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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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Every month, Fathom editor Collin Huber chooses a can’t-miss novel and creates a place to talk about it on our private Facebook page. Sign up to join in our real conversations about fictional stories. It’s free. It’s fun. It’s simple to join.

Building Your Bookshelf

Educated by Tara Westover

Tara Westover grew up in a family of Mormon survivalists in Idaho. Obsessed with apocalyptic prophecies, her father lived on high alert hoarding dry goods, wary of the government, and determined to keep his family unstained by the world. Her mother contributed to the family through herbal remedies and “shifting” human energy to heal maladies. Tara never visited the doctor or attended public school. Instead, she helped her father and brothers in the scrap yard and read religious texts for education. In this riveting memoir, Westover describes how she gained admission to BYU and eventually ended up at Cambridge University where the reality of the world tested the convictions of her upbringing. Her writing is sensory and vivid, documenting the years of theological, verbal, and physical abuse she faced, especially from her father, never knowing any better. Educated is the incredible story of one woman’s journey from poverty to a PhD and a startling reminder of how our convictions impact those around us. 

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Roy and Celestial are newlyweds. Each has a promising career and a hope-filled future for their life together until Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years in prison on unfounded charges. Celestial does her best to maintain their relationship, but as the years tick by her love for Roy grows challenged and she find herself comforted by Roy’s best friend, Andre. As she struggles through how to handle her new relational dynamic, Roy’s conviction is overturned and he is released from prison. Expecting to return home and restart life, no one can say for sure what awaits him—not even his wife.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton

Lavinia and Louise couldn’t be any more different. One comes from nothing and juggles three jobs to pay her many bills. The other is rich, glamorous, and a staple in the New York night scene. Following a chance introduction, the two begin an unlikely friendship in which their lives start to blend. But before long, their playful connection grows manipulative and obsessive, such that one of them will not make it out alive. Burton’s debut is an absorbing dive into the extremes of human nature and the shaping effect technology has on the people we long to be.

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