersen explores from the vantage of media consumers, producers, and subjects.

His treatment of these themes makes the book a timely read, especially with a man made famous by reality TV now at the helm of our country. If we can trust the headlines, or at least our timelines, many feel as though the world is spinning beyond their grasp. And the easy response is to retreat into a cocoon of self-preservation. But true autonomy is a myth. Our choices always have effects. Just as smoking cigarettes influences healthcare costs so gentrifying neighborhoods taxes out the poor. The logic behind “Do what you want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone” ultimately discourages empathy. It’s first about what I want before it matters how it affects others.

It Needs to Look Like We Tried forces readers to slow down, place themselves in someone else’s shoes, and consider the effects of their decisions. It reminds us that whatever hope we have begins beyond ourselves. And while that will always be a messy process leaving us facedown on the ground more often than not, at least we can say we tried.

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