Recently, Netflix released a new series titled Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story. The series was based on the life of Jeffrey Dahmer, a notorious American serial killer also known as the Milwaukee Cannibal or the Milwaukee Monster. Prior to the discovery of his crimes in 1991, he murdered and dismembered seventeen men and boys between 1978 and 1991. His murders involved some of the grisliest crime scenes and yet, the interest in his story generated so much hype. Despite the protests of the victims’ families, not wanting their trauma to be flaunted all over the world, the interest in Dahmer’s story has been high. Across social media, his good looks, more than his crimes, elicited positive feedback. Several of us have forgotten about the victims, our judgment clouded by something as shallow as looks.
Contemporary history and consumer patterns showed that the interest in such crime stories has always been high. The interest in these stories is directly proportionate to how grotesque, horrific, and graphic the crimes committed are; the more notorious, the more interesting. Several movies, television series, and even documentaries have been made about criminals such as Charles Manson, Bonnie and Clyde, Ted Bundy, and John Wayne Gacy Jr. Despite their death and execution, serial killers and high-profile criminals are prominent figures in popular culture and the interest generated by Dahmer’s story further underlined this popularity. Is it a wonder that Jack the Ripper still occupies our collective memory and imagination?
This cultural obsession with – and worse, glorification of – violence has been exacerbated by the advent of social media. Like in the case of Dahmer, murderers and their actions have been romanticized. They have been idealized for their looks and the highly intelligent and cunning monsters that lurk beyond their facade are overlooked. This growing fascination with murderers has proliferated even literature, such as the case with Danya Kukafka’s latest novel, Notes on an Execution. In her sophomore novel, Kukafka placed the literary microscope under this cultural obsession with serial criminals.
“How insane, ,you think. How deranged. The government paid money for this glorified table and placed it in this room. These twelve people woke up this morning, put on their uniforms and drove to work, just to perform this demented exercise. The citizens of your very own country pay taxes to keep this operation running, to supply the three drugs that will flow through the IV. Your own nieghbors – your mailman, your grocery store clerk, the single mother across the street – pay money to make sure government can kill you in exactly this way.”~ Danya Kukafka, Notes on an Execution
“You are a fingerprint. When you open your eyes on the last day of your life, you see your own thumb. In the jaundiced prison light, the lines on the pad of your thumb look like a dried-out riverbed, like sand washed into twirling patterns by water, once there and now gone.”
Thus commenced Notes on an Execution. The titular execution at the heart of the story pertained to the looming execution of Ansel Packer. We first meet him in prison with the designation of inmate number 999631. When the novel commenced, Packer was a mere 12 hours away from his execution. Packer was put on death row after he has been convicted of the murder of four women. Packer understood his unconscionable actions but he never thought that he would end up on death row. He fervently believed that should the situation warrant it, he will be able to wiggle his way out of the complexities of this dire strait.
As Packer’s remaining time on earth dwindles down, the novel flashed back to the past as Kukafka endeavored to build the events leading up to Packer’s present state. The starting point: the 1970s in upstate New York. Lavender was sixteen when she first met Johnny at the local tavern. After a whirlwind love affair, they later moved to the farmhouse owned by Johnny’s grandfather. Soon after, they had their first son, Ansel. It did not take long before the cracks started to manifest. While Johnny was a handyman, he was also physically abusive: “Lavender did not know if she thrilled with Johnny’s hardness or the fact that she could gentle it.” It was also increasingly apparent that both Johnny and Lavender were not capable of supporting their son. When they had a second son, Lavender reached her tipping point and abandoned her two children. It didn’t take much of a genius to map Packer’s fate; he ended up in foster care. The rest, they say is history.
One’s initial impression of the novel would be that of mystery fiction. However, the opening pages deconstructed this notion. There were, nevertheless, moments of suspense but what ensued was a narrative that captured the vivid portrait of a criminal. Like most similar works dealing with similar themes, the novel captured the psychological landscape of the killer. However, the novel did not reduce itself to a mere telling of Packer and his crimes; Kukafka was wiser than that. Kukafka grew up watching procedurals such as CSI and Law and Order. Exposed to such crime-related shows at a young age, she noted how they are all similar. Not only are they formulaic, but the story also ends once the crimes are solved. This growing consciousness helped form in her the idea to explore the genre beyond what is inherent in the genre.
While the story was anchored on the actions of Packer and their eventual consequences, the story’s real backbone was the stories of his victims. The story also examined the impact of the murders on the families the victims have left behind. In the preoccupation with serial killers and murderers, more often than not, the stories of victims are overshadowed, their voices muted by the level of infamy their killers have reached. Their stories are buried in our collective consciousness, transformed into mere afterthoughts. Their names are memorialized mainly for the brutal manner in which they died; the anger leveled by the family of Dahmer’s victims toward Netflix is justified. Kukafka challenged the conventions of crime storytelling as she was cognizant that there is more to the victims than just the grisly manner by which they have passed away.
“You do not feel the same love that every one else does. Yours is muted, damp, not bursting or breaking. But there is a place for you, in the category of personhood. There has to be. Humanity can discard you, but they cannot deny it. Your heart pounds. Your palms sweat. Your body wants and wants. It seems abundantly clear now, the opportunity you’ve wasted. There is good and there is evil; and the contradiction lives in everyone. The good is simply the stuff worth remembering. The good is the point of it all The slippery things can have always be chasing.”~ Danya Kukafka, Notes on an Execution
The timeline toggles back and forth between the present and the past, with the past capturing the landscape of Packer’s life. This was captured primarily through the lenses of the women who knew Packer throughout his life, both those whose lives he ended and those who managed to survive his crutches. The first one was his mother Lavender. Following her abandonment of her children, Lavender tried to redeem herself by eventually trying to locate her children. Saffron Singh, or Saffy for short, on the other hand, first crossed paths with Packer when they were both younger. They used to be friends until their paths diverged after Packer’s sadistic tendencies started manifesting. Their paths would once again cross as adults when Saffy, now a homicide detective, pursued and eventually apprehended Packer. The third woman was Hazel, the twin sister of Packer’s wife, Jenny.
While capturing the life of Packer, these different strands also captured the interior of the women who crossed paths with Packer. Through their stories, we read about domestic violence and, on subtler levels, the pervasiveness of the patriarchy. The discrimination prevalent in the workplace was highlighted by the novel. Women have to always prove themselves and work twice harder as their male colleagues. They are constantly under the pressure to deliver. Women are also the most vulnerable to the predatory behavior of criminals. Elsewhere, the novel underscored trauma, guilt, delusions of intellectual grandeur, and sporadic impotence
In contrast to the third-person point-of-view used for the flashbacks, the sections counting down to Packer’s execution were related through a second-person point-of-view, a “you”. This was an ingenious switch, an efficient device Kukafka used to reel the reader into the whirlpool of Packer’s life. It did engage the readers but these sections can also be discomfiting. They not only made the readers inhabit the mind of a killer but also coaxed the readers into drawing their own conclusions. Packer made a case for himself without forcing the readers to identify with him. Packer argued that his execution was not rational as the state should be blamed for its failure to prevent his acts. Packer argued his innocence, insisting that the state also failed to protect him from his inevitable fate.
He tried to seek help at the hospital for his affliction but he was turned down. This does not, however, overturn Packer’s unconscionable actions. Rather, this shed a light on how mental health and psychiatry are frowned upon. Psychiatric facilities are in an utter state of disrepair because they are underfunded. Workers, on the other hand, are also underpaid. From this emerged a seminal discourse on nature vs nurture. This discourse comes into play vis-a-vis Packer’s life. Despite his actions, is Packer truly worthy of the reader’s empathy? Walking into the labyrinth of the story, one of the facets of the story that piques the interest is whether Kukafka will paint a sympathetic character or not. Redemption stories, after all, are ubiquitous. But then again, Kukafka knew better than tip the story either way.
“How absurd. A death like this – sterile, regulated, watched from a box – is just death. She has no idea to what extent it serves as punishment. The futility comes barrelling down, a crumbling house. Hazel itches in the rubble. The utter pointlessness. The pure waste.”~ Danya Kukafka, Notes on an Execution
An integral element of the story revolved around the discourse surrounding the death penalty and the flaws of the criminal justice system. Is the death penalty really necessary for preventing or lowering criminality? Is it effective? Data across the world showed that the imposition of the death penalty does little to deter the escalation of violence and criminality. Such executions are publicized but such demonstrations are merely ceremonial, spectacles to project force, and to massage some egos. It may help the state save some money and some space but it does not benefit society at large, especially with a justice system that is flawed.
In her sophomore novel, Danya Kukafka has shown the vast promise that her brand of storytelling holds. Notes on an Execution grappled with dark subjects such as death, criminality, violence, and capital punishment, balanced with discourses on morality. Amidst this sea of darkness, bright spots shine. Justice can still be obtained. Redemption can still be achieved. In capturing what makes a criminal tick through the story of Ansel Packer, she was able to deliver an engaging and absorbing story. Her nuanced and lyrical writing wove all of the novel’s fine elements together. In Notes on an Execution, she pushed the boundaries of what crime fiction writing is capable of, giving voices not only to the notorious minds but also those that were effectively muted by their notoriety and those that society has forgotten except when visuals are required.
“It is almost time. A thousand miles away, justice is being served – but justice is supposed to feel like more. Justice is supposed to be an anchor, an answer. She wonders how a concept like justice made it into the human psyche, how she ever believed that something so abstract could be labeled, meted out. Justice does not feel like compensation. It does not even feel like satisfaction. As Saffy takes a long breath of alpine air, she pictures the needle, pressing into Ansel’s arm. The blue pop of vein. How unnecessary she thinks. How pointless. The system failed the man.””~ Danya Kukafka, Notes on an Execution
Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 12%
As part of my annual reading goalsetting, I came up with a list of 2022 releases I am highly anticipating. As has been the case in previous years, my 2022 list features writers whose works I have not read before. One of these writers was Danya Kukafka. Her second novel, Notes on an Execution immediately grabbed my attention. It didn’t take a lot of convincing for me to add the book to my own most anticipated 2022 book releases. Thankfully, I was able to obtain a copy of the book without much of a fuss. I then made the book part of my April 2022 International Women’s Month reading journey. Sure enough, the story commenced 12 hours before the titular execution of Ansel Parker. Who is Ansel and what has he done to be meted with such heavy consequences? The story then shifts to his past, from his childhood until the perpetration of his crimes. It was never one of mystery as I expected. Nevertheless, I was engaged as Kukafka slowly painted the psychological profile of Ansel. More importantly, it explored our growing fascination with serial killers. Overall, Notes on an Execution was an ambitious undertaking that makes me look forward to what Kukafka has in store.
Author: Danya Kukafka
Publisher: William Morrow
Publishing Date: 2022
Number of Pages: 304
Ansel Packer is scheduled to die in twelve hours. He knows what he’s done and now awaits execution, the same chillin’ fate he forced on those girls, years ago. But Ansel doesn’t want to die; he wants to be celebrated, understood.
Through a kaleidoscope of women – a mother, a sister, a homicide detective – we learn the story of Ansel’s life. We meet his mother, Lavender, a seventeen-year-old girl pushed to desperation; Hazel, twin sister to Ansel’s wife, inseparable since birth, forced to watch helplessly as her sister’s relationship threatens to devour them all; and finally, Saffy, the detective hot on his trail, who has devoted herself to bringing bad men to justice but struggles to see her own life clearly. As the clock ticks down, these three women sift through the choices that culminate in tragedy, exploring the rippling fissures that such destruction inevitably leaves in its wake.
Blending breathtaking suspense with astonishing empathy, Notes on an Execution presents a chilling portrait of womanhood as it simultaneously unravels the familiar narrative of the American serial killer, interrogating our system of justice and our cultural obsession with crime stories, asking readers to consider the false promise of looking for meaning in the psyches of violent men.
About the Author
Danya Kukafka grew up in Colorado. She eventually moved to New York City for her studies. It was in New York that her love for reading and writing flourished. She studied at New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study where she created a major titled The Art of the Novel. This would mark the start of her adventures in the world of publishing. She interned at various literary agencies before working at Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House. At Riverhead, she worked as an assistant editor for writers like Meg Wolitzer, Paula Hawkins, Lauren Groff, Brit Bennett, Emma Straub, Gabriel Tallent, Helen Oyeyemi, Maile Meloy, Sigrid Nunez, among others.
In 2017, Kukafka published her debut novel, Girl in Snow. She started working on the novel while studying at NYU. It was a national bestseller and was also warmly received by literary pundits, and was an IndieNext Pick, and a B&N Discover pick. Her latest novel, Notes on an Execution was published in 2022.
Kukafka is currently working as a literary agent.