David Bowie and Trigger Warning(s)

This week I want to think a little more deeply about Neil Gaiman's story collection Trigger Warning. I'll consider the idea of a "trigger warning" here the way Gaiman does, not quite as it applies to diagnosable mental health issues and psychological safety—as an easy-to-make gesture to avoid triggering a dissociative flashback or other distress for someone just trying to go about their day. Gaiman speaks more to the way the phrase "trigger warning" has bled to the larger idea of reading stories that are upsetting or otherwise deeply felt. In his introduction Gaiman meditates on the value, often profound, of reading troubling stories. He speaks of "what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed"; he posits that perhaps fictions should not be safe places, that they might better teach and change the reader if they are dangerous ground.

It's impossible, of course, to read this introduction without thinking of upsetting stories you've happened on, as a child or an adult reader—those stories you regret reading for a while before, someone, letting go of that regret, pushing through to one deeper response or another, a more complex understanding of the world.

In light of Trigger Warning I'm thinking too about the larger, more general way that some books seem to find us just when we need them—though of course it doesn't happen quite like that, that's often how it feels. (How many twists and turns of your life, particularly in the early days of your young adult personality, were shaped by the stories you read or otherwise consumed? How many people did they bring you closer to? How much did they see you through? What did they trigger?) 

Last week Gaiman's collection brought me an appropriately grief-tinged, spine-tingling experience—on the morning after David Bowie's death, I unknowingly opened Trigger Warning to "The Return of the Thin White Duke," Gaiman's Bowie origin myth. In it the titular fantastical monarch grows weary of power without feeling ("I need to value life. I need to wake") and walks off the edge of the world, through the mists at "the end of everything," and finally into a new world that comes into being as he creates it: London, and he reborn as a young David Bowie, about to play a gig in the smoky room above a Beckenham pub. 

Reading this so soon after losing Bowie hurt, of course. All this creation and destruction, Bowie as a superior entity leaving one world and abruptly seeking/making another, always looking for something to love. It hurt—but did I regret it? It felt rather like a serendipitous rite of mourning, and added a new layer to my understanding of how writing can trigger something nonfictional in the reader.

(For what it's worth, let me note two additional things about Bowie and the creative process. One is that he was an artist who seemed to deserve an origin myth, each incarnation of his artistic self springing fully formed and unique from the ashes of the one before. There's a lesson there even for us mortals, perhaps, about letting our work take us as far and as fast and as drastically as it likes. And finally: I've noticed that before his death, in fictional biographies and mentions of Bowie in fiction, he's often almost immediately labeled as immortal: "He would not die," Gaiman's story notes in passing on its first page, "for only inferior people died, and he was the inferior of no one." And then there's this passage from Tracy K. Smith's poem "Don't You Wonder, Sometimes?":


Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
Or charging through his veins. And he'll never grow old,
Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired

And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life
In which I'm forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
Thinking one day I'll touch the world with bare hands
Even if it burns.


Ouch.