“This is the Real World”: Introduction

We will come to the water’s edge and lie on the grass and there will be a small, unobtrusive sign that says,

Charles Bowden, Blood Orchid

This article argues that the representational dualism of Truman Capote’s nonfiction novel In Cold Blood represents an aesthetic effort to reintegrate the infamous Clutter murders and their perpetrators into a meaningful, yet increasingly simulated, middle-class existence. First published in 1966, Capote’s bestseller claimed facticity and strict adherence to journalistic principles while simultaneously utilizing literary writing strategies. Building on the narrative traditions of Thoreau’s Walden or Hemingway’s cables from the Spanish Civil War, it popularized the nonfiction genre, in which the objectivism of traditional journalism coalesces with the creative prowess and subjectivity of fiction writing. [1] The New Journalism movement of the 1960s and 1970s dismissed journalistic neutrality and aloofness in favor of a sense of ‘truth’ attained through the reporter’s intimate involvement in a story, for instance Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971), where the reporter’s eccentric personality overtakes the coverage of the actual event—an approach that often “makes us uneasy by its apparently oxymoronic nature—its mixing of reality and fiction” (Siegle 437). In contrast to such iconoclastic efforts that, as Jon Katz puts it, “abandon the false god of objectivity” (qtd. in Mindich 1) and thereby undermine the foundations of journalistic detachment, In Cold Blood builds upon an extensive research effort by Capote and his fellow author Harper Lee in an effort to reconstruct the circumstances of the quadruple Clutter family murders committed by Richard “Dick” Hickock and Perry Edward Smith on the night of 15 November 1959 in Holcomb, Kansas. After reading a New York Times article that detailed the brutal and apparently senseless murder of a married couple and their two teenage children—Herbert, Bonnie, Kenyon, and Nancy Clutter—the writers traveled to small-town midwestern Kansas to collect first-hand material, conduct interviews, and scrutinize a vast number of official documents, crime scene photos, and video footage. Their investigative enterprise was undertaken with almost obsessive attention to detail and produced in excess of 8,000 pages of written notes. In a 1966 New York Times interview with George Plimpton, Capote stressed the facticity of the resulting book, insisting the nonfiction genre be a “narrative form that employed all the techniques of fictional art but was nevertheless immaculately factual.” To achieve this, the author should turn into “a literary photographer” committed to the “factual accuracy” of his or her narrating of real-life events (Plimpton). [2]

To be clear, this article does not engage directly with issues concerning the novel’s facticity or try to fact-check Capote’s alleged shortcomings as a “literary photographer.” In contrast, it marks an effort to reappraise In Cold Blood vis-à-vis the discourses surrounding modernist facticity and objectivity versus postmodernist fictionality and subjectivity and their interplay with an assumed middle-class reality principle. These issues are also at the heart of the conflict between neutral reporting, fiction writing, and their mésalliance in the nonfiction genre. While being the primary analytical focus, the novel thus works more like a secondary text from a methodological viewpoint, meaning that textual truth-claims as well as aesthetic and dramaturgic strategies are understood as a sociocultural commentary that reveals the erosion of the modernist reality principle and the ensuing postmodern crisis of the real. The novel therefore turns into a case-study for the anguish of a transforming American society that, while still holding up the “small, unobtrusive sign” of sociocultural togetherness and middle-class stability, increasingly feels the need to reassure itself—in capital letters—that “THIS IS THE REAL WORLD […] AND WE ARE ALL IN IT” (Bowden).

Capote’s textual struggle over truth-claims, objective representations, and the making-real of events spreads out across various fault lines, which this article traverses with the help of two different but interconnected analytical lenses. First is Jean Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra and simulations as postmodern forces that progressively undermine the modernist notion of objective and stable reality by oversaturating it with ‘fake’ hyperreal entities and pseudo-events, resulting in semiotic excesses of information creation and the collapse of facticity, objectivity, and eventually meaning itself. [3] Utilizing these concepts and theories promises to give new insights into the nonfiction genre in general and a fresh angle on Capote’s depiction of the Clutter case in particular. In fact, Baudrillard theorizes many key sociocultural issues of the twentieth century’s second half that also occupy the subtext of the novel, although in a much more subtle and aestheticized manner—most notably a rising sense of semantic insecurity and eroding common ground concerning the concept of reality and the possibility of its objective representation. The second analytical lens zooms in on the textual dynamics between subjectivity and violence as a way for deviants like Perry and Hickock to break through the veil of a perceived ‘false reality’ in order to partake in the structures of middle-class objectivity as an imagined space of a stable reality and meaningful identity. Middle-class identity here refers not only to economic status but, more importantly, to a nexus of sociocultural values and ideologies like political conservativism, Judeo-Christian beliefs, nuclear family structures and traditional gender roles, common-sense objectivism, economic liberalism, as well as moral absolutism and the belief in criminal retribution through (capital) punishment. These value systems are—at the novel’s publication and today—most pronounced in the Midwest that is still, for instance in political rhetoric, viewed as the nation’s ‘heartland’ and as a more or less intact archive or repository of republican core values. This spatio-ideological formation of middle-class, Midwest, and heartland assumes the discursive power to furnish a modernist epistemology along which the meaningfulness of the individual’s existence and identity is being determined. These spatially and socially centrist value systems condense into an ideologically and discursively compounded identity I refer to abbreviatedly as ‘Middle America’. This imagined entity becomes the point of reference alongside which Capote discusses larger issues regarding objectivity and subjective identity, as well as their discursive and violent undermining by emerging postmodern epistemologies.

To begin with, in its narrative encounter with this middle-class nexus in small-town Kansas, In Cold Blood works along an aesthetic-perspective dualism directed at reconnecting both the murders and the murderers with said identities and virtues. Both the objectivized, normative depictions of Holcombe and Garden City’s citizens and the subjectivization of Perry and Hickock work towards this end. In order to achieve this reconnection, Capote employs complex artistic and psychological depictions as well as violence as an aesthetic tool as law-abiding citizens and mass murderers collide in a textual nexus of normative objectivity and exceptional subjectivity. As a consequence, by imposing different standards and writing the culprits as psychologically more complex than the ideologically assimilated townspeople, the novel causes an escalation of virtual and synthetic information units, thereby accelerating the collapse of stable meaning through pseudo-events and simulations of a cohesive reality that promise to rescue the modernist reality principle while unwittingly working towards its very destruction.


“The Foot of an Alaskan Bear”: Simulating Subjectivity

While reading the novel, the convicted (and at the date of its publication already executed) killers Perry and Hickock appear as anything but inhuman and cruel mass murderers. In fact, Capote neither dehumanizes nor morally stigmatizes them as might be expected in a book that couches the bulk of its characters into a corset of normative rigidity that upholds the principles of legal punishment, moral-ritualistic redemption, and capital punishment. Instead, Capote subjects his protagonists to an in-depth psychological treatment that revolves around childhood traumas, violent experiences, and intricate affective predicaments. During this process, their personalities are dissected in great detail, which includes lengthy excerpts of personal letters as well as almost Dadaistic dream sequences like Perry’s strange visions of a giant yellow bird that comes to exact bloody revenge on his institutionalized oppressors in school and other public institutions: “The bird is Jesus!” (Capote 311).

In order to achieve this complexity of character, the text also relies on pathos and uses appeals to emotion and empathy as key stylistic devices (see Noel 53). The description of Perry’s pictures, taken during his trip to Mexico City, also bears testimony to this aestheticized opulence: “[T]hey were remarkable photographs, and what made them so was Perry’s expression, his look of unflawed fulfilment, of beatitude” (Capote 116). Another instance of this strategy lies in Capote’s reluctance to quote directly from the material he had gathered from his interviews with Hickock and Perry. Instead, the text makes readers ‘hear’ their thoughts as it “adopts a point of view coming from inside the suspect’s mind” (Hollowell 101). This move endows the killers with a privileged voice of unmediated and highly subjective self-expression, resulting in a positive deviation from the uniformity and formulaic depiction of the novel’s other characters. Tom Wolfe in The New Journalism identified these techniques of nonfiction writing as “gripping” and geared towards “emotional involvement” (31). As a result, the duo’s subjective, affect-driven access to reality is treated differently and isolated from the experience of other characters who think and act largely in strict accordance with their straight-forward conservatism. This becomes apparent even in the descriptions of the killers’ physiognomies, which at some points graze the limits of a phrenological mirroring of their inner selves. Hickock’s face, for instance, is described as being “composed of mismatching parts” as a result of a car accident and “a fraction off centre,” his “left eye […] with a venomous, sickly-blue squint that [seemed] to warn of a bitter sediment at the bottom of his nature” (Capote 29). Both killers have been involved in near-fatal motor accidents, their bodies only provisionally fixed and left as unhealed and fragmentary as their personalities and access to reality, the compound fractures of their bones indicating the disarray of their inner worlds.

Surprisingly, however, the textual establishment of their otherness and social atomization is not geared towards their exclusion from but rather their subversion of objectivity and social normativity. Instead, the literary subjectivization of the killers becomes an inclusive strategy aimed at subtly reintegrating them into the fabric of the modernist, middle-class reality principle. Phyllis Frus further elucidates this strategy of the novel:

[V]iolent, senseless crime can be made sensible and poignant through artistic representation; and these repulsive, illiterate, antisocial criminals are rendered as literate, talented, redeemable, though flawed, personalities. (Perry is sensitive and draws, Dick has an amazing memory; both are as articulate as Dostoevsky […]). (184)

In order to achieve this inclusion, the plot performs a kind of affirmation via the escalation of virtual semantic substance, resulting in the accelerated synthetization of seemingly random information, symbols, and memories to achieve a more meaningful representation of reality. Stories from the killers’ childhood, brutal and happy experiences, disappointments and struggles with social conformity, as well as their personal opinions all simulate their belonging to and participation in a meaningful reality. One entry in Perry’s notebook in particular underlines this modernistic desire to find import and ‘the meaning to life’ when he quotes John Donne’s famous phrase “No man’s an Island, Entire of itself” (Capote 142). However, as Baudrillard contends, such a “proliferation of myths of origins and signs of reality” always works toward “an escalation of the true, of the lived experience [and] a panic-stricken production of the real and referential” (“Simulacra” 171). In other words, it may seem like reality is becoming ‘more real’ by adding more substance and complexity to its representation. But doing so ultimately deflates the signifying value of all facts, however true or false, relevant or meaningless. The more random data is introduced, the lesser the epistemic ‘surface tension’ of the modernist reality principle and the lesser the chances of readers to clearly delineate the concepts of true or false, right or wrong, real or imagined.

This subversive depreciation of reality becomes especially clear in the attention the novel grants to Perry’s fascination with treasure maps and sunken gold at the bottom of the sea. Representing objects that are supposed to connect him to a socially respected and purposive occupation like that of a treasure hunter or adventurer, they are indeed mere simulations of a meaningful lifestyle. As it turns out, Perry cannot swim, let alone dive, and is ashamed to take off his pants on the beach because of his malformed legs as another result of a car accident (Capote 97). In lieu of his obstructed access to real-world referents of meaningfulness like treasure maps and sunken doubloons loaded with historical significance, he always carries with him a five-hundred-pound trunk filled with “yellowing letters, song lyrics, poems, and unusual souvenirs [like] the foot of an Alaskan bear” (Capote 121). This eclectic potpourri of metaphors and signifiers constructs a network of escalating information and metastasizing, self-reproducing semantic variables with the ability to initiate an infinite number of anecdotal strands in order to produce meaningful structures. By abstracting significance from those artifacts, the text puts emphasis on Perry’s symbolical embeddedness and, to use Daniel Boorstin’s terminology, introduces “pseudo-events” to divert attention from conventional journalistic questions like ‘what happened?’ towards fuzzy symbolism and ambiguous metaphors which merely ask ‘what does it mean?’ It therefore only adds to the precession of simulacra and the “thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life” (Boorstin 3-9; 11). As a result, these excesses of pseudo-events ultimately work against their supposed purpose. Instead of alleviating Perry’s seclusion and reconnecting his personality to more normative structures, every anecdote, dream, and memory fragment from which the text tries to infer substance in fact “exhausts itself in the act of staging communication. Rather than producing meaning, it exhausts itself in the staging of meaning” (Baudrillard, “Implosion” 80; original emphasis). Accordingly, Perry’s utterly modernistic representation is frustrated in its “positivist belief that there is a world which can be reproduced in language [and whose] facts have inherent meaning” (Frus 184). Notwithstanding this failure, this does not diminish the aesthetic-literary appeal of Capote’s vibrant portrayal regarding the disaccords and reciprocities of modernist constructive objectivity versus postmodernist deconstructive subjectivization.

In contrast to his partner in crime, Hickock, while also an important part of Perry’s convoluted sign system, lacks almost any personal depth. In his own view, he tries to hold up the notion of himself as an average, all-American straight-forward guy with partialities for strong drinks and beautiful girls. Ashamed of his pedophile tendencies, he emphasizes the supposed normalcy of his sexuality, stating, “I’m a normal. I only dream about blonde chicken” (Capote 89). In fact, Hickock’s shallowness and cold, calculating nature point to what Fredric Jameson described as a “constitutive [feature] of the postmodern: a new depthlessness” (58). This would also explain Perry’s hopeless subjugation to Hickock. He anticipates that his (Hickock’s) predicament—which speaks through his “waning of affect” (Jameson 61)—is better qualified to deal with the approaching collapse of meaning because it relies on deconstruction and nihilism instead of efforts to stabilize existing metanarratives. Largely occupied with the latter, In Cold Blood consequently neglects Hickock’s postmodern impulses as seen in his dramaturgical marginalization and preference for Perry’s spiraling subjectivity. As a result, Perry’s psyche turns into the textual battleground on which the struggle between the central assumptions of the high modernist and postmodern epistemologies is fought out. Perry’s superstitions, fear of black-clad priests crossing the road, and belief in fate and a hidden meaning to life together facilitate the desire to construct a coherent identity embedded within a meaningful reality. His violent outbursts and, of course, his role in the Clutter massacre, demonstrate his inability to channel the frustration of this very desire to forcefully access a sphere whose normativity and moral judgements make it opaque for those situated outside. Willie-Jay, his spiritual mentor in prison, summarizes this inner turmoil in a letter to Perry: “You exist in a half-world suspended between two superstructures, one self-expression and the other self-destruction” (Capote 42). Ultimately, rather than succeeding in assimilating the duo into the fabric of a sensible midde-class identity, the text establishes their hopeless isolation from it.

The invisible barriers that separate them thus condemn Perry and Hickock to remain in the limbo of unreality as a source of cognitive disorders and of subconscious, desperate attempts to partake in the ostensible coherence of a reality that appears ‘more real’ than their own because of its ritualistic repetition by social institutions, media outlets, and advertisements. The tragedy of their situation is that, on the one hand, they can physically take part in this reality by touching its objects and (violently) interacting with its subjects. On the other hand, all these interactions remain pointless, exhausting themselves in sheer symbolic excesses such as Perry’s collecting five-hundred pounds of random paraphernalia in his trunk. Inadvertently, Perry and Hickock exist in a realm of mirrors and dreams, although decidedly not of the American dream, which in this case refers not to economic but epistemic mobility. Their mindscapes consist of unconnected fragments of a society in whose close-meshed and objectivity-driven structures their antisocial existences cannot occupy a meaningful position, except that of social deviants and killers. Just as Perry’s collection of cultural artifacts is unable to construct meaning solely through itself or its mere textual representation, its owner’s actions must also stay unintelligible for the participants entrenched in the coordinate system of the middle class. Just moments before committing the fatal deed, Perry realizes that he could just leave the Clutter farm and drive away—an entirely reasonable thought. However, he feels an irresistible urge to enter the house that he instinctively and subconsciously recognizes as a structure filled to the brim with his desired meaningfulness that he tries to access in order to complement his lacking self:

I sure Jesus didn’t want to go back in that house. And yet – How can I explain this? It was like I wasn’t part of it. More as though I was reading a story. And I had to know what was going to happen. (Capote 234)

Perry’s feeling of inevitability and his concurrent aloofness are part of a deeper yearning to occupy a position in a sensible superstructure, which he perceives as an Eden built from the enticingly reflective shards of its smallest units, namely the semantic potpourri he hauls in his heavy trunk. In his mind, this embeddedness manifests itself in visions of a paradisiac state that are subsequently “transposed into ‘A real place. Like out of a movie. [He] remembered it from a movie’” (Capote 89). An equally important notion becomes apparent in Perry’s hesitance to enter the house: although he is bodily present, he feels that merely entering might not suffice to make accessible the longed-for meaning channels.

Instead, such an act of transcendental reintegration can only be accomplished through the use of violence, which Capote depicts through an incessant repetition and elaborate description of the crime’s graphic details as a reaction to the frustration of the abovementioned efforts to salvage the fragments of a common reality for the delinquents. Through the unadorned reconstruction of the massacre, the text subverts this actuality by trying to forcefully knock down the epistemic walls that separate Perry and Hickock from ‘Middle America’. This notion of cathartic violence is congeneric to the mythology of the American hunter found in Richard Slotkin’s Regeneration Through Violence (1973) and its aestheticization in movies like They Live by Night (1948) or Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which hit theaters a year before the book’s first publication. Analogous to In Cold Blood, these films depict socially-alienated protagonists who strive to experience reality ‘as it really is’ and, finding the task impossible, resort to rage-fueled force. Similarly, the Red Army Faction legitimized violence against structures and representatives of the state as an instrument to supplant the ‘false consciousness’ of the masses with awareness of ‘real’, i.e. socialistic, issues. These rebellious and often romanticized anti-heroes feel that violence is the only means left at their disposal to break down the simulacra of falsehoods of hyperreality that separate them from the freedom and self-actualization of an underlying ‘real’ life. In the light of Perry’s ostracism and implied victimhood, the massacre thus almost appears as an act of vengeance against the social ills and injustices symbolized by the Clutters. Slavoj Žižek even views this violent “passion for the Real” (Badiou 32) as a key factor behind the twentieth century’s wars and barbarities like the Holocaust that were motivated by underlying proto-modernistic desires “aimed at delivering the thing itself – at directly realizing the longed-for New Order” (5).

The tragic irony of this desire lies not only in its quixotic proxy war against abstracted, imaginary adversaries but also in the anti-hero’s failure to recognize that there is no longer anything behind the curtain which their violent actions could unveil and that the binary of a genuine reality and its false representation no longer exists. Put in Baudrillard’s terms again, they fail to realize that the “coextensivity between the map and the territory […] disappears with simulation” (“Simulacra” 167). Still, as Slotkin suggests, the concept of self-elected violence as a means of transcending the limitations of society and attaining cathartic personal freedom has itself long-since become a “structuring metaphor of the American experience” (5), ingrained in such socio-cultural archetypes as rugged individualism or frontier spirit. On an abstract plain of violent reconnection to nature and instinct, Perry and Hickock’s horrific deed thus works at least partially towards their convergence with ‘Middle America’ because the bloodbath positions them as the well-known participants in a shared historical discourse of violence, pointless massacres, and the emergence of mass murderers and their cultural aggrandizement in American society. They turn into exceptional historical figures as at one point “Dick became convinced that Perry was that rarity, ‘a natural killer’—absolutely sane, but conscienceless” (Capote 50). They thus attain some meaningfulness by their invoking of death as the one irrefutable objective truth of human life itself.

Finally, as Žižek states, the “fundamental paradox of the ‘passion for the Real’” is that “it culminates in its apparent opposite, in a theatrical spectacle […], the ‘postmodern’ passion for the semblance” (5-6; original emphasis). Representing such a semblance, In Cold Blood tries to shock both characters and readers into experiencing a more real version of reality by portraying the graphic details of a postmodern crime as “[t]ime after time, the reader, like the characters, is brought back to reality and the terrible facts are rehearsed again as if they might yield a new meaning” (Levine 136). Through this move, Capote depicts the ferocity of the Clutter murders as “something inexchangeable […] which the symbolic order excludes and renders invisible” (Aylesworth). As Baudrillard contends, in a hyperreal environment “the dead cease to exist. They are thrown out of the group’s symbolic circulation. […] The dead […] can find no resting place; they are thrown into a radical utopia” (Symbolic Exchange and Death 126; original emphasis). It is the normative portrayal of the Clutter family with their exemplarily assimilated identities as well as the complex portrayal of those who executed them in cold blood that reveals Capote’s endeavor to write the killers back into the “symbolic circulation” of ‘Middle America’.


“A Matter of Displaced Vertebrae”: Simulating Objectivity

From the beginning, the text establishes the Clutter family and the people of Holcombe and Garden City as objectively and rationally embedded in the coordinate system of a meaningful lifestyle. By drawing to a large extent on background and context analysis as well as evaluations of criminal evidence, In Cold Blood facilitates a dialogue between what it presents as hard facts on the one hand and subjective, anecdotal information on the other. Constantly switching perspectives and dedicating large sections to ostensibly incidental facts, the text invites interpretation and speculation based on soft, ‘narrative facts’. Similar to a classic crime novel, readers are therefore prompted to come up with their own hypotheses and weigh them against the plot elements that are determined as absolute facts. In contrast to a work of fiction, this interplay between text and reader is not so much interested in the questions of “who,” “when,” “where,” and “how” as these details of the crime were already widely known at the time of the book’s publication. Instead, Capote’s narrative structure—in remarkably subtle fashion—confronts audiences with the question of “why” Perry and Hickock committed the shocking deed. This scrutinizing of the real motives behind the murders has twofold and closely associated implications.

First, it represents the search for a deeper meaning or what John Hollowell calls a “meaningful design” (97) and hence an effort to inscribe a seemingly pointless crime with a deeper significance. But such an effort also presumes the existence of a psychologic, moral, ethical, and behavioral superstructure that encapsulates all possible aspects and variations of human existence, hence an epistemology based on so-called human nature whose application is not analytically driven but constructed instinctually by common sense or ‘sanity of reason’ because “it assumes a world of cause and effect, of certitude [and] a strong sense of closure” (Frus 184). Objectivity then becomes a key factor in accessing and representing this world in the most direct or ‘authentic’ manner. Secondly, in the light of these criteria it becomes obvious that an understandable, hence ‘normal’, motive for murder cannot be abstracted from the empirical evidence. Instead, the verified facts of the case dislodge the events even further from them making sense. Take, for instance, Perry’s empathy and seemingly genuine concern for Herb Clutter’s physical well-being on the cold basement floor, just moments before murdering him: “I thought he was a very nice gentleman. Soft-spoken. I thought so right up to the moment I cut his throat” (Capote 237). Passages like these demonstrate that the text is neither concerned with solving the murders nor with the mere recording of the events that culminated in the crime. Conversely, the manner in which Capote discursively empowers Perry and Hickock, their whimsical world views and psychograms, becomes an aesthetic enterprise of reintegrating and harmonizing them with sensible structures, or with what Ronald Weber in The Literature of Fact calls “a world of meaning and inner coherence” (73). It should not go unnoticed, however, that others have pointed in the opposite direction; Mas’ud Zavarzadeh, for example, suggests that objectivity in the text

maps the surrounding objectal [sic] world, without imposing a projected pattern of meaning on the neutral massiveness and amorphous identity of actual people and events. Its response to the confused and contradictory interpretations of reality […] is to return to noninterpretive, direct contact with actuality. (68)

As a response, I propose that a noninterpretive representation of reality is doubly unfeasible as it assumes both the existence of one monolithic version of reality and the possibility of its undiluted literary representation. Taking such a stance would therefore lead to what Baudrillard mockingly described as “the cartographer’s mad project of an ideal coextensivity between the map and the territory” (“Simulacra” 166), hence the production of an absurd (actual or literary-representational) map so detailed that it covers the entirety of the mapped-out territory itself.

During the trial, the graphic photos taken at the crime scene are shown to the jury members in an effort to re-establish the authority of objectivism at the courthouse as a symbolic venue of verisimilitude and unbiased truth: “[I]t was as though the photographs had prised open their mind’s eye, and forced them to at last really see the true and pitiful thing that had happened” (Capote 272). Here, actual representations of violence are used in an effort to re-establish a shared understanding of reality. After the final verdict and assessment of Perry and Hickock’s guilt, the people of Holcombe and former neighbors of the Clutters however felt “disappointed at being told that the murderer was not someone among themselves” (224). The people’s entrenchment in the simulacrum of objective reality is emphasized by their doubts about non-resident perpetrators, as “a sizable faction refused to accept the fact that two unknown men, two thieving strangers, were solely responsible” (224). The violent encroachment of what looked like anarchy and sheer nihilism into the monolithic modernist narrative simply appears incomprehensible. As one anonymous citizen laments, “it’s like being told there is no God. It makes life seem pointless” (84).

As a countermeasure to this subversive pointlessness, gossip and speculations begin to flourish that aim to reconnect the Clutter murders with objective reality. Coincidences, random occurrences, and conspiracy theories become crucial for the (actual and textual) endeavor “of saving the reality principle” (Baudrillard, “Simulacra” 172). Did the bloodbath result from a robbery that spiraled out of control? Was a local farmer with a personal grudge towards Herb’s popularity and success responsible? How could the Clutters’ employees Alfred Stoecklein and his wife not hear the gunshots when their house was right next to the Clutter mansion? Why did Herb, only hours before his death, take out a forty-thousand-dollar insurance policy that paid double indemnity in the case of his accidental death? The book proposes all of these theories in its own attempt to rescue the middle classes’ reality principle, in this way emphasizing gossip and speculation as vital instruments for redeeming the status quo, whose fragility and ultimately fictional nature is nonetheless revealed in the process. But it seems already too late, as the subjective, fragmentary, deconstructive postmodern relationship to reality has already begun to erode the cohesiveness of the town’s ideology as “a sizable faction” already begins to question the axiomatic authority of the court in bringing to light truths based in objective facts and evidence. Capote’s illustration of the trial proceedings aligns itself with this sense of subversion and inversion of values. For instance, the text gives an almost comedic degree of attention to the look and dress of people at court, through which they seem to signal and overcompensate their belonging to the same dominant or ‘correct’ reality of the authorities who hierarchically and discursively preside over them.

On the other hand, the local Kansan characters are seen as being occupied in their exercise and confirmation of moral justice, rationality, and common sense as the founding pillars of middle-class identity. Holcombe and Garden City, located at “almost the exact middle […] of the continental United States” are depicted as essentialist places of postwar modernism, populated with such icons of the consumer society and comfortable capitalist lifestyle as television, air-conditioning, and billboards that advertise the “World’s Largest FREE Swimpool!” (Capote 31). Embedded in this environment, the locals assume their function through their entrenchment in a system that shapes their thinking and whose simulations of meaningfulness they in turn reproduce through the endless confirmation of its principal symbols, namely the church, the courthouse, the school, the police station, the “swimpool,” and the farm. Located on the latter, Herbert Clutter was never interested in watching fictional TV shows. Instead, “all he ever really waited for” (Capote 50) was the weather report, which he followed with great attention because it provided him with tangible, measurable, real-life events of objective importance for his agricultural enterprises. The thoughts and actions of Clutter and other conservative characters are captured narratively through the employment of objectivity in its pre-constructivist and aperspectival guise based on what Michael Schudson termed “naive empiricism,” namely “not human statements about the world but aspects of the world itself” (6) that are somewhere out there and can be represented as they really are. Like Alvin Dewey, the KBI agent in charge of the investigation who “put his faith in facts” (Capote 100) states: “I’ll talk facts but not theories” (76). In the first chapter, Capote invites his readers to appropriate Dewey’s positivistic attitude and join him on his quest to uncover a meaningful structure behind the murders “since it will presumably create an explanatory framework that will allow [readers] to understand the bizarre murders” (Hollowell 98).

Dewey also signifies the textual adherence to a metanarrative of absolute, repeatable structures that might be revealed with the correct epistemological methods such as lie detectors, deciphered with journalistic tools, and given the right (in this case literary-aesthetic) form in an effort to make them graspable for the general public. In other words, the content of such a representation is “the world as it is, unmediated by human minds and other ‘distortions’” (Reiss and Sprenger). This notion, however, is undermined by the people’s vanishing trust and the text’s frantic reproductions of “signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity” (Baudrillard, “Simulacra” 171). As a result, Holcombe and Garden City function as what Umberto Eco in “Travels in Hyperreality” terms “Wunderkammern,” namely small-scale reproductions of a grander design that exist “under a glass bell” where “life is recorded […] in perfect copies preserved in miniaturized form of the original” (5; original emphasis). In Cold Blood confronts readers with a variety of such “perfect copies”: the model nuclear family, salt-of-the-earth country folk, dysfunctional ‘white trash’ families, gossipy townsfolk, and rationality-driven investigators.

Herb Clutter, for instance, is vested with an overabundance of signifiers that underscore his embeddedness and his being in control: “[S]urrounded by weather barometers, rain charts, a pair of binoculars, he sat like a captain in his cabin, a navigator piloting River Valley’s sometimes risky passage through the seasons” (Capote 17). His decision-making mentality, unvarying subscription to the principle of self-reliance, and total abstinence from substances like alcohol or nicotine that could alter his lucid access to the real world firmly anchor him to the meaningful designs of sociocultural centeredness.

Perry and Hickock’s pointless destruction of this tenet of modernism then is nothing short of a shock to the system as Andy Erhart, a close friend of the family, muses when he burns the bloody cloths of the victims: “How was it possible that such effort, such plain virtue, could overnight be reduced to this – smoke, thinning as it rose and was received by the big, annihilating sky?” (Capote 75). While Herb seems harmoniously integrated into this sphere of purposefulness, the text also takes some time to discuss his wife Bonnie’s psychological issues and struggles to function as expected within the same coordinate system. Capote’s insistence on diagnosing her medical condition—which in actuality displays the typical symptoms of a depressive disorder—as being “physical, a matter of displaced vertebrae” (5; original emphasis) is quite telling in the context of the author’s depiction of the town as a space of common-sense and objectivity. Assuming a physical source for her failure to function normally in her position as the wife of Holcombe’s well-liked benefactor leaves her embeddedness within the town’s epistemic geography untouched. Conversely, the notion of her being mentally ill would not only exclude her from the community’s reality but disrupt it by proving the existence of alternative, entirely subjective ways of seeing and describing what is real. As a consequence, Capote’s rewriting of Bonnie’s illness as physical and her concomitant semantic re-integration becomes a function of textual ‘imperialism’ as a process through which “simulators try to make the real, all the real, coincide with their simulation models” (Baudrillard, “Simulacra” 166). Bonnie’s failure to act appropriately is reflected in her disjointed, passive role and lack of agency. Contrary to the other family members, her death receives little attention and is described as a coup de grace as the “assassins [were] hastening towards the final door. Perhaps, having heard all she had, Bonnie welcomed their swift approach” (Capote 238). At other times, the text situates Bonnie’s predicament in the stereotypical female realm of dreams and fantasies, for instance when she appears in a nightmare of investigator Alvin Dewey’s wife Marie, lamenting “[t]o be murdered. To be murdered. No. No. There’s nothing worse. Nothing worse than that. Nothing” (150).

Moreover, Capote’s textual adherence to meaningful structures counteracts the increasing feeling of unreality in the American media landscape, which is not least caused by the undermining of a common understanding of crime itself. Traditionally, it was regarded as a deviation from legalized conventions grounded in underlying (Christian) moral statutes that regulate and define the individual’s position within a like-minded community. Here, a certain degree of deviation is always expected, as evidenced by the sheer existence of laws and the threat of punishment. However, it is also expected that criminality is regularly driven by rational motives that are philosophically ingrained in the notion of original sin as codified in the seven deadly sins and their variations. The most intelligible and hence forgivable motive, especially in the historical context of white settler colonialism in America, has always been human greed and the lure of easy money, exemplified by the romanticizing of train robbers of the Old West or pop-cultural icons like Bonnie and Clyde. Of course, there have always been apparently pointless crimes committed by mentally ill perpetrators that lacked a rational motive. But such crimes could easily be dismissed as statistically insignificant aberrations and subsumed under the auxiliary construction of ‘insanity’. [4]

Ambiguities concerning the soundness of the sane/insane binary began to surface as a result of an inexplicable rise in cross-country crime sprees. The total number of known serial killings in the US rose from fifty in 1950 to 136 in 1960 and 512 in 1970, which corresponds to a 924 percent increase over the course of only two decades (Aamodt 2). This development lead to intense media coverage, the proliferation of nationwide speculation, popularization of conspiracy theories, and also, with the growth of national media, the rise of “pseudo-events.” The latter term was coined by theorist Daniel Boorstin in The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1961), where he proposes that

we used to believe that there were only so many “events” in the world. If there were not many intriguing or startling occurrences, it was not the fault of the reporter. He could not be expected to report what did not exist. […] [E]specially in the twentieth century, all this has changed. We expect the papers to be full of news. […] If [a reporter] cannot find a story, then he must make one—by the questions he asks of public figures, by the surprising human interests he unfolds from some commonplace event, or by “the news behind the news.” (8)

The shift towards “pseudo-events” also built the groundwork for the work Baudrillard and other theorists invested in the idea that pseudo-events and simulations would eventually erode concepts like objectivity and reality. In Capote’s novel, this dynamic leads to the twofold and asynchronous escalation of the ‘mass murder event’, firstly by the criminals themselves and their bizarre excess of violence that went beyond ‘regular’ murder and secondly by the incessant media coverage and Capote’s literary reprocessing of the case. Together, they bring about the formation of a new category of crime populated by “murderers who seem rational, coherent, and controlled, and yet whose homicidal acts have a bizarre, apparently senseless quality” (Satten et al. 48). [5] In an attempt to systematize these deeds and reintegrate perpetrators into the system of scientific objectivity, psychologists proposed “severe lapses in ego control […] born out of previous, and now unconscious, traumatic experiences” (48) as a possible explanation. But self-perpetuating “pseudo-events” and the sensationalism of the media and readers alike engendered a representational layer of (un)reality that increasingly obscured and superseded such rational-scientific explanations. By generating and multiplying the image of the mass and serial murderer within a network of symbols, references, and metaphors, the media agents of their external representation unknowingly instigated the generation of what Baudrillard calls “hyperreality,” namely a “map that precedes the territory” of reality (“Simulacra” 166). In such an environment, violence is no longer a systemic prerogative performed through legislative rule-making, executive policing, and judicial retribution through punishment. Rather, the killers and their victims become the signifiers of pointless violence that is reported and channeled through the mass media, resulting in the further escalation in the form of gossip, distrust, conspiracism, and paranoia. As Matthew Gumpert points out, “Every stranger is a potential serial killer […]. Everything has become a sign; but the same sign: the sign of the end […]. The result is both a proliferation and a flattening of meaning (everything means, but everything means the same thing)” (xlvi). Against this background, the phenomenon of serial and mass murderers is not only a symptom but in fact one of the macro-cultural distortions that have triggered the epistemic crisis subsumed under the umbrella term of postmodernity, namely the “flattening” of high modernist metanarratives, a sense of one’s life, and—more fittingly in the context of In Cold Blood—a sense in one’s death.

In the novel, Perry and Hickock experience this development firsthand during their aimless flight after the murders. Hiding out in Florida, Perry comes across an article in the Miami Herald that details a “quadruple slaying on an isolated cattle ranch […]. The victims were again four members of a family: a young couple, Mr and Mrs Clifford Walker, and their two children, a boy and a girl, all of whom had been shot in the head with a rifle” (Capote 250). Paradoxically, Perry and Hickock had spent the night of December 19, 1959—the time of the Walker murders—in a Tallahassee motel only a few miles’ distance from where the crime took place. In the light of this suspicious concurrence, both underwent polygraph examinations after their arrest, although with negative results. Two explanations seem possible here. From a scientific-objective point of view, the unlikely coincidence and negative polygraph results might be explained and hence reintegrated into the objective rationale through the application of psychoanalysis. In cases like these, Satten et al. suggest that offenders “often felt separated or isolated from themselves, as if they were watching someone else […]. This feeling that it was not [them] who committed the murder enabled [them] to successfully pass a ‘lie detector’ test” (49). Again, this explanation relies on the modernist dichotomy between true/objective or false/subjective representations of reality. In Baudrillard’s terms, it becomes a “mirror of being and appearances, of the real and its concept” (“Simulacra” 166). The killers’ access to the ‘correct’ version of reality hence is there and absolute, yet merely obscured, possibly as a result of childhood trauma and personality disorder. Following this logic, murder victims are often merely surrogates for the real targets of aggression, mostly abusive parents, oppressive authorities, or even the criminals themselves. This reduces the offenders’ culpability and agency, effectively making them victims of their mixing outside objective reality with perturbed personal subjectivity. [6]

An alternative explanation alludes to the abovementioned pre-territorial mapping of mass or serial killings and their becoming hyperreal entities. Seen in this light, their very nature as a hyperreal iteration of murder en masse detaches the Walker case from the modernistic reality principle. In fact, the crime can no longer be regarded as barely coincidental but rather as an expected simulacral phenomenon, namely “the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal” (Baudrillard, “Simulacra” 166). The resulting normalization of the Clutter murders then also explains the surprisingly scarce media attention during the trial. Like the Garden City Telegram reported, “[j]ust during the few days leading up to the trial at least three mass murder cases broke into the headlines [making it] just one of many such cases people have read about and forgotten” (qtd. in Capote 263). Questions regarding Perry and Hickock’s (or perhaps an unknown copycat killer’s) responsibility for the Walker murders can therefore only be discussed within the structures of modernist reality, namely based either on objective evidence or the belief in fateful coincidence. For the hyperreal reproduction of mass murder, however, their responsibility remains vapid. Here it becomes irrelevant if they (deliberately or unwittingly) outsmarted the polygraph since this instrument—designed to separate fact/truth/reality from fiction/lie/fantasy—can only function properly within the epistemic framework of positivistic objectivity, whose algorithms it utilizes to decrypt the variables of a reality which in turn produces the substrate for the construction of a meaningful existence. For the postmodern subject engaged in violently deconstructing the simulacrum of middle-class identity, however, such variables must by design remain obscure and ultimately meaningless.


“A Design Justly Completed”: Conclusion

Ultimately, in Capote’s book, both law-abiding citizens and killers become cogwheels in a nexus of simulations, effectively alienated from each other by their different access to reality and separated textually by their objective rationale and subjective opaqueness, respectively. As a consequence, by shedding the literary skin of fictionality and arrogating the truth-value of its narrative and characters, the text itself becomes entangled in this simulation. Through its aspiration to unearth a deeper meaning or hidden truth behind the events in Holcombe, the text itself becomes part of this virtualization by working towards the ontogenesis of the cultural signifiers that keep alive the simulacra of ‘Middle American’ identity. The ensuing collapse of meaning then results from a textual excess of semantic signifiers aimed at generating authenticity, while the depiction of violence turns into a blunt instrument to shock readers back into objectivism with the visceral force of blood and necrophobia. In the end, the text refuses to impart the benefactions of the moral-rational design and its inbuilt satisfaction of a meaningful conclusion. The story, the way it is told, and simply because it is told, thus leave another deep scratch in the battered varnish of modernist wholesomeness. Agent Dewey as the narrative’s paragon of stringent objectivity sees his hopes thwarted after he “imagined that with the deaths of Smith and Hickock he would experience a sense of climax, release, of a design justly completed” (Capote 334).

Finally, Capote’s effort to rewrite and re-negotiate the fault-lines between fact and fiction provides valuable insights into the ontological and epistemological extent and limitations of what we all-too-casually call ‘reality’. [7] What warrants such an examination of a text that has been comprehensively studied may simply be the richness of its analytical payoff, which does not exhaust itself in relativism and the mere deconstruction of the objective/subjective binary. Conversely, it underlines the merits of this attempt to re-evaluate this binary, thus making a renewed reading of In Cold Blood worthwhile. The application of Baudrillardian theories proves invaluable to open up these new analytical perspectives by going far beyond reading the novel as a mere look into the criminal mind, critique of the death penalty, or social commentary on conservative American values that clashed with Capote’s own personality as an openly gay Southerner and bon vivant. The present efforts to transcend these conventional interpretations of the novel have revealed a plethora of discursive dynamics and epistemic crossroads, which in their sum put renewed emphasis on the ongoing discursive struggle that surrounds the (de)construction, (re)production, and representation of what for some was and for many still appears self-evident: reality and objectivity as concepts that elude their capture through the social, cultural, economic, and political lenses and thus are still best approximated by literature, art, and theory.



[1] The term objectivity in the context of this paper should not be confused with the philosophical notion of an absolute truth in the form of undiluted representations of reality unaffected by personal bias, feelings, interpretations, or imaginations, which appears impossible or at least utopian. Rather, objectivity here means the desire to approximate such a state as closely as possible, particularly from the perspectives of science, law, or common sense.

[2] In spite of these claims, Capote was criticized for his incorrect portrayal of characters, misrepresentation of sources, and liberal artistic choices. Allegations “vary from allegedly misquoting people to making composite characters” (Jensen). Others found fault with his sympathetic portrayal of Perry Smith, “subdued gay subtexts and overt argument against capital punishment” (Tangedal 261). Moreover, Capote relied on memorization and shunned his tape-recorder, convinced that it “interferes with the communication between author and subject [and] artificializes the atmosphere of an interview” (Plimpton; see Helliker). For a comprehensive investigation of over 5,000 changes made since the book’s publication, see Jack De Bellis’s Visions and Revisions: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, in which the author tracks down discrepancies to the level of syntax and punctuation.

[3] Modernist reality principle here refers to the concept of modern science and philosophy that, as Ken Sanes explains, “the world of appearances is an illusion that both reveals and conceals an underlying reality.” For example, Freud’s psychoanalytical approach to the individual’s “reality principle” can be seen as one of these attempts to reveal a ‘true’ or ‘authentic’ core and describe it objectively by using a certain terminology and method. Postmodernism rejects this notion by stressing the arbitrary nature of reality as an interplay of signifiers from which any number of subjective truths may be derived. Baudrillard goes even further by suggesting that “contemporary society is now all simulation [as] exemplified in such American creations as television and Disney World [which] are representations that no longer represent anything—they are a self-generating realm of images, an endless surface with no underlying reality” (Sanes). The expression “hyperreal entities” refers to conditions and situations in which actors are unable to distinguish between an actual thing and its mere representation or simulation.

[4] As Satten et al. explain in their 1960 essay “Murder Without Apparent Motive,” “The ‘sane’ murderer is thought of as acting upon rational motives that can be understood, though condemned, and the ‘insane’ one, as being driven by irrational senseless motives” (48).

[5] The Clutter case satisfies the common FBI definition for a mass murder “as a number of murders (four or more) occurring during the same incident with no distinctive time period between the murders” (Federal Bureau of Investigation 8).

[6] For instance, Satten et al. explain that “[m]urderous potential can become activated [if] some disequilibrium is already present, when the victim-to-be is unconsciously perceived as a key figure in some past traumatic configuration. The behavior […] of this figure adds a stress to the unstable balance of forces that results in sudden extreme discharge of violence” (52).

[7] As Paul Levine states in his review shortly after the book’s publication, “When, at the end of the book, the tables are turned and the murderers become themselves victims of a cold-blooded execution, we too are led to reexamine the myths we have set up to block out their real humanity” (137).


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Image credit: “Truman Capote, 1959” by New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper staff photographer Roger Higgins, from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, via Wikimedia Commons, is in the public domain.