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Recovery in Pieces: A Study of the Literature of 9/11

Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia. –Zadie Smith, "This is how it feels to me," in The Guardian, October 13, 2001. If you want to read the Greatest Work of 9/11 Literature, the consensus is: keep waiting. It will be a long time before someone writes it. We don’t know what it will look like. It could be the Moby Dick of the Twenty-First Century, or maybe a new Gatsby, but more likely it will be neither. Maybe it won’t be a novel at all. It could be a sweeping history (maybe) of New York at the turn of the Millennium and of America on the precipice of total economic implosion (or not). We will read it on our iPad34 (or maybe by then Amazon will beam narratives directly into our brain for $1.99). One thing that seems certain is that no one has yet written that book. Not DeLillo (too sterile), Safran Foer (too cloying), Hamid (too severe), Messud (too prissy), O’Neill (too realist), Spiegelman (too panicked), Eisenberg (too cryptic) or the 9/11 Commission (too thorough). The idea is that it will take time to determine what — if any — single piece of literature best captures the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. We can name any number of reasons why authors seem to have underwhelmed us during the past decade. Perhaps they suffered from an extended period of crippling fear of the kind Zadie Smith described just weeks after the attacks. Literary production can tend to feel superfluous in the aftermath of large loss of life. Or perhaps it’s our persistent closeness to the events. We’re still only a decade out, despite the sense that we’ve been waiting in airport security lines for an eternity. (By comparison, Heller wrote Catch-22 almost 20 years after Pearl Harbor; War and Peace wasn’t finished until 50 years after France’s invasion of Russia; and I think the jury may still be out on who wrote the definitive work on Vietnam). We can’t blame earnest authors for trying. It just wasn’t long enough ago yet. None of this stops critics from trying to figure out the best 9/11 book so far. We gather books about 9/11 (and some would go as far as to make the hyperbolic-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek claim “they’re all post-9/11 books now”) into a single pile and determine who has best distilled the essence of terrorism’s various traumatic effects on our national psyche and our ordinary life. On one hand, it seems plausible to blame this tic on our collective reduced attention spans and expectations for rapid literary responses to cultural and historical events. Or more simply: we want our book and we want it now. On the other hand, the imperative to produce a 9/11 book became a kind of authorly compulsion — a new way to justify the craft of writing to an audience whose numbers always seem to be inexorably marching toward zero. Amid conversations about “the death of the novel” (and we often fail to remember that these discussions were robust and ominous-sounding back in 2001 too), 9/11 provided a renewed opportunity for books to become culturally relevant. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction — the whole lot. Any literary rendering of the post-9/11 world would be preferable to the unmediated reality of it. Or more simply: writers could come to the rescue of a traumatized public. Or even more simply: why shouldn’t it have been writing that could have soothed us and given us some kind of answers? Whether these considerations will eventually vindicate the authors who tried to translate 9/11 into literature just a few raw years after the fact, we can’t say. My contention is simply that, for now, they shouldn’t be so universally panned for trying. In the meantime, perhaps this decade anniversary isn’t an opportunity to determine who’s written the best book so far, but rather to reconsider accepted notions about what constitutes the Literature of 9/11 in the first place. The books we have written and read since 2001 tell us more about ourselves than about the capacity of literature to encompass the consequences of an event like these terrorist attacks. Rather than rank these books, we should fit them into categories that allow us to consider why we turn to literature in the aftermath of a traumatic event. We can more usefully ask ourselves “Why read?” and think about why this particular historical moment produced such a rapid and rapidly evolving body of literature. Here are some ideas to help get this conversation started. I don’t intend these bullet point-style assertions to be a decisive argument. Rather, I guess I’m just trying to figure out a way to group and regroup the books that have been on our collective radar for the past ten years. 1. To understand the post-9/11 world, we should look to the literature of the last moments before September 11, 2001. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001. Concerned with biotech, the dot-com crash, and the erosion of middle class family life in millennial America, Franzen’s novel captures a vague sense of menace in the days immediately before 9/11. And, though she has become better known for A Visit from the Goon Squad (which mentions the World Trade Center, only briefly) Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me proves that fiction can often seem to predict the world just ahead of us. The events of the novel so uncannily represent the shadow presence of terrorism in the unseen spaces of American everyday life that Egan, who wrote the book entirely before 9/11, included an afterward to the novel in 2002. She writes: “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress last fall, I would have had to receive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.” This last line has always been problematic for me. Were we really that innocent before 9/11? Authors seemed totally capable of exposing the dread underlying the exuberance (rational or otherwise) at the close of the Millennium. I wonder to whether we’ll remember the pre-9/11 years as one of innocence or willful ignorance. 2. There is no single body of 9/11 Literature. As I have mentioned, the tendency in the past decade has been to lump together all works of fiction about 9/11. As the number of works that deal directly and indirectly with the terrorist attacks has ballooned, the moniker “9/11 Literature” has become a dull catchall term used to describe too many types of books. Instead, we can try to make some distinctions to figure out more precisely what different kinds of books have done, and stop trying to judge them all by the same criteria. It can be helpful, for example, to distinguish between 9/11 Literature and Post-9/11 Literature. Whereas Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man pivot around the events of September 11, books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children suggest how the events and their effects can be pushed to the margins. Works of 9/11 Literature obsess about the intricate and far-reaching effects of 9/11 on the lives of characters, whereas Post-9/11 Literature emphasizes how individuals can move beyond the trauma of the attacks and allow ordinary life to resume its flow. 3. The literary response to 9/11 better helps us understand the longer-term psychological effects of terrorism on families, communities, and nations. Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close help us understand how the effects of cultural trauma reach into future generations. They explore how we are all implicated into broader narratives of belonging to national and cultural heritages. Spiegelman had to publish the serial version of his comics in Germany because squeamish newspapers in America believed that his critiques of the Bush Administration would be poorly received at home. Likewise, Safran Foer’s novel was frequently criticized as playing on themes of grief and loss that seemed too fresh. As time passes, these criticisms fall away, and what we’re left with is a more subtle understanding of how — in the immediate aftermath of a cultural trauma — we must try to recover as individuals. 4. The relationship between The 9/11 Commission Report and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation stands as one of the most compelling pairs of books to emerge in the past ten years — and neither one of these is a novel. While I’d argue that no single works stands out as the definitive representation of the terrorist attacks, a reader could do no better to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001 than to devour the 9/11 Commission’s official report. To 9/11 truthers, it probably makes sense that the government would produce an eloquent and sophisticated rendering of the attacks, and the complicated histories of terrorism and American intelligence failures that led to them. But to the rest of us, it comes as a fascinating surprise — one that reveals the government’s investment in the production of a literary artifact of some serious depth and skilled sentence-making. The 9/11 Commission Report defies the expectation that a government document should be stodgy and defensive. Instead, it reveals — often in a tone that breaks its own rigid impartiality and becomes downright moving — the grating human oversights of regulators and the humanity of the terrorists themselves as they bumblingly tried to find a hiding place in America. When read alongside Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the report, the two works become a breathtaking and genre-bending account of 9/11. Together, they are proof that an event like 9/11 can actually produce new artistic forms. The effort to describe and understand — to probe and render aesthetically — gives rise to new ways of thinking about the world. These are not novels, but they certainly rise to the level of literature, no matter how one decides to define it. 5. It’s time to start re-thinking the place of 9/11 in the landscape of American literary production. It has become more apparent that 9/11 is moving to the background of our cultural consciousness. Its influence remains, but its effects have faded when compared to what seem like more pressing economic and political concerns. Books like Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes help us understand what this process of fading looks like. But to return to Franzen and Egan, no two books seem better suited to the moment after the post-9/11 moment than Freedom and A Visit from the Goon Squad. To understand how authors have begun to fill their blank screens with something other than images of the World Trade Center on fire, it’s hard to do better. Franzen tackles the Bush Administration while Egan projects into a future New York, in which the 9/11 memorial has become an old landmark in Lower Manhattan. Literature looks forward at the next moment — toward a space and time during which we will no longer use the term Post-9/11 to describe ourselves, if only because newer and more troubling problems will take its place. * * * I have left out many works and many ideas. Where are Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan? Where are Colum McCann and John Updike? I have left out (in the very last minute) Lorraine Adams, whose book Harbor absolutely changed the way I thought about post-9/11 America when I read it, even though it had little if anything to do with 9/11. All of this is just to say: the conversation should continue, and I think it will only get more interesting throughout the next decade.   Image credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr
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