A very incomplete list of good or adequate (and primarily indirect) 9/11 novels and short stories

The Names, Don DeLillo (1982)

In the Shadow of No Towers, Art Spiegelman (2004)

“The Suffering Channel,” David Foster Wallace (2004)

Falling Man, Don DeLillo (2007)

“The Vision of Peter Damien,” Chris Adrian (2008)

Open City, Teju Cole (2011)

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon (2013)

Preparation for the Next Life, Atticus Lish (2014)

“Doppelgänger, Poltergeist,” Denis Johnson (2017)

Lost my mind soon after (Art Spiegelman)

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

Blog about Thomas Pynchon’s novel Bleeding Edge

img_5423

I finished reading Thomas Pynchon’s 2013 novel Bleeding Edge a few minutes before I started typing up this blog. I’d jotted down a few notes as I was reading the book over the past two weeks, thinking about writing a review or an essay about the novel, but lately I seem to sit on such notes and never hatch them into anything real.

Today, 8 May 2020 is Thomas Ruggles Pynchon’s 83rd birthday. Folks online like to celebrate with something called Pynchon in Public Day, which this year, thanks to These Paranoid Times, has become Pynchon in Private Day. Instead of doing a big list of links, images, and excerpts, this blog about Bleeding Edge will be my minor contribution.

Reviews usually offer some kind of plot summary, right? Here’s a really short summary: Bleeding Edge is Pynchon’s New York novel, his 9/11 novel, his internet novel. Not enough? Well…

Bleeding Edge is nearly 500 pages long and seems to have almost as many subplots—but the gist of the novel is that Maxine Tarnow, a now-unlicensed fraud examiner, undertakes a sprawling investigation that leads her to what may-or-may-not-be evidence of unidentified conspirators collaborating in some way to facilitate the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks. As is the case with any Pynchon, the gist isn’t the point—the subplots are the real point, those threads that tangle off into some other invisible tapestry, unrevealed to protagonist and reader alike. I’ll lazily borrow from the jacket blurb to offer a smattering of those subplots:

She soon finds herself mixed up with a drug runner in an art deco motorboat, a professional nose obsessed with Hitler’s aftershave, a neoliberal enforcer with footwear issues, plus elements of the Russian mob and various bloggers, hackers, code monkeys, and entrepreneurs, some of whom begin to show up mysteriously dead.

Tellingly, there’s even a tangle in the blurb: The neoliberal enforcer is Nicholas Windust (who uses a cattle prod to enforce his ideology on citizens of developing nations); the guy with “footwear issues” is Eric Outfield, a hacker and podophiliac. There are so many characters in Bleeding Edge that we can forgive even the jacket’s condensing a few into each other.

And yet for all its myriad subplots, Bleeding Edge is one of Pynchon’s more cohesive novels. It’s plot is not as baggy as the behemoth Against the Day, or as complicated as Gravity’s Rainbow, or as confusing as Inherent Vice, the novel that preceded it.

Like Inherent Vice, and Pynchon’s second novel, The Crying of Lot 49Bleeding Edge is a detective novel, albeit a highly unconventional one. Our detective Maxine Tarnow is a compelling central figure, and Pynchon sticks closely to her consciousness; indeed, Maxine is maybe the closest thing to a first-person-viewpoint Pynchon has given us. Maxine, who occasionally worries about her Yenta tendencies, is a mother of two near-adolescent boys, Otis and Ziggy. At the novel’s outset, she’s estranged from her husband Horst, but he soon re-enters the picture.

The domestic contours of Bleeding Edge are touching. Maxine plays video games with her children, tries to understand the culture that her boys are growing into, riffs on Beanie Babies and Pokemon and first-person shooters with them. (It’s hard not to map some of Pynchon’s bio here: Like Maxine, Pynchon lives on the Upper West Side, and his son Jackson is around the same age as Ziggy and Otis. I will refrain from more biographical speculation, mea culpa.) Bleeding Edge opens in the pre-tragic spring of 2001, with Maxine walking the boys to school. She wants to protect her boys, and in a telling image, she “drifts into a pick” to guard them from any hypothetical traffic.

That domestic theme resonates until the novel’s end—indeed, with its many tangled subplots, the most satisfying resolution happens in the last pages, when, a year later, Maxine’s boys walk to school by themselves. It’s a bittersweet moment, one in keeping with the novel’s balance of tragedy and comedy, zaniness and horror. Ultimately, Bleeding Edge is a comedy in the classical sense, signaling the restoration of family (families, really).

The domestic plot helps to frame Bleeding Edge, but it also stands in contrast to Maxine’s adventures after dark as her investigation into possible fraud at an internet startup leads her into ever-more bizarre territory. There are mysterious videotapes and immersive video games that may-or-may-not contain the souls of those who’ve departed “meatspace”: there are time-traveling soldiers and debauched internet launch parties. There is that “ideological enforcer,” Nick Windust, who Maxine finds herself imporbably drawn to. And, it’s a Pynchon novel, so there’s plenty of drugs, sex, and songs. Like New York City, Bleeding Edge is packed, crammed with details that evoke not just the city’s form, but also its ever-changing spirit.

Of course, the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks loom over the plot, especially the first two-thirds, where they are foreshadowed repeatedly. (Otis and Ziggy eat lunch with their father and his friend Jake at the top of the WTC early in the novel. It’s a windy day, and the boys are nervous as the building sways, but Jake assures them, ironically, that it’s “built like a battleship.”) Pynchon’s handling of the attacks is remarkably restrained—instead of pages and pages of those strange hours, he instead nimbly constructs the moments beforehand and the moments after. A few paragraphs before the attack, Horst, Ziggy, and Otis watch the Colts beat the Jets on Monday Night Football, a wonderfully banal detail that Pynchon explores in more sentences than the actual attack. The days after offer a New Yorker’s cold perspective on the swiftly-mutating jingoism that exploded across the nation after 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks, and America’s response to them, ultimately serve to recapitulate neoliberalism and late capitalism. Pynchon repeats these terms throughout Bleeding Edge, adding them to his lexicon of old standbys like paranoiainvisible, and convenience. Indeed, Bleeding Edge can be read as a sustained how against late capitalism. But the howl also repeatedly shows the complicity of all the howlers: Who doesn’t want convenience? Who doesn’t want the latest fad, the comfort of mass-produced “culture”? Bleeding Edge is littered with the detritus of late-nineties-early-oughts “culture”: Furbies, Britney Spears, Doom, Ambien sex, Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, Nas, the Mamma Mia! Broadway musical, Pokemon, etc. etc. etc. Pynchon has always compounded high and low culture into something new, but Bleeding Edge seems to insist that the twentieth century’s ideals of “high” culture no longer obtain.

Some of his characters find optimism of a new culture, one outside the proscriptions of late capitalism, in the internet. A “game” called DeepArcher takes on a mystical quality in Bleeding Edge, a dwelling place for lost souls. Yet some characters are not optimistic about the future of the internet, including Maxine’s father Ernie, who warns her that the internet was born from the military-industrial-complex, and to the military-industrial-complex it will return. Ernie’s elegy for the internet is prescient, and reads like Pynchon looking back from the future, back from 2010, 2011, 2012, when the money guys had already sewed the seeds of ruination.

Indeed, many of the characters in Bleeding Edge come off as mouthpieces for Pynchon’s own viewpoints, whether it’s Ernie riffing on ARPANET or the decline of labor in the US, or Maxine’s zen therapist Shawn, who rails that late capitalism is a scam headed towards its own exhaustion at the price of our planet. It’s the arrangement of these voices that makes the novel strong though—Pynchon shows the complicity of each voice, even as he shows their resistance to the ideological machine they were born into.

It’s really only Maxine that comes through as a fully-achieved, human, character. She’s complex as both a detective, and a mother. Like Doc Sportello of Inherent Vice, she’s already an outsider, having had her license revoked. Despite her general anti-establishment tendencies, she’s nevertheless attracted to the nefarious agent of neoliberal violence, Nicholas Windust. The attraction here echoes Frenesi Gates’ relationship with Brock Vond in Vineland (or even Doc Sportello’s “partnership” with Bigfoot in Inherent Vice), suggesting an ambiguous, amorphous delineation between “good” and “evil” in Pynchon’s characters. Windust is a villain, but Maxine—and Pynchon—try to redeem him.

Other villains are a bit more one-note, like the geek billionaire Gabriel Ice. It being his New York novel, Rudy Giuliani is a frequent target, as is “the paper of record,” the New York Times. George W. Bush and his gang are minor players here; keeping with its NYC theme, Bleeding Edge suggests the corruption of figures like Elliot Spitzer and Bernie Madoff are part and parcel of a corrupt and corrupting system. Maxine’s job is to search out that corruption, but she doesn’t have the tools to cure it.

I had two false starts over six years before finally finishing Bleeding Edge. I’ll admit that I didn’t think it was that good on those starts, but after finishing it today I’d say that it’s very good. It’s not Gravity’s Rainbow or Mason & Dixon, but what novels are? I also have to admit that the material in the book is maybe too close to many of us to fully assess. I was graduating college in the spring of 2001, when the novel begins. In early September, I was living in my parents’ house, waiting to move to my first “real” job in Tokyo. I was supposed to leave on 9/14. I ended up leaving a week later. Pynchon captures a time in America during which I was, at least theoretically, becoming an adult (a becoming which may or may not have happened yet). Reading Bleeding Edge helped evoke all the weirdness the 2000s were about to lay out for us. It made me angry again, or reminded me of the anger that I’d sustain for most of the decade. It reminded me of our huge ideological failure after 9/11, an ideological failure we are watching somehow fail even more today.  But I also loved the novel’s unexpectedly sweet domestic plot, and found a kind of solace even in its affirmation of family, even as its final image pointed to the kind of radical inconclusiveness at the heart of being a parent.

There are about a million things I wanted to riff on in this blog about this book. I’ve failed to remark on how funny the book is, how insightful, and how, at times, frustrating. On one page Pynchon would make me laugh out loud, a page or two later I’d groan at one of his bad puns (Pynchon has no problem picking the lowest-hanging fruit), and then maybe I’d be cringing at something (like, a rap song he wrote!) a few pages later, before getting transfixed by a beautiful, strange prose sequence. It’s a big book.

Bleeding Edge isn’t Thomas Pynchon’s best novel, nor is it a great starting place for readers new to Pynchon, but I’m glad I finally read it. And I really, really hope that it isn’t his last one.

Insufficiently serious | Thomas Pynchon

Heidi has been working on an article for the Journal of Memespace Cartography she’s calling “Heteronormative Rising Star, Homophobic Dark Companion,” which argues that irony, assumed to be a key element of urban gay humor and popular through the nineties, has now become another collateral casualty of 11 September because somehow it did not keep the tragedy from happening. “As if somehow irony,” she recaps for Maxine, “as practiced by a giggling mincing fifth column, actually brought on the events of 11 September, by keeping the country insufficiently serious—weakening its grip on ‘reality.’ So all kinds of make-believe—forget the delusional state the country’s in already—must suffer as well. Everything has to be literal now.”

“Yeah, the kids are even getting it at school.” Ms. Cheung, an English teacher who if Kugelblitz were a town would be the neighborhood scold, has announced that there shall be no more fictional reading assignments. Otis is terrified, Ziggy less so. Maxine will walk in on them watching Rugrats or reruns of Rocko’s Modern Life, and they holler by reflex, “Don’t tell Ms. Cheung!”

“You notice,” Heidi continues, “how ‘reality’ programming is suddenly all over the cable, like dog shit? Of course, it’s so producers shouldn’t have to pay real actors scale. But wait! There’s more! Somebody needs this nation of starers believing they’re all wised up at last, hardened and hip to the human condition, freed from the fictions that led them so astray, as if paying attention to made-up lives was some form of evil drug abuse that the collapse of the towers cured by scaring everybody straight again.”

From Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

World Trade Center Tapestry — Joan Miró

wtctjm

Disintegration Loop 1.1 — William Basinski

 

List of Artworks Destroyed in the 9/11 World Trade Center Attack

 

Works destroyed in the September 11 attacks

Many works of art were destroyed in the September 11, 2001 attacks when the World Trade Center buildings collapsed.

Countless other works of art and valuable artifacts, found in safe deposit boxes located throughout the towers, were also destroyed.

Two other sculptures were damaged, but not destroyed by the attacks. These are Red Cube by Isamu Noguchi and Joie de Vivre by Mark di Suvero, located down the street from the World Trade Center. They were repaired and still stand today.

Via Wikipedia.

 

Slavoj Žižek: “We Are Approaching a Certain Zero Point”

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)


A Better Angel — Chris Adrian

Better Angel

How does one grieve? This central question runs through the nine stories that comprise Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel (available now in trade paperback from Picador). For Adrian’s protagonists, mostly adolescents and children, the past is inescapable and insurmountable, and the future promises only depression at best and eternal suffering at worst. These are stories about hauntings. In Adrian’s world (and it is a fully-realized world in the same way that Tolkien’s Middle Earth is its own discrete place), ghosts, angels, and even wayward friends are all likely to to demonically possess some sad, troubled weird kid. Again and again, these stories force their protagonists–and their readers–to question how one might witness to death, disease, and disaster–and still keep a modicum of sanity.

Those who’ve read Adrian’s novels The Children’s Hospital and Gob’s Grief will find that the stories in A Better Angel work to flesh out a distinctly Adrianesque milieu. There are hospitals and doctors and nurses, dead brothers and absent parents, events of epic destruction and personal crises of illness, drugs and alcohol, ouija boards, and plenty of angels and demons. Adrian’s narratives explore a fine line between metaphysics and pure biology that each protagonist has to navigate. In “The Sum of Our Parts,” nurses and doctors wonder how our body parts make us individuals as a ghost tries to escape her coma-bound body. The fraudulent doctor of “A Better Angel” uses drugs as a way of subduing the angel who haunts him. “I make my living praising the beauty of well children,” he says. “I love babies and I love ketamine, and that’s really why I became a pediatrician, not because I hate illnesses, or really ever wanted to make anybody better.” Indeed, Adrian’s characters seem doubtful that anyone can make anyone else better, but it doesn’t stop them from trying. There’s the father of “The Changeling,” whose son is possessed by the ghosts of those murdered in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, who parcels out his own body as a sacrifice to appease the dead. The story recognizes though that it’s not really the dead he is honoring–he’s really showing his love for his son–but this measure of love is not enough for the dead. “The Changeling” is one of three stories in A Better Angel addressing the 9/11 attacks (we’ll write more about this trio in an upcoming post, and we’ve already addressed one of the stories here), but the September 11th victims are hardly the only ghosts here. In “A Hero of Chickamauga,” Civil War re-enactors try to commune with the dead and somehow bring personal justice to something beyond comprehension. “A Child’s Book of Sickness and Death” posits disease as the ultimate affront to cosmic justice. Its protagonist Cindy, an ailing “short gut girl” who lives in semi-permanent residence at a children’s hospital, remarks to no one in particular after the death of a young child,

“It seems to me, who should really know better, that all the late, new sadness of the past twenty-four hours ought to count for something, out to do something, ought to change something, inside of me, or outside in the world. But I don’t know what it is that might change, and I expect that nothing will change–children have died here before, and hapless idiots have come and gone, and always the next day the sick still come to languish and be poked, and they will lie in bed hoping not for healing, a thing which the wise have all long given up on, but for something to make them feel better, just for a little while, and sometimes they get this thing, and often they don’t.”

Cindy’s is just one of many negative epiphanies here. It’s also worth noting that this Cindy is but one of several Cindys populating this book, and she also seems to be another version of a short gut syndrome Cindy who appears in The Children’s Hospital. In fact, most of the primary characters in “A Children’s Book of Sickness and Death” are also present in The Children’s Hospital, underscoring the sinew that connects Adrian’s milieu.

This holistic vision marks Adrian as an accomplished–and challenging–author. Adrian’s challenge is not so much an issue of readability; we found ourselves quickly devouring these stories. No, what we have here are tales that many will find hard to digest, the sort of stuff that some readers will find too bitter to ruminate and puzzle out. Adrian, through his protagonists’ bleak outlooks, doesn’t offer a cure or even much solace from the pain and sickness in the world, but he does offer some temporary, if mild, relief, a sort of reckoning with that pain and sickness. Although the angels and demons and ghosts of Adrian’s world cannot be ignored or dismissed, they can be confronted, even if that confrontation must repeat without solution. Instead of pandering to his readers with Panglossian platitudes or metaphysical escape hatches, Adrian dramatizes the realities of our mortality in a way that compels both sympathy and repulsion, and above all, some deep thinking. Highly recommended.