The Visible Filth
Nathan Ballingrud
Contributed by Shemika Thormahlen
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Themes
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.
Complacency and Emptiness

In the novel, Ballingrud shows how Will sails through life without any real concern for external pressures or compelling reasons to go looking for his greater depth. This uncritical satisfaction, Ballingrud suggests, leads to hollowness in life — one that leads to bad ends.

The very first sign that Will is too accepting of whatever is around him is the cockroaches. Will does not seem to care about the ever-larger number of cockroaches performing mating rituals at the countertops of the bar among the bottles of booze. Also, how he chooses to serve all the college kids with drinks, without really questioning their eligibility to purchase alcohol, is another example of his lack of concern. Finally, Will’s complacency towards Eric — someone who is an extremely sweet person when sober, but a walking danger zone when drunk — proves to be dangerous when he is involved in a violent brawl with one of his friends and becomes badly injured.

Having dropped out of college several years ago, Will converted “all the money invested by his parents into so much tinder for the fire”; but this does not bother him at all. He also believes that having a woman, as well as reasonable access to booze, in his life will be sufficient. Therefore, his job as a bartender is ideal as it gives him access to all these — leading to the thought that working as one for the next fifty years will gives him a “state of calibrated contentment”. Interestingly, while Will seems to believe that his own relationship with Carrie, as well as that of Alicia and Jeffrey, will ultimately end, he shows no real concern about what the future holds between Alicia and himself.

The above events set Will on a path that is full of conflicts: his feelings for Carrie against those for Alicia; and his habitual complacency versus his urge to check on Eric’s health following the ugly brawl at the bar. At last, he starts experiencing internal doubt when dealing with the contents of the phone, specifically the extremely disturbing photographs and video clip. The author slowly builds the tension of the story by keeping the point-of-view squarely on Will, as he progressively becomes less complacent and, hence, less at ease in his own skin. Towards the end of the story, the reader gets a look at how Eric is faring: his wound “had gotten worse. Crusted with black blood, it had swollen and dried, reopened, dried again. Flies droned around his face, strutted boldly across his skin like little conquistadors. The stink of infection stopped Will at the door” (p. 48). This description feeds into the climax of the story, where Will — completely immersed now and no longer ignorant of the sights, smells, and reality of the world around him — calls Garrett’s phone. Recognizing the emptiness of his own life, which is reflected in the wreck-of-a-person that Eric has become, Will summons the creature that has been lurking in the background for the greater part of the story — one characterized by its sickening sounds, and exacerbated by the painful wailing of the dying Eric (Cardno, 2015).

Violence and Shame

Violence spatters many scenes in the novel, revealing the dirt-and-grime coating that is always thought to be so pure. Billingrud suggests that witnessing the violence and its aftermath leaves one with a feeling of shame. The first incident is witnessed when Eric comes in to play a pool game with a couple of his friends, which quickly devolves into a fist fight that turns dirty after Eric’s opponent smashes a bottle of beer and swings the cut glass across his cheek. As Billingrud describes, Eric is the sweetest guy when sober, but “a potential flashpoint for violence” whenever intoxicated. Through violence, the reader gets to see his ugly side, a side that nobody would want to experience. During the fight, the evil in humans also becomes evident, specifically when Eric’s opponent hits him with the jagged beer bottle, which elevates the fist fight to a higher level of calamity. The next day, Will visits Eric to see how he is doing. However, he witnesses just how weak Eric is, and feels a sudden shame for having done so.

After the portrayed violence in the first few pages of the book, it is not until Will gets home that weirdness ensues. After the fight, Will discovers the yellow phone that had been left behind by one of the college students amid the wreckage. He brings it home with him, hoping to pass it back to the owner or the police during his next shift. After returning home, someone keeps sending messages to the phone, which Will decides to check out. The first message that he sees appears to be sent by someone who is in trouble: “I think someone is in here with me. I am scared.” As Will interacts with the messages, a series of photos — beginning with what seems to be a sleeping man — come through. They gradually become weirder: the man is dead; his skull staved in by blunt force trauma; he has been beheaded, and his head cleaned and placed on top of a table; and his skull has been sliced open, and eyes hollowed out. Next, Will plays a video which offers a stabilized view of the severed head. In the video, one college girl says, “Oh my God, I can feel it.” Another girl’s voice is heard saying, “Get the fuck out of the picture!”

At the bar, the college students had a seemingly-clean and -pleasant appearance. The beheading of the man witnessed in the files on the yellow phone, however, reveals the evil and grime that is inside of them. Here, Billingrud not only shows the filth inside the college students, but also the evil inside Will. When preparing to watch the video, he “…held the phone close to his face to be sure he wouldn’t miss anything”. Despite feeling ashamed of himself for doing this, he goes on to watch the video, further revealing the filth within him; he has a weird thrill in watching these monstrous happenings to normal people.

Curiosity

Through the characters of Will and Carrie, Ballingrud explores how curiosity can lead to bad ends. He suggests that such can lead normal people to making uninformed decisions, making potential mistakes that can have horrible consequences.

Curiosity leads Will to view the photos on the yellow phone of the unnamed college student. The photos are a series, beginning with what seems to be a sleeping man and progressively becoming more graphic — which ends up being a ritual killing of a man. Despite the unsettling nature of the photos, he is unable to look away; nor was he able to stop himself from clicking “play” on the video file — which culminates with a screaming panic from the unseen college students, just as Will is startled by the unexpected arrival of Carrie. Will’s reaction raises Carrie’s curiosity about the phone, leaving him with no choice but to show her both the photos and the video to alleviate her fears that he might be cheating on her. They both view the photos and the video numerous times. Following this, Will begins to question what he and Carrie have stumbled upon, where the more he does this, the more he makes bad decisions — and the more discordant his life becomes. This discord is all around him, from the images on the phone to the threat of more-disturbing events taking place. Carrie also investigates the matter, where she follows-up on a clue from one of the horrific pictures in which she sees a book spine titled “The Second Translation of Wounds”. This investigation, however, gets her drawn deeper and deeper in decidedly-creepy, as well as unhealthy, ways. Overall, the images on the phone tidally stresses both Will and Carrie to the point of fracture.

Relationships and Jealousy

The Visible Filth is a tale of strained relationships in which jealousy, mistrust, and fear fight for attention. Will has his current girlfriend, Carrie, and lives with her; however, he loves Alicia and wishes that she and Jeffrey, her current boyfriend, split so that the two of them can be together. He is even happy when Alicia tells Jeffrey about the kiss that the two of them shared, hoping that it will cause an end to their relationship. In the hopes of starting a relationship with Alicia, Will breaks up with Carrie, but Alicia does not seem to care about their break-up for she continues to be with Jeffrey.

Will and Carrie’s relationship is full of jealousy, mistrust and fear. By addressing her literature professor on a first-name basis, it gives Will the impression that Carrie may be cheating on him. Furthermore, because of Carrie’s ambitious nature, he fears she may soon leave him for someone better. On the other hand, Carrie fears that Will is cheating on her where Alicia is concerned — which eventually actualizes after he decisively leaves her with the intent and thought of being with Alicia.

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