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How Can the Murder of Six Innocent People Be Explained?

Jo Ann Beard is the former Managing Editor of a space–physics monthly at the University of Iowa. Her work has appeared in literary journals, magazines, and anthologies. Beard has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts and is the author of several books. Surprisingly, “The Fourth State of Matterwas very controversial in the literary community.  First published in the June 24 & July 1, 1996 Special Fiction issue of The New Yorker, Bill Buford, the fiction editor, classified “The Fourth State of Matter” as personal history[1] and defended his decision on the basis of its artistry. While Gary Kamiya of Salon claimed that making an event like a university shooting part of someone’s personal narrative caused it to be “shrunk down”.[2] Nevertheless, “The Fourth State of Matter won the Whiting Award in 1997 for non-fiction.[3]

Beard wrote “The Fourth State of Matter”, as a witness account of a mass shooting by a disillusioned physics graduate student who killed six professors and administrators, on November 1, 1991.[4]  In this essay, written five years after the shooting, the author memorializes her friends and colleagues, and struggles to comprehend why they were murdered. Beard reveals the personal story of her friends and colleagues, who are forgotten in history and only mentioned in Wikipedia, under University of Iowa Shooting, with a single photo of the murderer, a three-paragraph story of the killings, and one sentence listing the victims’ names.[5]  In “The Fourth State of Matter” Beard successfully uses foreshadowing, appropriate tonal shifts, and touches of humor as she attempts to memorialize her dead colleagues and make some sense of their senseless murders. However, her braided essay’s deeply layered format and jarring transitions tend to bury several intended nuances, often leaving readers feeling lost at times.

Using strands of detailed interwoven stories, Beard expertly weaves in her quirky, emotionally exhausted voice. She describes accounts of her inability to deal with her dying collie by prolonging its inevitable death, and not wanting to make a decision about “the husband” whose possessions are all packed up in the upstairs bedroom, while he insists on still in calling her three or four times a day. Beard is also dealing with family of noisy squirrels that have taken over the upstairs bedroom. She enjoys communicating with her colleagues by drawing on blackboards in their offices and sharing her learned knowledge of stars and planets.  Balanced underneath these detailed strands is the main story of the carefully planned senseless murders. The author gradually prepares us for this emotional trauma by letting the reader into her life. We, too, are left trying to comprehend why these people had to die?

Beard’s essay begins by finding herself awakened at 3:40AM by her dying collie. She takes the dog outside to look up at the planets and stars. Using her knowledge that she “learned at work, from the group of men who surround me there” (Beard). Foreshadowing the main story, Beard adds, “Guys whose own lives are ticking like alarm clocks getting ready to go off, although none of us are aware of it yet.” (Beard) The author knows the victims and was present on November 1, 1991 in the offices of University of Iowa. The author seems to be emotionally and mentally exhausted and is avoiding making any major life decisions regarding her dying dog and her relationship with “the husband.” Both need to end. However, Beard is proactive about the noisy squirrels nesting in her upstairs bedroom.

The author’s job, as an editor, is translating scientific papers into something that a layperson could understand. The essay’s title, “Fourth State of Matter, refers to the dust in the plasma of Saturn’s rings. “You’ve got your solid, your liquid, your gas, and then your plasma, the fourth state of matter…therefore plasma is blood.”(Beard) The author understands that she needs the affection of her dogs, and knows it is wrong to keep her dying collie alive with “the face of love,”(Beard) even though it cannot stand or urinate on its own. She has yet to finalize or deal with the separation of her husband of 13 years. She does hire someone to remove the family of squirrels, but she misses them once they are gone.

 Beard details Gang Lu’s preparation for the murders of his colleagues by describing his shooting practices and contents of his suicide letter to his sister.  The grim, clear details of the shooting and the results are carefully documented, Beard carefully balances her trauma and immense loss with these subplots. She shifts to a factual and direct reporting tone, unlike the rest of the piece, when she describes one of the murders, “The administrator, Anne Cleary, is summoned from her office by the receptionist. She speaks to him for a few minutes, he produces the gun and shoots her in the face.” (Beard)

Later, after being consoled by many friends and “the husband”, Beard is left alone with her three dogs while she tries to understand what has happened. Looking up at the planets and stars, the author finds some peace. “We’re in the plasmapause, a place of equilibrium, where the forces of the earth meet the forces of the sun. I imagine it as a place of stillness, where the particles of dust stop spinning and hang motionless in deep space.”. (Beard)  

This is writing is at its finest. The more one reads this essay, the deeper the nuances become. The author is very vulnerable and honest with herself, and has a wry, foreshadowing sense of humor. “I’m leaving and I’m never coming back,”(Beard) she tells her dying collie after awaking up every three hours to assist as the dog tries to urinate. This somehow eases to balance the horrors of the massacre. Additionally, she prepares us for the murders when she passes Gang Lu, the killer, in the hallway, noting “the double doors leading to the rest of my life.” (Beard)

Originally, I thought the story of the squirrels was unnecessary. We find that she misses the activity of the busy squirrels, much like her co-workers going in and out of the office. However, dealing with the squirrels is the real start of the author beginning to resolve issues in her life. The only shortcoming, I could find, was not knowing how many times I would have to read this piece to understand all the nuances, meanings, depth, and symbolism.  

Jo Ann Beard personalizes and remembers her friends and co-workers by including their individual photographs in this essay, taking up a half page in The New Yorker. She humanizes them by discussing their relationships; “Bob is his best friend. They spend at least half of each day standing in front of blackboards, writing equations and arguing about outer space.”(Beard); work, “He travels all over the world telling people about the magnetospheres of various planets”(Beard); styles, “He’s hip in a professorial, cardigan/jeans kind of way.”(Beard) and eccentricities; “A stocky, short-tempered man, he’s smoking a horrendously smelly pipe.”(Beard).  Jo Ann Beard tells the story as a survivor, trying to make sense of the mass carnage. She is very successful at using foreshadowing, tonal shifts, and touches of humor as she loving memorializes her dead colleagues. Beard tries to make some sense of their senseless murders, as memories of friends that are crystalized in amber and have become jewels in deep space. She remembers her deceased friends, who taught her about the planets and stars, and how to listen carefully to the sounds of the universe.


[1] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1996/06/24

[2] https://bloom-site.com/2014/04/28/jo-ann-beard-all-there-is-to-do-is-write/

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whiting_Awards

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Iowa_shooting

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_Iowa_shooting

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