How Do Writers Make Sense of An Event Like 9/11?

Catherine Morley on editing a new collection of essays that explores the legacy of September 11 on modern and contemporary literature
Catherine Morley (ed.), 9/11 (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Catherine Morley (ed.), 9/11 (Bloomsbury, 2016)

We begin our conversation having marked the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks. What led you to put together this new essay collection?

I have been interested in way in which we have come to narrativise and conceptualise the September 11th terrorist attacks for some time now. They occurred shortly after I moved to the UK to start my doctoral studies. I remember, very vividly, standing before the window of a shop selling televisions and the image of the plane hitting the second tower. It seemed unreal, and indeed at the time many commentators noted that it seemed a moment designed for mass televisual consumption. I thought then that my watching this terrible image unfold across multiple screens seemed like something from a Don DeLillo novel. I remember writing a short diary piece about it at the time, how it reminded me of the Airborne Toxic Event in DeLillo’s White Noise. Since then, I have always been keen to see how novelists, dramatist and poets might approach representing something that seemed to defy representation by its vast scale. So, when offered the opportunity by Bloomsbury to put this volume together I jumped at the chance.

“I remember, very vividly, standing before the window of a shop selling televisions and the image of the plane hitting the second tower. It seemed unreal…”

Why do you think 9/11 continues to exert such a powerful influence over writers and artists?

One of the things I found really interesting about 9/11 was the way that writers responded and the fact that we were so interested in how writers would make sense of the attacks for us. Some had produced responses for the newspapers within just hours of the attacks and within these responses, writers themselves invoked the work of other writers. For instance, Ian McEwan observed: ‘These were the kind of events that Hollywood has been imagining these past decades in the worst of its movies …. But American reality always outstrips the imagination. And even the best minds, the best or darkest dreamers of disaster on a gigantic scale, from Tolstoy and Wells  to Don DeLillo, could not have delivered us into the nightmare available on television news channels yesterday afternoon’. Indeed, as early as 30 September, the critic John Dugdale pointed that far from falling silent, writers had been remarkably quick to turn their shock into words. ‘Among the literary authors who have written about the World Trade Center bombing so far,’ he noted wryly, ‘are Martin Amis, Peter Carey, Amitav Ghosh, David Grossman, Ian McEwan, Jay McInerney, Susan Sontag, John Updike and Jeanette Winterson’. Some writers noted that the attacks had stripped their powers of imagination, noting that the terrorists had seized the public imagination with their audaciousness. Again, this very notion of the writer tussling with the terrorist was pre-empted by DeLillo in his novel Mao II.

To come back to your question, I guess I might say, that what interests writers about 9/11 is the subject of power and the spectacle and I believe that they continue to be interested in ways of recreating a spectacular event, and the wide-ranging effects of this event, through words.

Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

In what ways do you think art and literature can offer productive ways to express or bear witness to traumatic historical events?

That’s an interesting question. Certainly many academic writers have examined this topic and trauma theory has become very popular as an interrogative and exploratory tool in literary studies since the attacks. I guess many texts examine the traumatised consciousness, and many experiment formally with the shape of the novel in order to demonstrate the ways in which this traumatised consciousness operates. I’m thinking of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or DeLillo’s Falling Man, which play with the form of the novel in order to demonstrate the textures of the traumatised subject. I believe that the great power of literature is its ability to invoke empathy, or sensibility, and if a text like Foer’s or DeLillo’s or even John Updike’s Terrorist can do that then it can help us to understand our fellow human beings just a little better.

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Saul Bellow. Photograph: Janis Bellow

Do you think that 9/11 marks a decisive break in the American literary canon?

Even though writers initially treated 9/11 as a moment of extraordinary rupture, after which nothing would ever be the same again, it was actually much less exceptional than we often think. ‘After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12, 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation,’ wrote Martin Amis a few months later. But as we now know, none of them followed through: instead, many of them turned to the terrorist attacks for inspiration. Only a week later, meanwhile, James Wood published a blisteringly powerful rejoinder to Jay McInerney’s suggestion that, after September 2001, New York fiction would never be the same again. In fact, as Wood pointed out, the great fictions of the city – the likes of Stephen Crane’s Maggie (1893), Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie (1900), Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) and Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956) – had already explored precisely those themes that would obsess writers in the early twenty-first century. ‘As soon as one recalls these novels,’ Wood explained, ‘it becomes difficult to imagine the precise ways in which they would have been different had they had to accommodate a mutilation of the kind visited upon the city on September 11. And that is partly because they are already dark books, in which the city looms jaggedly. It is only the McInerneys, for whom Manhattan is a tinkle of restaurants, who are suddenly surrounded by the broken glass of their foolish optimism. The pessimist is already ruined, and knows it’.

Time, of course, has proved Wood right: far from dragging American fiction onto an entirely new path, 9/11 often reinforced trends that were already underway. Indeed, it is worth remembering that the novel has always dealt with moments of violence, rupture and trauma, from the chaos of the battle of Waterloo in Stendahl’s La Chartreuse de Parme (1839) to the shock of the Franco-Prussian War in Emile Zola’s La Débâcle (1892). Even the figure of the terrorist has a long pedigree in literary fiction, being most famously represented by the anarchists in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). And American fiction is little different: indeed, given the republic’s bloody and contested history, it is hardly surprising that so many memorable American works, from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1929) to Tim O’ Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978) to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (1985), engage with precisely the same themes of violence, faith, trauma, loss and absence that have dominated so much post-9/11 literature. So perhaps it is only a slight exaggeration to suggest that these are the themes, not merely of post-9/11 fiction but of all fiction, from the classical epic to the post-modern pastiche.

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Philip Roth

Could you say a little bit about the contributors to the volume, and the issues they explore?

Debra Shostak reads Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) through Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America (2004), showing how both writers explore the nature of historical trauma by using the innocent perspectives of child narrators, their responses ‘uncensored by familiarity with suffering or the mature practices of self-suppression’. Aaron DeRosa focuses closely on Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007), which is concerned less with historical antecedents than with the collapse of the World Trade Center’s towers themselves. What DeLillo’s book presents, he argues, is 9/11 as ‘neither an end nor a beginning, but a static moment held in perpetuity’, in which time itself is suspended. David Brauner focuses on the comics published in the wake of 9/11, from anthologies such as 9/11 Emergency Relief (2002) to Art Spiegelman’s bestselling In the Shadow of No Towers (2004). Among other things, he examines graphic novelists’ treatment of the World Trade Center’s twin towers, which have dominated theoretical discussions by thinkers such as Jean Baudrillard. Aimee Pozorksi’s essay, examines the lineage of the figure of the tower in poetry in English, both before and after the events of September 2001. Pozorski suggests that it works to ‘define and exemplify a poetics of the future’, which she traces back to Sigmund Freud’s ideas about trauma, as well as to images of the tower by writers as diverse as Boethius, Milton and Yeats.

John Updike at his writing desk
John Updike at his writing desk

Mark Eaton’s essay opens by discussing John Updike’s poem ‘Icarus’, which imagines an encounter with a suspected terrorist on an aeroplane, but which was actually published before the attacks of September 11. As Eaton shows, Updike’s controversial novel Terrorist built on his longstanding interest in terrorism and, in particular, Islam: as early as 1989, in fact, Updike had written of his fascination with Islam and his horror at the cult of the suicide bomber. By contrast, Sien Uytterschout and Kristiaan Versluys devote their chapter to two novels with a more introspective, domestic approach: Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall (2005) and Paul Auster’s Man in the Dark (2008), whose protagonists tell themselves stories as a way of warding off the pain of the past. These are novels, they argue, about the ‘interconnection of public language and personal grief’, intertwining narratives grand and little, and showing that so-called ‘domestication’ is probably necessary to help individuals come to terms with such a profound national trauma.

Philippe Petit crosses a tightrope suspended between New York's City's Twin Towers, 1974
Philippe Petit crosses a tightrope suspended between New York’s City’s Twin Towers, 1974

As Hamilton Carroll observes in his essay on Let the Great World Spin (2009), Colum McCann’s achievement is to have written a book that never mentions the attacks of September 11 at all, but yet is clearly ‘a novel of September 11’, with his account of Philippe Petit’s tightrope walk between the towers of new World Trade Center raising unsettling questions about ‘art and death, spectacle and war, humanity and memory’. Paul Jenner, meanwhile, approaches Jonathan Franzen’s bestselling book Freedom (2010) with a similarly sharp eye for nuance. As Jenner shows, Franzen’s novel, like so many post-9/11 fictions, wrestles with the problem of resolving the personal and the political. And finally, the book concludes with my own chapter on Amy Waldman’s novel The Submission (2011), which invents a scenario in which a Muslim architect is selected to design a memorial garden to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks, provoking a firestorm of protest and controversy. As I hope I show, Waldman’s book is a work of greatly complex plotting, with its structure mirroring the architect’s design in the novel. But it also feels like an appropriate note on which to end since it concludes with a section set some twenty years in the future, in which a grown-up son mourns his lost father, a victim of the 9/11 atrocity.

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Writer Siri Hustvedt at her home in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY

For newcomers to this growing critical field, can you recommend any places to start?

I think a great place to start is with the work and ideas of artists and writers themselves. I’d recommend Ulrich Baer’s edited book 110 Stories, and especially Siri Hustvedt’s contribution. To me it encapsulates in just a couple of pages all that writers have grappled with since 9/11, that is the impact of such enormous, traumatising events upon language and words.

What’s next for you?

I am working on a new book on the American writer Willa Cather and the ways in which she uses some of the techniques of painting in her fiction. Last year I published a short piece on this in Modernist Cultures. It looked at how she engaged with the work of Dutch Golden Age painters in her short stories. She often described has her work as like one of these Dutch paintings, with a large domestic scene at the forefront and a small window out on to a wider world in the background. My article examined how she actualised this analogy. And my new book, I hope, will look at her engagements with the work and technique of a range of artists from Puvis de Chavannes to Jean-François Millet.

About the Editor

Catherine Morley is Associate Professor in American Literature at the University of Leicester, UK. Her previous publications include The Quest For Epic in Contemporary American Fiction (Routledge, 2009) and Modern American Literature (Edinburgh University Press, 2012).

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  1. “But American reality always outstrips the imagination.”

    Well, no; not quite…

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