I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire | Denis Johnson

At the moment, I was heading anywhere at all for breakfast, but when I heard the desk clerk’s radio playing news that an aircraft, I assumed a sightseeing plane, had struck Tower Two of the World Trade Center, I decided to jump on the number 3 subway half a block west, and go have a look.

As I headed toward Eighth Avenue I tried calling Mark Ahearn about lunch, but my cellphone only hammered out a rapid-fire beep. Please don’t ask me how this can be true: I traveled through the busy lobby and walked for half a long block on a crowded Manhattan street and then boarded the World Trade Center subway completely unaware that I was participating in a citywide disaster, and moving toward its center.

The World Trade Center station came a few stops south of Twenty-Third Street, but we didn’t get there. After Christopher Street the train halted in the tunnel and waited, humming. It gave a screech, lurched backward slightly, and stopped again. Somehow the general news had infiltrated the sealed subterranean environment that something historically enormous was happening very nearby, and it got quiet in our compartment, and almost everybody entered into a small, desperate battle with a worthless cellphone. The train moved forward and gained speed, but began braking long before Houston Street, the next station, where it halted with several rear cars sticking out behind into the tunnel. For a tense minute, whoever spoke only whispered. Then came a shout—“Tell us what’s going on!” and others raised the same cry until we heard the conductor’s PA saying something about the tracks, the tracks…“Due to the catastrophe, this train will not go farther. Please exit out the forward cars onto the platform. Do not go onto the tracks.” We were all on our feet, maneuvering selfishly, angling for the doors. But the doors didn’t open. The engine stopped. “Open the doors! Open the doors!” The engine started. A man shouted, “Just everybody stand still!” People from the car behind had pried their way into ours, and somebody almost went down. A woman said, “Stop that, you fool!” A man in front of me pushed a teenage boy beside him. With the meat of his fist he began beating the back of the boy’s head. And I jumped into the fray, didn’t you, Harrington, like a monkey, yes you did, and got yourself an elbow in the eye. The doors to the compartment flew open and people clambered out onto the station’s platform, where a dreadlocked man in a crimson athletic suit jumped up and down on a bench as if it were a trampoline, screaming “God, see what we’re doing to each other down here.” When I came up into the street, dizzy and one-eyed, I couldn’t get my bearings. I saw only one tower standing to the south, and that one ringed with fire. I asked a man nearby—“Where are we? I can’t see the other tower.” He said, “It fell” and I said, “No it didn’t.” He didn’t argue. We stood in the middle of the street with thousands of other people, all of us motionless, like a frozen parade, all silent. I began to believe the man. We watched the flames spreading through the building’s upper stories over the course of about twenty minutes, and then the eighteen-hundred-foot structure seemed to curtsy and dip left, and then it went down.

I turned around and looked at the people behind me. I saw shocked laughter, weeping, horror, bewilderment. The young man next to me bawled at the top of his lungs. I was afraid to ask him if he had a loved one in the buildings afraid to talk to him at all, but he raised his agonized, Christly face to me and suddenly laughed, saying, “Buddy, you are working on one heck of a black eye.” We stood far from the buildings—at least a mile, I’d say—far enough that we didn’t feel the ground shake, and we heard nothing but sirens, and official-sounding voices screaming, “Get out of the street! Stay out of the street!” and others too—“They’re attacking the Capitol!—the Pentagon!—the White House!”

Cop cars and ambulances heaped with dust and chunks of concrete came at us out of the south. I started walking that direction, I don’t know why, but I soon realized I was the only person heading downtown, and then the tide of panic pressing toward me was too heavy to go against, and I turned around and let it take me north.

From Denis Johnson’s short story “Doppelgänger, Poltergeist.” Collected in  The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, 2017.

 

Advertisements

Anniversary (Art Spiegelman)

img_1026

From In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman.

 

Sunday Comics

img_3563

img_3560

img_3565-1

From In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman, Pantheon, 2004.

Teju Cole’s Open City Is a Strange, Marvelous Novel That Captures the Post-9/11 Zeitgeist

“And so when I began to go on evening walks last fall . . .” begins Julius, the perspicacious narrator of Teju Cole’s admirable and excellent début Open City. That opening “And” is significant, an immediate signal to the reader that this novel will refuse to align itself along (or even against) traditional arcs of plot and character development. We will meet Julius in media res, and we will leave him there, and along the way there will be learning and suffering and compassion and strange bubbles of ambiguity that threaten to burst out of the narrative.

As noted, Open City begins with Julius’s peripatetic voyages; he walks the night streets of New York City to ostensibly relieve the “tightly regulated mental environment of work.” Julius is completing his psychiatry fellowship at a hospital, and the work takes a toll on him, whether he admits it or not. In these night walks—and elsewhere and always throughout the novel—Julius shares his sharp observations, both concrete and historical. No detail is too small for his fine lens, nor does he fail to link these details to the raw information that rumbles through his mind: riffs on biology, history, art, music, philosophy, and psychology interweave the narrative. Julius maps the terrain of New York City against its strange, mutating history; like a 21st century Ishmael, he attempts to measure it in every facet—its architecture, its rhythms, its spirit. And if there is one thread that ties Julius’s riffs together it is the nightmare of history:

But atrocity is nothing new, not to humans, not to animals. The difference is that in our time it is uniquely well organized, carried out with pens, train carriages, ledgers, barbed wire, work camps, gas. And this late contribution, the absence of bodies. No bodies were visible, except the falling ones, on the day America’s ticker stopped.

Open City is the best 9/11 novel I’ve read, but it doesn’t set out to be a 9/11 novel, nor does it dwell on that day. Instead, Cole captures something of the post-9/11 zeitgeist, and at the same time situates it in historical context. When Julius remarks on the recent past, the concrete data of history writhes under the surface. He remarks that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center “was not the first erasure on the site,” and goes on to detail the 1960s cityscapes that preceded the WTC. Before those, there was Washington Market. Then Julius embarks, via imagination, into the pre-Colombian space of the people we now call Indians or Native Americans. “I wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories,” he concludes, peering at the non-site that simultaneously anchors these memory-spaces.

Julius’s line, like the lines that comprise New York City (and perhaps, if we feel the spirit of its democratic project, America itself) is a mixed one, heterogeneous and multicultural. Julius’s father, now dead, was an important man in Nigeria, where Julius enjoyed a relatively privileged childhood. Julius’s mother—they are now estranged—is German. He remarks repeatedly about his German grandmother’s own displacements during WWII, reflecting at one point that, from a historical perspective, it was likely impossible that she escaped Cossack rape.

Even though he sometimes seems reticent to do so, Julius delves into the strange violence that marks his lineage. He recalls a childhood fascination with Idi Amin; as a boy, he and his cousins would watch the gory film The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin repeatedly: ” . . . we enjoyed the shock of it, its powerful and stylized realism and each time we had nothing to do, we watched the film again.”

Fascinated horror evinces repeatedly in Open City. In just one example, Julius believes he sees “the body of a lynched man dangling from a tree”; as he moves closer to inspect, he realizes that it is merely canvas floating from a construction scaffold. Perhaps so attuned to history’s grand catalog of spectacular atrocity, Julius finds it lurking in places where it does not necessarily evince.

In turn, despite his profession as psychiatrist, Julius is wary of human sympathy. Throughout the novel, dark-skinned men engage him by calling him “brother.” He almost always deflects these attempts at connection, and internally remarks them as fatuous, or naïve, or false. This is not to say though that Julius doesn’t make significant (if often transitory) connections.

One of the organizing principles of Open City comes in the form of Julius’s infrequent visits to the home of his former English professor, Dr. Saito, who is slowly dying. Saito’s own memories float into Julius—this technique repeats throughout the novel—and we learn that he was interned as a young man during WWII; the sad fact is another ugly kink in the line of American history that Julius attempts to trace.

Julius also befriends Dr. Maillotte, an aging surgeon on a flight to Brussels, where he spends a few weeks of Christmas vacation, ostensibly looking for his oma (a task he performs half-heartedly at best). As Julius daydreams, Dr. Maillotte, European émigré, finds a place within his vision of family members and friends:

I saw her at fifteen, in September 1944, sitting on a rampart in the Brussels sun, delirious with happiness at the invaders’ retreat. I saw Junichiro Saito on the same day, aged thirty-one or thirty-two, unhappy, in internment, in an arid room in a fenced compound in Idaho, far away from his books. Out there on that day, also, were all four of my own grandparents: the Nigerians, the Germans. Three were gone by now, for sure. But what of the fourth, my oma? I saw them all, even the one I had never seen in real life, saw all of them in the middle of that day in September sixty-two years ago, with their eyes open as if shut, mercifully seeing nothing of the brutal half century ahead and better yet, hardly anything at all of all that was happening in their world, the corpse-filled cities, camps, beaches, and fields, the unspeakable worldwide disorder that very moment.

In Brussels, Julius meets Farouq, an angry young man with intellectual, Marxist tendencies. Farouq believes in a theory of “difference” and finds himself at odds with both the dominant Belgian culture and with Western culture in general. Julius’s conversations with Farouq are a highlight of the novel; they help to further contextualize the drama of diaspora in the post-9/11 world. Later, Julius finds a counterweight to some of Farouq’s extreme positions over a late lunch with Dr. Maillotte, who suggests that “For people to feel that they alone have suffered, it is very dangerous.” There’s a sense of reserved moderation to her critique—not outright dismissal nor condemnation, but simply a recognition that there are “an endless variety of difficulties in the world.”

Julius seems to tacitly agree with Maillotte’s assessment. His reluctance to accept brotherhood based on skin color alone speaks to a deeper rejection of simplicity, of tribe mentality, of homogeneity; it also highlights his essential alienation. At the same time, he’s acutely aware of how skin color matters, how identity can be thrust upon people, despite what claims to agency we might make. In search of the line that will connect him to his part of the American story, Julius finds unlikely “brothers” in Farouq, Maillotte, and Saito.

But let us not attribute to Julius a greater spirit than Cole affords him: Open City is a novel rich in ambiguity, with Julius’s own personal failures the most ambiguous element of all. While this is hardly a novel that revolves on plot twists, I hesitate to illustrate my point further for fear of clouding other readers’ perceptions; suffice to say that part of the strange, cruel pleasure of Open City is tracing the gaps in Julius’s character, his failures as a professional healer—and his failures to remark or reflect upon these failures.

But isn’t this the way for all of us? If history is a nightmare that we try to awake from—or, more aptly in a post-9/11 world, a nightmare that we awake to, to paraphrase Slavoj Žižek—then there is also the consolation and danger that time will free us from the memory of so much atrocity, that our collective memory will allow those concrete details to slip away, replaced with larger emblems and avatars that neatly smooth out all the wrinkles of ambiguity. “I wondered if indeed it was that simple, if time was so free with memory, so generous with pardons, that writing well could come to stand in the place of an ethical life,” Julius wonders at one point; later, Saito points out that “There are towns whose names evoke a real horror in you because you have learned to link those names with atrocities, but, for the generation that follows yours, those names will mean nothing; forgetting doesn’t take long.” Julius’s mission then is to witness and remark upon the historical realities, the nitty-gritty details that we slowly edge out of the greater narrative. And Cole? Well, he gives us a novel that calls attention to these concrete details while simultaneously exploring the dangerous subjectivity behind any storytelling.

If it needs to be said: Yes, Open City recalls the work of W.G. Sebald, who crammed his books with riffs on history and melancholy reflections on memory and identity. And yes, Open City is flâneur literature, like Sebald (and Joyce, and Bolaño, perhaps). But Cole’s work here does not merely approximate Sebald’s, nor is it to be defined in its departures. Cole gives us an original synthesis, a marvelous and strange novel about history and memory, self and other. It’s a rich text, the sort of book one wants to immediately press on a friend, saying, Hey, you there, read this, we need to talk about this. Very highly recommended.

Open City is new in trade paperpack from Random House.

Time, Space, Distortion: Falling Toward a 9/11 Literature

The_Falling_Man

In his essay In the Ruins of the Future,” published in December of 2001, Don DeLillo wrote this about the 9/11 attacks: “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon?” His question was both profound and at the same time utterly banal—of course it was too soon to measure the effects of the 9/11 attacks. But could time’s distance somehow sharpen or enrich perspective? DeLillo continues: “We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted.”

In retrospect—what with the Bush administration’s ludicrous invasion of Iraq and the power-grab of the Patriot Act—DeLillo’s notation of “plans made hurriedly” seems downright scary. Still, I remember that immediate, overwhelming shock, that paralyzing inertia that had to be overcome. DeLillo wanted—needed—to grapple with this spectacular destruction immediately. David Foster Wallace responded with similar immediacy; the caveat that prefaces his moving essay The View from Mrs. Thompson’s states that the piece was “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” The same caveat would also apply neatly to Art Spiegelman’s big, brilliant, messy attempt at cataloging his impressions immediately post-9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers.

In contrast, the trio of 9/11 stories at the heart of Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel, all employ distance and distortion—both temporal and spatial—as a means to address the disaster (or inability to address the disaster) of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Adrian’s 9/11 tales (and his works in general, really), ask how one can grieve or attest to death on such a massive, spectacular scale. The victims of the 9/11 attacks forever haunt his protagonists, literally possessing them, demons that can’t let go, forcing the living to wallow in grief. In “The Changeling,” for example, the grief of the attacks is literally measured in blood, as a father repeatedly maims himself as the only means to assuage the terror and confusion of his possessed son. Adrian sets one of the collection’s most intriguing tales, “The Vision of Peter Damien,” in nineteenth-century rural Ohio. This temporal distortion veers into metaphysical territory as the titular Damien, along with other children in his village, become sick, haunted by the victims of 9/11. Adrian’s displaced milieu creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance for his readers, a response that DeLillo also articulated in his 2007 novel Falling Man.

DeLillo initiates the novel as a sort of creation story: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” The demarcation of this new world recapitulates DeLillo’s initial concern with time and space, but his novel seems ultimately to suggest an inertia, a meaninglessness, or at least the hollow ambiguity of any artistic response. This stands, of course, in sharp contrast to his sense of urgency in his earlier essay. Like the performance artist in the novel who is repeatedly sighted hanging suspended from a harness, there’s a sad anonymity in the background of Falling Man: the artist hangs as static witness to disaster, but looking for comfort, or even perhaps meaning, in the gesture is impossible.

David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel,” (from his 2004 collection Oblivion) is in many ways a far more satisfying take on 9/11, although to be fair, the majority of the story’s events take place in July of 2001. The story (or novella, really; it’s 90 pages) centers around a magazine headquartered in the World Trade Center that plans to run an article—on September 10th, 2001—about a man who literally shits out pieces of art. Wallace’s critique of American culture (shit as art, commerce as style, advertising as language) is devastating against the context of the looming disaster to which his characters are so oblivious. As the novella reaches its close (culminating in the shit artist producing an original work for a live audience), we learn more about “The Suffering Channel,” a cable channel devoted to broadcasting only images of human beings suffering intense and horrible pain. Wallace seems to suggest that The Suffering Channel’s audience watches out of Schadenfreude or morbid fascination, that modern American culture so disconnects people that genuine suffering cannot be witnessed with empathy, but only as a form of spectacular, disengaged entertainment. And yet even as Wallace critiques American culture, the specter of the 9/11 attacks ironically inform his story. With our awful knowledge of what will happen the day after the shit artist article is published, we are able to see the ridiculous and ephemeral nature of the characters’ various concerns. At the same time, Wallace’s tale reveals that empathy for suffering is possible, but also that it comes at a tremendous price.

To contrast the journalistic immediacy of pieces like “In the Ruins of the Future” and “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” with their respective writers attempts to measure 9/11 in literary fiction is perhaps a bit unfair. Still, Wallace’s and DeLillo’s essays transmit something of the ineffable, visceral quality of that terrible day, as well as the strange ways we sought comfort through human connection. In contrast, the distance and distortion of their literary efforts lose something. I apologize—I don’t have a word for this “something” that the essays have that the novel and novella lack (perhaps the absence is purposeful; perhaps not). It’s not clarity, but perhaps it’s a clarity of distortion that the essays convey, the duress, or to return to Wallace’s own notation, the pieces were “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” It’s that shock, I suppose, that I’m trying to name, to say that it’s still there, accessible in those early responses (I realize now I’ve unfairly neglected Spiegelman’s book, which is a great example of immediacy). And to relive that shock is important, because, as Wallace reveals in both of his pieces, the cathartic power of shared tragedy makes us human, allows us to really live, and to be thankful that we do live.

Looking over this piece, I realize that it’s overly long and really says nothing, or at least nothing much about 9/11, or literature, or whatever. But I don’t want to be negative. I highly encourage you to read (or re-read) The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” and In the Ruins of the Future.” And I’ll leave it at that.

[Editorial note: We ran a (somewhat sloppier) version of this essay on 9.11.2009]

“Just Asking” — David Foster Wallace’s 9/11 Thought Experiment

Here’s David Foster Wallace’s “Just Asking,” from the November, 2007 issue of The Atlantic

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

FOOTNOTES:
1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)

“Just Asking” — David Foster Wallace’s 9/11 Thought Experiment

Here’s David Foster Wallace’s “Just Asking,” from the November, 2007 issue of The Atlantic

Are some things still worth dying for? Is the American idea* one such thing? Are you up for a thought experiment? What if we chose to regard the 2,973 innocents killed in the atrocities of 9/11 not as victims but as democratic martyrs, “sacrifices on the altar of freedom”?* In other words, what if we decided that a certain baseline vulnerability to terrorism is part of the price of the American idea? And, thus, that ours is a generation of Americans called to make great sacrifices in order to preserve our democratic way of life—sacrifices not just of our soldiers and money but of our personal safety and comfort?

In still other words, what if we chose to accept the fact that every few years, despite all reasonable precautions, some hundreds or thousands of us may die in the sort of ghastly terrorist attack that a democratic republic cannot 100-percent protect itself from without subverting the very principles that make it worth protecting?

Is this thought experiment monstrous? Would it be monstrous to refer to the 40,000-plus domestic highway deaths we accept each year because the mobility and autonomy of the car are evidently worth that high price? Is monstrousness why no serious public figure now will speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned about more than 200 years ago? What exactly has changed between Franklin’s time and ours? Why now can we not have a serious national conversation about sacrifice, the inevitability of sacrifice—either of (a) some portion of safety or (b) some portion of the rights and protections that make the American idea so incalculably precious?

In the absence of such a conversation, can we trust our elected leaders to value and protect the American idea as they act to secure the homeland? What are the effects on the American idea of Guantánamo, Abu Ghraib, Patriot Acts I and II, warrantless surveillance, Executive Order 13233, corporate contractors performing military functions, the Military Commissions Act, NSPD 51, etc., etc.? Assume for a moment that some of these measures really have helped make our persons and property safer—are they worth it? Where and when was the public debate on whether they’re worth it? Was there no such debate because we’re not capable of having or demanding one? Why not? Have we actually become so selfish and scared that we don’t even want to consider whether some things trump safety? What kind of future does that augur?

FOOTNOTES:
1. Given the strict Gramm-Rudmanewque space limit here, let’s just please all agree that we generally know what this term connotes—an open society, consent of the governed, enumerated powers, Federalist 10, pluralism, due process, transparency … the whole democratic roil.

2. (This phrase is Lincoln’s, more or less)


The Canal — Lee Rourke

In Lee Rourke’s début novel The Canal, the unnamed narrator quits his job and begins walking to a canal everyday. Why? Out of boredom. At the titular canal, he watches (and describes in banal detail) the geese, swans, and coots that swim in the filthy water. He also keeps one eye on the drudges who go about emailing and faxing in the office building across from the bench on which he sits each day. A strange, icy young woman soon begins sharing the bench with the narrator; in time, she also shares her morbid secrets with him. Complicating the narrator’s paradise of boredom is a gang of youths who terrorize the area with random violence. The novel’s steady pace escalates to frantic tragedy as the narrator’s bored repose gives over to desperate obsession with his erstwhile bench mate and her horrific past.

The Canal takes boredom as its explicit subject. In the second paragraph of the book, the narrator tells us–

Some people think that boredom is a bad thing, that it should be avoided, that we should fill our lives with other stuff in order to keep it at bay. I don’t. I think boredom is a good thing: it shapes us; it moves us. Boredom is powerful. It should never be avoided. In fact, I think boredom should be embraced. It is the power of everyday boredom that compels people to do things–even if that something is nothing.

The canal seems (at first) the right place for the narrator to embrace his boredom, but it soon becomes a space–a “real” space, as the narrator eventually realizes–of transformation and excitement. This space quickly complicates the narrator’s will toward “nothing,” that pull toward nihilism. He’s keenly interested in the various birds that make the canal their home, and his obsessive derision toward the office workers highlights the fact (a fact he doesn’t seem to see) that his apathy is not as pure as he would like it to be. Rather, his “boredom” is a direct response to the apparent meaninglessness of 21st century life in general and, specifically, life in post-Blair London. His horror and fear at the four hoodied teens from a nearby estate (the English equivalent of an American housing project) who insult and attack him is grounded in a relatively conventional morality, one that belies his enduring belief in his own apathy.

The most dramatic challenge to his philosophy of boredom though is his unnamed female foil. Through cryptic, elliptical dialogues he soon becomes a bizarre confessor to her strange sins. Yet she’s remorseless in her unrepentant nihilism. In one conversation she tells him that “There’s nothing left to believe in anywhere. All is fiction. Somehow, we have to invent our own reality. We have to make the unreal real.” This cheerful little aphorism comes after she reveals her empathy for (and sexual attraction to) the perpetrators of the July 7, 2005 suicide bombings in London. Terrorism, particularly the 7/7 attacks and the 9/11 WTC attacks are a major motif of The Canal; the unnamed narrator obsesses about flight (both of airplanes and birds) and dwells on the image of the planes crashing into the towers. Although he never admits it, it seems that both flight and death are possible forms of escape from the very boredom he claims to embrace. At the same time, the violence of terrorism seems part and parcel of his philosophy of boredom–

“It is obvious to me now that most acts of violence are caused by those who are truly bored. And as our world becomes increasingly boring, as the future progresses into a quagmire of nothingness, our world will become increasingly more violent. It is an impulse that controls us. It is an impulse we cannot control.”

And yet the violent acts of the estate youths shock and disgust the narrator. In one of the book’s most stunning passages, he watches them in horror as they destroy a stolen motor scooter and then cast it into the creek while filming the whole business on a cell phone. The scooter upsets the resting birds and becomes one more piece of detritus clogging up the canal–part of the “quagmire of nothingness,” perhaps. Repeatedly in the novel, the narrator wishes that long-overdue dredges will come along to clean the canal, to restore it, an impulse to control the stochastic violence of life that doubles his horror at the teen gang’s violence. In short, despite what he tells us, the narrator cannot embrace his boredom–although he does wish to name it, recognize it, and perhaps treat it.

This treatment comes in the form of the anti-ingenue he meets with daily by the canal. His obsession with her soon gives way to outright stalking. For a man who claims to embrace boredom, he’s awfully interested in her. The narrator’s stalking feeds into the novel’s deft discourse on surveillance in the 21st-century world, where CCTV, mobile phone cameras, and live pictures of spectacular disaster make people feel alternately safe or horrified (or at least alleviate some of their boredom). The narrator’s relationship with the woman tests the bounds of his devotion to boredom and reveals to both him and the novel’s audience that opting out is not always opting out. Rourke uses a quote from Martin Heidegger – “We are suspended in dread” – as an epigraph to the novel; the narrator must learn how to live in that suspension.

What makes The Canal such a remarkable read is watching the disconnect between the narrator’s would-be solution to life-as-state-of-dread (“embrace boredom”) and his actual responses to the effects of boredom in the world around him (literal and figurative waste, violence). Although he seeks to mitigate the pain of his dread and boredom by submitting to it, the novel repeatedly finds him engaging–and resisting–the cruelty and inhumanity he perceives. While parts of The Canal occasionally seem forced or overdetermined, there is much to commend here and the novel clearly suggests Rourke as a rising talent to watch out for. Recommended.

The Canal is available from Melville House on June 15, 2010.

Time, Space, Distortion: Falling Towards A 9/11 Literature

The_Falling_Man

In his essay In the Ruins of the Future,” published in December of 2001, Don DeLillo wrote this about the 9/11 attacks: “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon?” His question was both profound and at the same time, paradoxically utterly banal, purely rhetorical–of course it was too soon to measure the affects of the 9/11 attacks. But could the distance of time somehow sharpen or enrich perspective? DeLillo continues: “We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted.”

In retrospect–what with the Bush administration’s ludicrous invasion of Iraq and the power-grab of the Patriot Act–DeLillo’s notation of “plans made hurriedly” seems downright scary. Still, when I think back to those early days after the attacks, I remember that feeling of overwhelming shock, the paralyzing inertia that had to be overcome. DeLillo wanted–needed–to grapple with this spectacular destruction immediately. David Foster Wallace responded with similar immediacy; the caveat that prefaces his moving essay The View from Mrs. Thompson’s states that the piece was “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” The same caveat would also apply neatly to Art Spiegelman’s big, brilliant, messy attempt at cataloging his impressions immediately post-9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers.

In contrast, the trio of 9/11 stories at the heart of Chris Adrian’s short story collection, A Better Angel, all employ distance and distortion–both temporal and spatial–as a means to address the disaster (or inability to address the disaster) of the attacks on the World Trade Center. Adrian’s 9/11 tales (and his works in general, really), ask how one can grieve or attest to death on such a massive, spectacular scale. In his vision, the victims of the 9/11 attacks forever haunt his protagonists, literally possessing them, demons that can’t let go, leaving the living to grieve over and over again. In “The Changeling,” for example, the grief of the attacks is literally measured in blood, as a father repeatedly maims himself as the only means to assuage the terror and confusion of his possessed son. Adrian sets one of the collection’s most intriguing tales, “The Vision of Peter Damien,” in nineteenth-century rural Ohio. This temporal distortion veers into metaphysical territory as the titular Damien, along with other children in his village, become sick, haunted by the victims of 9/11. Adrian’s strange milieu creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance for his readers, a response that DeLillo also articulated in his 2007 novel Falling Man.

DeLillo initiates the novel as a sort of creation story: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” The demarcation of this new world recapitulates DeLillo’s initial concern with time and space, but his novel seems ultimately to suggest an inertia, a meaninglessness, or at least the hollow ambiguity of any artistic response. This stands, of course, in sharp contrast to his sense of urgency in his earlier essay. Like the performance artist in the novel who is repeatedly sighted hanging suspended from a harness, there’s a sad anonymity in the background of Falling Man: the artist hangs as static witness to disaster, but looking for comfort, or even perhaps meaning, in the gesture is impossible.

David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel,” (from his 2004 collection Oblivion) is in many ways a far more satisfying jab at 9/11, although, to be fair, the majority of the story’s events take place in July of 2001. The story (or novella, really; it’s 90 pages) centers around a magazine headquartered in the World Trade Center that plans to run an article–on September 10th, 2001–about a man who literally shits out pieces of art. Wallace’s critique of American culture (shit as art, commerce as style, advertising as language) is devastating against the context of the looming disaster that his characters are so oblivious too. As the novella reaches its close (culminating in the shit artist producing an original work for a live audience), we learn more about “The Suffering Channel,” a cable channel devoted to broadcasting only images of human beings suffering intense and horrible pain. Wallace seems to suggest that The Suffering Channel’s audience watches for mere schadenfreude or morbid fascination, that modern American culture so disconnects people that genuine suffering cannot be witnessed with empathy, but only as a form of spectacular, disengaged entertainment. And yet even as Wallace critiques American culture, the specter of the 9/11 attacks ironically inform his story. With our awful knowledge of what will happen the day after the shit artist article is published, we are able to see the ridiculous and ephemeral nature of the characaters’ various concerns. At the same time, Wallace’s tale reveals that empathy for suffering is possible, but also that it comes at a tremendous price.

To contrast the journalistic immediacy of pieces like “In the Ruins of the Future” and “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” with their respective writers attempts to measure 9/11 in literary fiction is perhaps a bit unfair. Still, Wallace’s and DeLillo’s essays–at least in my opinion–transmit something of the ineffable, visceral quality of that terrible day, as well as the strange ways we sought comfort through human connection. In contrast, the distance and distortion of their literary efforts lose something. I apologize–I don’t have a word for this “something” that the essays have that the novel and novella lack (purposely, I believe). It’s not clarity, but perhaps it’s a clarity of distortion that the essays convey, the duress, or to return to Wallace’s own notation, the pieces were of course “Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock.” It’s that shock, I suppose, that I’m trying to name, to say that it’s still there, accessible in those early responses (I realize now I’ve unfairly neglected Spiegelman’s book, which is a great example of immediacy). And to relive that shock is important, because, as Wallace reveals in both of his pieces, the cathartic power of shared tragedy makes us human, allows us to really live, and to be thankful that we do live.

Looking over this piece, I realize that it’s overly long and really says nothing, or at least nothing much about 9/11, or literature, or whatever. But I don’t want to be negative. I highly encourage you to read (or re-read) The View from Mrs. Thompson’sand In the Ruins of the Future.” And I’ll leave it at that.

In the Shadow of No Towers–Art Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman’s Maus, released as a graphic novel over twenty years ago, did more to legitimize the comic as an art form than any other work I can think of. It won a Pullitzer Prize Special Award in 1992 (the Pullitzer committee found it hard to classify…perhaps they didn’t want to admit that they were giving a prestigious award to a comic book!), and today Maus is a standard on many college English syllabi.

After Maus, Spiegelman worked for The New Yorker for over ten years, quitting in early 2002 after the September 11th attacks to work on a series of broadsheets entitled In the Shadow of No Towers. These broadsheets were collected in 2004 in an unwieldy 15″ x 10″ book.

spiegelman_02_550×637.jpg

Spiegelman lived in downtown Manhattan, right by the towers; his daughter attended school a few blocks away. He saw the towers collapse in person, fleeing for his life with his family. Spiegelman attempts to capture this raw, unmediated, and very personal experience in In the Shadow of No Towers (Sonic Youth’s 2002 album Murray Street works to the same end–only much more abstractly): the narrative is discontiguous, fluctuating from bitter satire to earnest inquiry. Spiegelman’s choice of the broadsheet as his medium (the broadsheets were published monthly by different newspapers as Spiegelman produced them) is tremendously affective: just like the 9/11 attacks, the broadsheets are larger than life, hard to grasp, hyperbolically resisting easy, singular readings. Spiegelman balances bitter attacks against the conformist mentality spurred by the Bush administration with pathos and humor; In the Shadow of No Towers recalls the good-natured satire of broadsheet comics from a hundred years ago, bittersweetening the content. The 2004 collection wisely contextualizes Spiegelman’s work by reprinting broadsheets of “The Yellow Kid” and “The Katzenjammer Kids.”

Like Maus, In the Shadow of No Towers is a fascinating exploration of how disaster confronts and transforms identity. And reflecting its heinous subject, In the Shadow of No Towers ends without concluding: as the foolish Iraq war begins, Spiegelman can no longer shape any meaning or sense from his work. This isn’t a graphic novel–don’t look for a cohesive narrative structure here; instead, In the Shadow of No Towers explores the loose ends, the detritus, the psychic remnants of disaster.