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Fiction (Book Extract)
Max Leathe


2016. Cincinnati, aka the “Nasty Nati.”

Two UC students named Marcus and TJ seem like fairly average undergraduate slackers.

One is a prolific seller of marijuana, with clients including an all-star basketball player. The other practices the delicate art of chasing tail.

However, once they are behind a screen, Marcus and TJ are prolific far-right trolls. The duo’s social media victims seethe and cope, but no one can stop Marcus and TJ from being unfathomably based.

As the presidential election nears, the duo increase their activism, including posting spicy fliers and starring in one particularly infamous viral video.

Life for both starts to destabilize when Marcus decides to facedoxx during a troll session. One of their online antagonists turns out to be Sophia Cone, a Xavier student, party girl with loose morals, and a rabid Antifa activist who pens smear articles for the Huffington Post. Cone also happens to have a crush on Marcus, and when she recognizes his picture online, she decides to make him her next project. What follows is social terrorism, from physical violence to cuckoldry, all in the name of empathy and a major book deal.

Meme is a darkly comical and deeply uncomfortable exploration of social media politics, racial identity, and America’s low-level civil war. Max Lethe’s debut novel is about memes (the ones we imbibe, believe, and recycle), but it is also about what happens when the cyberspace world consumes the one of flesh and blood.


Before we go any further, you have to accept you’re suffering from brain damage.

Some form of it at least—probably multiple forms.

Right now, there’s every chance in the world subatomic tachyzoites have infested the brains of you and/or your loved ones, all completely unbeknownst to those involved. Save for the parasites, of course, but they too are operating on biological determinants—ancient, coded language that nobody seems to understand anymore, but that’s spoken all the same. There’s a strong probability that tiny protozoa have nested themselves deep down in the grey matter of your brain. They enter through your nasal passages when you breathe, through your mouth when you eat, and then pass through the frontal lobes, past the basil ganglia, boring straight through until they reach both hemispheres of your amygdala. Tiny cysts have already formed and are negatively impacting your brain’s functioning.

Nine out of ten doctors counter-signal people who say they’re experiencing symptoms.

Nobody wants to hear about the lateralization of emotion and tend and befriend conflict resolution strategies, especially your average general practitioner.

They’ll tell you to go home, that you’re fine, even if you force the issue and make them administer the blood test. The results can come back showing high measurements of the IiG antibody, but you’ll still be summarily patted on the head and told to take a spoonful of sugar. Half the world’s population has toxoplasmosis.

Can’t be that bad, right?

That day, taking the “reconciliatory walk,” the day I met Sophia Cone, it typified the type of brain damage I’m talking about. Everybody here was looking for some way to cope.

“Who’s a bad girl? This one’s a bad girl. You can tell by that fiendish look in her oye. Absolute beast this one is.” The paper cord brushed against her cheek. I slowly pulled the whip back, letting each little fiber of pulp caress the side of her face and neck, and, briefly, she moaned.

“Only one thing to be done with a vixen such as yourself. Just wait till we get you to base camp. Foind a tent, get you proivate and teach you some manners. We’ll have you speaking the Queen’s tongue before the night’s through we will.”

The accent I affected was sloppy, but still, the bit provoked giggles.

Giggles that eventually drew the hot, laser-like stare of McGibs. It may have been unseasonably warm that last day of February, but it wasn’t by any means hot. Not nearly warm enough to explain the lakes of sweat that had pooled up under his arms and the folds of his man-boobs. You’d think the guy would wear darker colors, but no.

“Serious acts of contrition you two, okay? Save the flirting for your own time, Marcus.”

As we crossed River Road to get down to the banks of the Ohio, two of Cincinnati’s finest were there to block traffic for us. A layer removed, behind the safety of their windshields, many of the motorists laughed at the absurdity of our procession. Horns honked and heckles were hurled, all of which only reinforced the perceived notion of moral superiority the performance artists felt. We were the ones who were enlightened. We were the noble victims, the brave and resolute.

Those rednecks in the white work van, their time had passed.

Down on the banks we stomped along the viscous sand and there was a chill on the wind, but it was warm under the sun. Our final destination was a fake auction site that had been erected. Fake slave ship, too, but it was a pretty decent replica of a 16th century Spanish galleon to be honest. Chattel gently fell to the ground, guided forward by the slave masters, each one ending up with their foreheads pressed down against the soft muck.

“Come on people.” McGibbons shouted through his bullhorn. “Keep it moving. I need masters sectioned off by at least one coffle stock length. Drummers, dancers, singers, kill all the noise.” He waited for the clamor to die down, until he knew he had everybody’s undivided attention. “The reconciliation walk is now over. The atonement and reprisal section of the outing is complete, and now it’s time to repent. It’s time for those of us who’ve benefited from our white privilege to formally apologize for the transgressions of our ancestors and seek the forgiveness of our oppressed classmates.”

The weather-beaten elders flanked the podium occupying center stage. McGibs handed off his bullhorn to one as he took to the lectern. “Good afternoon everybody. Thank you for coming out and participating in this great moment of healing.” The officiousness, the self-righteousness, the air of contempt with which he held himself over the crowd as he opened his prayer book to today’s prepared sermon.

It was so fucking cringe.

“What we’ve accomplished so far today is simply amazing and goes great lengths toward mending the wounds members of the African diaspora have suffered—and continue to suffer—at the hands of Western, imperialist overreach. What we are—we, the educated and enlightened—we are the proverbial canary in the coal mine, and it is us who are choking on the poisonous gasses of carbon monoxide, also known as hatred and intolerance. We remember Trayvon. We remember Michael Brown. We remember Tamir Rice and Eric Garner and all of the nameless, faceless African-Americans who’ve died and who die every day under the brutally racist conditions of an unapologetically racist society. Unapologetic, save for us, and the good people who do God’s work here at Breaking Chains. These places, these moments, they’re necessary, to remind us. Remind us of what we once were, what we could still become. Remind us what’s brought us together in this place, so that with the benefit of an enlightened perspective, we can take the correct measures toward healing the wounds of the past and moving forward from a starting point of true social equity.”

McGibs paused, giving masters time to clap, a cue we dutifully took.

“I don’t delude myself into thinking we’re going to fix everything that’s wrong with this country today. After all, men like Donald Trump can still run for president.”

Spiritless laughter swirled about the beach.

“But outings like this are a positive step forward, and I hope everybody takes this as seriously as I do and makes the most out of this opportunity as they possibly can.”

More mechanical clapping followed McGibs walking off the stage.

One of our shrunken sages took to the rostrum next as the fin-flapping died down.

She tapped the microphone three times to make sure it was still on, causing muffled thunder and static to sound through the speaker system. “Thank you, Professor McGibbons, for leading our group today,” she said in a thick Francophone-African accent, “and for your continued support of the Breaking Chains project. Your commitment to this event is so heartening for us as a group, and we greatly appreciate your continued support of our mission.”

The wilted maga coughed, cleared her throat, gathered herself.

“The Ohio River served as a magical bridge for African-Americans during the period of U.S. slavery. One side of the banks offered freedom, opportunity, while the other offered bondage and cruelty. Cincinnati became a city where many African-Americans sought refuge during that period of time. It served as a symbol of freedom during the Abolition Movement, and we’re proud of the work we do with the city today to make sure we never forget the horrors of our shared past…”

The maga’s speech faded into a vision of Sophia on her knees, face down. All that remained was the yoga-pants-accentuated poetry of her form—the inward curvature of her lower back, the downward slope toward where her chest and shoulders broadened.

“Many of our organization’s critics say to us ‘what’s the point? Why go through all of this trouble to painstakingly reenact what it was like for slaves to be led to auction and then chained inside the transport ships? Doesn’t this just perpetuate a victim mentality? Doesn’t this create unnecessary resentment toward whites?’ And these are fair questions to raise. What our research has shown, though, whether it be from the feedback we receive here locally, or the reception the project has received in other parts of the world, is that by reenacting this horror,” the maga stopped, looked down, held back emotion, “that by reenacting this horror, and by reversing the roles in so doing, we create a unique opportunity for both sides to heal from the trauma. Whites can know what it was like to be taken against their will, sold as animals, removed from their families and communities to foreign soil by foreign peoples…”

The feeling of eyeballs staring me down wrenched me back to unwelcomed lucidity. That feel when being watched intensified, until eventually I looked up, pinpointed the sniper placing me in his site.

Professor McGibbons stared from across the rows of kneeling slaves.

“…African-Americans can know the guilt and shame the white man carries to this day, for he is the one who so cruelly wrought the whip, who built the ships, and who so callously thought the best way to supply labor to his industry was to kidnap and enslave human beings who lived the expanse of an ocean away.”

McGibs knew what I was scoping—i.e. Sophia’s physique—but he didn’t say anything about it. His gaze went from my eyes, to Sophia, back to my eyes, before returning his attention to the podium.

Then his cheeks went red and his gaze hardened.

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