Windows on the World, by Frederic Beigbeder, Fourth Estate, 320 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0007184699 Falling Man, by Don DeLillo, Picador, 256 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0330452236
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, by Ken Kalfus, Pocket Books, 256 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-1416522850
The Good Life, by Jay McInerney, Bloomsbury, 368 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-0747585817
The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud, Picador, 448 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-0330444484
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathon Safron Foer, Penguin, 368 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 978-0141012698
The Writing on the Wall, by Lynn Sharon Schwarz
Terrorist, by John Updike, Penguin, 320 pp, £7.99, ISBN: 0141027845
On my wall is a black-and-white photograph of a man in a city street. He is holding a piece of paper in his two hands, staring at it with an expression of detached puzzlement. The street around him appears to be carpeted in more pieces of paper, and ash. The only other figures in the photograph are two women, with their backs to the camera, seeming to hurry away. Otherwise the obviously metropolitan street is deserted.
Paper, paper everywhere. The myth of the paperless office was shown up conclusively, in one of the side-effects of the great American disaster. As the bodies fell, plummeting with sickening homage to gravity, so their work, their idle moments, letters, post-its, menus, floated slowly and terribly through the smoke-choked air.
Now paper is trying to catch up with the 9/11 shocks. There is a growing body of fiction, to accompany the avalanche of “factual” (or not) reports, analyses and, magisterially, the massive official report, which makes fascinating if blood-curdling reading.
Frederic Beigbeder, the French author who was in the vanguard to tackle 9/11 fictionally, notes the paper tornado in his actuality novel Windows on the World.
What fascinates me most are the sheets of paper floating in the blue: files, photocopies, urgent memos, duplicated company listings … registered mail … all this scattered paperwork, this stationery on the wing … these thousands of fluttering pieces of paper remind me of the showers of paper so dear to New York during Broadway ticker tape parades. What are we celebrating today?
A more thoughtful approach. But then he is French.
The attacks on US landmarks on September 11th, 2001 caused a firestorm of death, distress and bellicosity which has shaped the world and continues to do so. The attacks were a lurid tale, beyond belief until they happened. Now they define the future. “We like to think that America invented the future,” DeLillo said after September 11th. “We are comfortable with the future, intimate with it. But there are disturbances now,” he continued, which prompt “a chain of reconsiderations”.
The point has often been made that this was a shock, unimaginable to such a degree that fiction was outsmarted. It has been slow to catch up. Events of this scale take a good while to digest. Many writers felt they could not write in the days and weeks after the attacks and when they sat down to their interrupted work it seemed trivial compared with the “elephant in the room”. Every writer in the world had to consider doing another job, said Martin Amis.
Time, and distance, are now giving American writers some of the perspective adopted intelligently, and quickly, by Beigbeder. But with the godfather of modern American commentary, Don DeLillo, joining the tentative advance with Falling Man, some sort of watershed has been reached.
The novels referred to here do not constitute all of the fiction which has flowed from 9/11 but they are among the better ones, incorporating what the bigger name writers, those supposedly with something to say, have found to say so far. And the answer, sadly if not unsurprisingly, is that we are shocked, we are puzzled, we are afraid, it was too big to take in. Only John Updike, an odd man out here since his Terrorist is set a couple of years after 9/11, seems to be in charge of the situation.
The novels, to a one, interpret the trauma of the World Trade Center attacks through fractures in human relationships. (These are all, incidentally, set in New York. The other attacks, on the Pentagon, United 93, don’t feature.) Understandable, perhaps, but disappointing. Is it the inevitable result of our living in a “me culture” that an astonishing global shock must given a fictional correlative in the domestic and personal?
De Lillo’s title echoes that given to a famous or infamous photograph, taken by a Press Association photographer who was downtown at the time and started clicking frantically. He got shots of desperate humans, clinging to window sills and ledges as the heat and smoke inside grew unbearable – and of those (around 200, it is believed) who either fell or chose to jump. In the Falling Man photo, the figure, of a man, head first, his legs bent in a balletic posture, is silhouetted against the soaring verticals of the tower behind him. It is a stilling, beautiful, terrible photo, bearing out the old journalistic saw that a picture can be worth a thousand words. The fiction, as of yet, does not come close.
In his Falling Man, DeLillo has his protagonists, a couple who have been drawing apart, reassess each other, while the man also has a brief affair with a woman who, like him, was evacuated from the World Trade Center. The author’s style is vague, inconclusive. The man, Keith, ends up going to Las Vegas to play poker professionally. His wife sees her mother die and her story-writing group break up under the strain of trying to express post-9/11 feelings. The tone is dreamy, puzzled, seen through a mirror darkly.
Keith stopped shaving for a time, whatever that means. Everything seemed to mean something. Their lives were in transition, and she looked for signs. Even when she was barely aware of an incident it came to mind later, with meaning attached, in sleepless episodes that lasted minutes or hours, she wasn’t sure.
These are people sleepwalking through their lives after a nightmare entered the realm of the daylight. At the time, many reports spoke of turning on the television to see what looked like a big-budget “action adventure”. Hadn’t New York already been destroyed cinematically in Armageddon, Deep Impact, and a score of forerunners? (A number of movies had their premieres held back because they dealt with violent scenarios that, until 9/11, had seemed far-fetched.). But it did happen, and the old life of ordinary daily routines had to resume, somehow, with the deep unsettling knowledge that earth-shattering was not just an expression, but something that could come out of a blue and beautiful September sky.
McInerney also writes of an affair, but a deeper and more passionate one, that arises between a man who escaped the WTC and the woman who gave him a bottle of water on the street. They are both already married, and The Good Life traces their attachment, the state of their existing relationships and the inevitable outcome. It could have been set anywhere, in any situation, and although very readable, explains little about 9/11, its genesis or outcome.
Claire Messud has the attack as her penultimate scene, towards the end of her fat soap opera following the lives of a small group of friends in New York. Identity and opportunity are two themes, but again, this is a book that doesn’t need 9/11 and is not intertwined with the great disaster but with the smaller stuff of everyday life. Although engaging, it fails to rise above this.
Kalfus provides a refreshing contrast, with his depiction of a viscerally bitter divorce, so bad that the wife cannot keep a smile off her face when from uptown she sees the towers collapse, believing her husband is in one of them. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country is apt for a novel set around the attacks, for it is about hatred.
The deep-bellied roar of the tower’s collapse finally reached her and went on for minutes, it seemed, followed by an unnaturally warm gust that pushed back her hair, and ruffled her blouse. The building turned into a rising mushroom-shaped column of smoke, dust and perished life, and she felt a great gladness.
‘Joyce, oh my God!’ cried a colleague. ‘I just remembered. Doesn’t your husband work there?’
She nodded slowly. His office was on the eighty-sixth floor of the south tower, which had just been removed whole from the face of the earth. She covered the lower part of her face to hide her fierce, protracted struggle against the emergence of a smile.’
This dimension is what the other books seem to lack, as if the scorching intensity of that loathing that led eighteen young men to die so they could exterminate 3,000 unsuspecting strangers is still too hot to handle. “Why do they hate us?” was the cry that came out of America after the attacks. To many outside the US it seemed extraordinary that they could even ask, given Washington’s often pernicious and directorial role in the internal affairs of so many countries around the world, from post-war Europe to Grenada and even Australia. But that deep and passionate hatred against the land of the brave and the free made even outward-looking liberals lose their stride. This might have been covered in factual accounts of 9/11, but does not yet seem to have been absorbed by the inward-looking, personal views of the literature so far. Schwarz is an exception, and tackles the political, if common, questions more than other writers.
“They’re planning something in Washington, don’t you worry. They’re just biding their time.” The man with the cane.
“While they bide their time they should figure out why so many people hate us. Because they do, you know. They don’t see us as generous. They see us as bullies.”
“It’s just jealousy. Is it our fault that we’re smarter and richer and not lazy? For that we deserve to be destroyed? Don’t give me such nonsense. We better not bide our time too long or it’ll happen again.”
The random selection of the victims seems too much for most of the fictional treatments. Only Beigbeder, with his physical and emotional distance, gets near this part of the story. His novel is half set in the restaurant at the top of the first tower, several storeys above where the first plane hit. A divorced father is giving a New York treat to his two young sons. Lovers who work on the markets are breakfasting, interspersing comments on the day’s market moves with declarations of passion. Staff move around in the usual routine. Then, in a split second, they are in the middle of a nightmare.
The storm of paper as offices in the twin towers exploded on that autumn morning slips in and out of a number of the novels. It is one of the more resonant motifs, used the most, and to most effect, in Schwarz’s The Writing on the Wall.
Indescribable, the piles of tortured steel, the fires everywhere, the buckling pavements and the smoke, the smell. Above all, the strewn paper.
Schwarz also tackles the political in President Bush’s behaviour and words following the attacks. These are often so trite and melodramatic as to seem unbelievable, yet from what I can discover they are actual quotes.
‘This battle will take time and resolve,’ he said. ‘But make no mistake about it, we will win.’
… There is the President, surveying the ruins of the Pentagon. ‘Make no mistake about it,’ he says. ‘This nation is sad.’
We are reminded perhaps of presidential candidate John Edwards’s comment that the Bush “war on terror” has been a bumper-sticker, not a plan.
Nine eleven changed our world in “the West” forever. A more prolonged agony at the start of the preceding century had a similar effect, and the thoughtful response to this took years to emerge. So, is it just too soon? The answer appears to be yes. The First World War was a universal shock to the collective nervous system, and societies across the world reeled under its impact for decades. It is interesting to note that Tell England, a novel by Ernest Raymond exposing palatable untruths about the conflict, could hardly get a publisher in 1922, when literary houses felt there had been such a glut that nobody was interested. Yet Goodbye to All That, which appeared in 1929, was a success from the off. It and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, published the same year, are still read today. These appeared more than a decade after the end of hostilities, yet their explorations of the shock when a world came to an end, the old world of war without mustard gas and tanks, war conducted like an elaborate sports day, still resound. Even in the 1990s mature and revelatory works such as Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy, and Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong were being written, and received with much acclaim. In Ireland, Sebastian Barry has had a huge reaction to his novel A Long Long Way, which combines an account of frontline soldiering with the events of 1916 in Dublin.
Nine eleven will surely provide the stimulus for some great books. But they haven’t come yet. Its questions go to the heart of issues both eternal and topical. Why me? Why do they hate so much? How can the imperative of self-preservation be put aside – is it collective hysteria? Loss, loss on a bitter and wide scale … how can it be absorbed and coped with? The batch that has appeared so far, especially the novels mentioned here, are not without merit as works of fiction and writing. Schwarz, although not the most brilliant, makes the best job of contextualising 9/11 and the attack on America in everyday life. Foer, with his off-the-wall brilliance, superimposes a quirky story of a boy on a quest onto the traumatic events. And Kalfus accedes to the need for bitterness, in the aftermath of such an assault, not just on ordinary Americans, but on the peace of mind of everyone in the world.
And then there is Updike. The master stands aside, distinguished by his skill, his acute eye for American life, his intelligent approach to the disaffected young men who are the raw material of 9/11 and all the similar attacks that have afflicted societies since.
Terrorist is the story of several months in the life of a devout young Muslim, half American and half Egyptian, as he leaves high school and starts work as a truck driver. What informs it is the randomness of fate, the rottenness of American life, and an understanding of the extremism which strict Islam offers as a way out of the modern mire. Updike has been criticised for the wooden, stereotypical dialogue in the mouth of his protagonist … yet this is how “we” see “them”, mouthing incomprehensible didactic rhetoric, medieval in tone.
“Western culture is Godless,” says the young man, Ahmad Molloy. “And because it has no God, it is obsessed with sex and luxury goods … Look how Christianity committed genocide on the native Americans and undermined Asia and Africa and now is coming after Islam, with everything in Washington run by the Jews to keep themselves in Palestine.
Updike’s characters offer other telling comments on the state of American society … and is not all Western society now American society? The virus of popular culture is too strong to resist.
Jack Levy is the high school councillor who accompanies Molloy on a journey reminiscent of that made before the first attack on the World Trade Center, the minor explosion of February 1993. At the graduation of Molloy’s class, earlier in the book, he says:
My students do not believe they will ever need business math in their head. They imagine the computer will do everything for them. They think the human mind is on eternal holiday, and from now on has nothing else to do but absorb entertainment.
It may not be as chilling as nineteen healthy young men flying planes into buildings full of people on a brilliant September morning. But it is a fearsome prospect all the same, a society sitting comfortable but obese in its armchair, unaware of serious thought, unfamiliar with effort. But, to quote De Lillo again in his post 9/11 comments, “the world narrative belongs to the terrorists”. Matching and analysing that narrative will be the challenge for writers everywhere.
Angela Long is a journalist and reviewer. She has written for newspapers and magazines in Ireland, Britain and Australia, including The Irish Times, The Sunday Times and The Sydney Morning Herald. She has also worked for the BBC and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation