It has happened. I have stopped reading.
Perhaps it was inevitable, but it didn’t seem that way. In the early weeks of motherhood, in the night feeds, I powered through easy reads. They were my companions in the cold night feeds, the (kindle) light in the dark hours. Then life eased somewhat. I got my feet under the wobbly table of parenthood. But – quicksand apparently skirted – my pace stumbled and slowed. I couldn’t start another book after finishing The Valley of Amazement. I didn’t have any extra attention, or time, to give. No longer the pleasing bedtime read – instant lights out wanted. Today, night feeds mean head-slumping over the baby, eyes closed; daytime feeds mean endlessly a recalcitrant baby into drinking, staring fixedly at her; bottle feeds mean walking her around the house in endless circles. Patches between the feeding debacle revolve around food and entertaining the baby. Books are dead. I’m in the doldrums. Can you tell?
But ultimately there’s only so much Netflix you can watch while feeding (admittedly, it’s a lot. Thanks, 121 episodes of Gossip Girl.) Eventually my thirst for a different kind of storytelling started up again, and I turned in a new direction: the podcast. Specifically, an American podcast which has taken the spoken word world by storm, if that’s what it takes to have a dedicated Guardian page. Serial is a 12-episode real-life investigation into a 1999 murder in Baltimore. Reporter Sarah Koenig delves into the story that convicted Adnan Sayed of the murder of Hae Min Lee, when both were at high school, and questions Adnan’s guilt. His conviction rested substantially on the testimony of Jay, a high school friend who helped him to bury the body – and whose testimony is an amorphous, constantly shifting tale packed with problems. Serial follows Koenig’s year long digging around the case, trying to shake out the dirt in this dusty rug of a tale.
12 episodes is a lot, and what starts out as a simple case of he-said this, she-said that quickly becomes an immensely complex and multivocal tapestry of numerous clashing accounts, memories and pieces of evidence. A cast of thousands appears, some as the story progresses (the podcast was originally aired over the closing months of 2014 and new evidence and accounts were uncovered during the production and broadcast of the show.) The podcasts blend Koenig’s commentary, her conversations with people involved from school peers to solicitors to Adnan himself, recordings from police questions and trial. Particular time is given to Koenig’s recorded phone conversations with Adnan (in prison) which gives the whole thing an extra relevancy and bite.
It’s completely different to anything I’m familiar with, and utterly compelling. The internet has gone mad for it. You think the blue/black gold/white dress meme this week has been big? People are OBSESSED with this. There are memes, galleries of infographics, conspiracy communities, reddit threads, news features. It has taken America by storm.
Consider that I have a 14 week old baby – I STARTED looking like the After picture.
I was hooked, like everyone else. Yes, my fiction-loving brain yearned for a clear answer at the end: a surprise admission of guilt from someone, or some conclusive evidence either way. I hope it’s no spoiler to say that’s not what you get – this is the real world, after all. The best you get is indications that Adnan may get to appeal his case. But, to take Serial purely as a piece of narrative entertainment, this is in some ways its strength. Nobody’s story quite adds up. There are significant problems with both Adnan and Jay’s statements, and multiple complications from other directions too. Nothing seems to make sense. YOu end with the belief that SOMETHING else was going on – but with no idea quite what. Life is messy, we learn. People lie. And truth? It’s inaccessible if people don’t admit to it. Some things can’t be tracked by physical proof, and there’s simply no way of knowing what happened. Even the people involved may have warped or partial memories. Good luck with finding the truth.
I mention “narrative entertainment” as of course Serial is far more than that, and many people have become riled up about the ethics and method of the series – writing articles on why they disagree with the premise, or even publishing interviews to refute Koenig’s interpretation. I’ll leave those theses to be written by someone else. For me? Superb and head-scratching audio. Download it for free on your iPhone. And my conclusion? I don’t think Adnan is guilty. But I have no idea what the hell did happen.