Given all the remarkable occurrences of the last five years, it may seem trivial to dwell on the emergence of fiction about September 11. Why not dwell instead on reality, which is so much more outlandish, tragic, and compelling these days, and whose catastrophes seem to have accelerated recently, so that ordinary life has begun to seem like a thing that is lived between bombings, wars, hurricanes, tsunamis, and other disasters? Fiction, admittedly, cannot bask long in politics (it dries out, it withers), and our era is intensely, blindingly, inescapably, and at times all-embracingly political. A novel cannot convey with any resonance the contemporary irony of an open racist like Patrick Buchanan finding a soapbox at antiwar.com, or, conversely, explain how good liberal intellectuals, through opening some sort of Pandora’s Box of nationalistic pseudo-patriotism, came to wring their hands over whether sleep deprivation is torture. Anyone who’s read The Gulag Archipelago or who is familiar with ‘sleep deprivation psychosis’ knows that answer is not complicated or morally ambiguous.
This stuff, you couldn’t make up. And, although the “September 11 truth movement” (which dominates the first page in a “9/11 truth” Google search) is, strictly speaking, a collective work of epic fiction, fiction writers could not have invented it or predicted its strange hypnotic power over people who should be able to recognize when an idea with the intellectual credibility of the Heaven’s Gate cult is presented by charlatans – and on progressive radio stations, no less. A punk band from the eighties called The Dead Milkmen put it best, and their maxim still applies: It’s a fucked up world.
Almost more than September 11 fiction itself, I am fascinated by the hostile reaction it often gets. There is a ritualistic aspect to the trashing of September 11 fiction, as if it were a ceremonial humiliation that our great minds have to be put through for attempting the impossible, a sort of midlife career change or imaginative retooling for writers suddenly made to feel that their worldview is obsolescent. Admittedly, some of the stuff published so far on the subject has not been very good. But there is another dimension to the case, which is that the wry people at cocktail parties tell us that none of it can be any good, which may be a sign that these writers are on to something. (These same wry people tell us that web logs are worthless enterprises.)
Why does a thoughtful critic like James Wood see the text of John Updike’s Terrorist through a blood-red gauze of derision and fury? Is it really the worst thing Updike ever wrote? Why did the New York Press take extraordinary measures to assassinate the character of Jonathan Safran Foer for writing the seemingly heartfelt Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? And what about Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, and Salman Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown, probably the most laughed-at novel from a major literary figure published in recent memory? Why is it that the usually melty ambiguous anodyne reviewer, normally prone to disguising his or her actual opinions of books in bland, sales-wrecking polite prose, discovers a voice of Hearstean bombastic rage when September 11th, terrorism, or the current political climate is the subject of a new novel? Is it because these books are unusually bad (some of them are)? Or is something else going on? And why has film – in the form of United 93 and Paradise Now – done better so far?
Part of the problem is the subject matter itself. Despite the recent and intriguing effort of Martin Amis, a stylish and witty writer with formidable intellectual powers, I still do not believe that Muhammad Atta can be rendered into interesting material for fiction. The simple reason is that Atta was not an interesting man; he was a man who once recoiled from the talking animals of the Disney film The Jungle Book with the commentary, “Chaos, chaos.” There is a basic confusion here about the nature of the events of September 11, which in themselves were unspeakably horrific and of monumental historical importance, with no fictionalization needed to make them more unspeakable, horrific, or important.
Those novels that take other current events as their starting point, like the day of global antiwar protests depicted by McEwan, or the hypothetical plot to cashier Bush relished in detail by Baker’s characters, have an even more difficult hill to climb in literary history because their real-life resonances are so time-bound. But this is the risk of all topical fiction – but Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls were once pretty topical, too.
A short note about what I think is the best attempt so far to scale this Everest of grief by an American writer, Deborah Eisenberg’s extraordinary short story collection Twilight of the Superheroes, which came out from FSG earlier this year. The title story is the only piece of fiction I have ever read about September 11 that gives me a sharp shock of recognition in the guts, the heart, and the brain. It is one of those works in which the author has written down what everyone is secretly thinking.
She got certain things that no one had gotten, or got them down, anyway – although her story is marred at points by over-dwelling in vaguely acceptable liberal explanations of the “root causes” of terrorism that, personally, have always struck me as nonsense. She wisely does not set her story inside the Towers, instead taking various tangent lines through time, moving the film quickly backward and forward so that the narrative never dwells for long on the event itself, the singularity, the black hole of meaning in Lower Manhattan. Instead, she depicts a group of listless young people who’ve subletted a luxury apartment overlooking the World Trade Center, and takes you into their lives before, during, and after the attacks. Good fiction shows time passing, human change, in ways that other art cannot.
Consider just one remarkable passage, one of many in the story:
One kept waiting – as if a morning would arrive from before that day to take them all along a different track. One kept waiting for that shattering day to unhappen, so that the real – the intended – future, the one that had been implied by the past, could unfold. Hour after hour, month after month after month, waiting for that day to not have happened. But it had happened. And now it was always going to have happened.
That is the world we inhabit, described with an simple, elegant, fearless, and heartbreaking clarity. Fiction still has new things to tell us, things our Secretary of Defense and national philosopher Donald Rumsfeld would call ‘unknown unknowns’: things we don’t know we don’t know. I would like to imagine that in twenty years Rumsfeld will cut a rather ignominious figure. It is politically although not logically impossible that he could go to jail under U.S. law for grave violations of the Geneva Conventions barring the torture of prisoners; perhaps it is more likely that he will end his days like Kissinger, with foreign travel a sometimes delicate matter. At any rate, I hope he will be a man diminished, and not enlarged, by history. I also hope Deborah Eisenberg will be even better known than she is now, especially to sympathetic readers who want to understand what happened to us along the way from September 11 to whatever future future we haven’t yet figured out how to keep from happening or, ultimately, having happened.