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

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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.

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.

Chris Adrian, 9/11 Lit, Thomas Pynchon, Beach Reading and More

I’m about half way through two books right now: Chris Adrian’s A Better Angel, and Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. Pynchon’s latest novel–I’ll talk a little bit about it in a sec–comes out in hardback from Penguin August 4th. Picador will release the first trade paperback edition of Chris Adrian’s latest collection of short stories on August 3rd. I’m really digging A Better Angel so far, but before I talk about it, I just wanna shill for Picador. They put out really cool, great-looking books from really cool authors like Roberto Bolaño, J.G. Ballard, Denis Johnson, William Burroughs, and DJ Kool Herc, and they also have a sexy little imprint called BIG IDEAS//small books that puts out some killer jams. They’re also really nice about sending review copies. Shill shill shill. I’m a whore, but I’m an earnest whore.

Better Angel

Anyway. Back to Adrian. Just finished “The Vision of Peter Damien,” a 9/11 story set in what seems to be nineteenth century rural Ohio. Damien, and then the other children of his small rural community, catch an illness that gives them unexplained, vivid hallucinations of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers. Adrian works in a mode of distortion throughout most of these stories so far, repeatedly employing metaphysical disruptions as well as playing with time and setting as a way of alienating his characters from each other and the reader. Adrian uses the temporal/metaphysical disruptions of “The Vision of Peter Damien” to respond to 9/11, creating an uncanny milieu for his readers. The cognitive dissonance here reminds me of other responses to 9/11, like DeLillo’s Falling Man, David Foster Wallace’s short story “The Suffering Channel,” and even Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers. Actually, Wallace’s essay “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s” does a really good job of capturing all the problems of witnessing to, understanding, reacting to (etc.) spectacular disaster. Adrian’s story recapitulates the same paradoxes, injecting a motif of illness and brotherhood, contagious decay and redemption that seems to run through all of the stories collected here. I don’t have a larger comment about literature’s response to 9/11 yet, but I think that it’s fascinating to watch such stories emerge and evolve. We’re still seeing the various shapes, tropes, strategies, etc. that authors will employ to tackle (or chip at, or remark upon, or even elide) such a big historical marker. Full review of A Better Angel at the end of this month.

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Far less serious is Pynchon’s new novel, Inherent Vice, a detective noir painted in day-glo psychedelic swirls. Doc Sportello, at the behest of his ex-, is searching for a missing real-estate billionaire in the dope-haze of late 60s/early 70s LA (it appears to be set in 1969, as there are repeated references to “living in the sixties and seventies”). Pynchon’s new novel is a hard-boiled detective mystery, a psychedelic caper, an LA story, a comment on the decline of idealism and the emergence of media-unreality at the end of the 60s (because we needed another story about the 60s!), and probably a shaggy dog tale. The cover has gotten some criticism for its decidedly unliterary look, and last March I called it “horrendous.” I take it back: the campy cover, with its neon shock and beach-as-pastoral-idyll is lovingly ironic, satire that does not announce itself as satire and is thus always open to a straight-reading. Just like Pynchon’s novel, the cover can be read as an homage to both Dashiell Hammett and Elmore Leonard (with a sly nod to all the Leonard ripoffs out there (glancing your way, Jimmy Buffett). As its cover suggests, this is a Pynchon book you can read breezily on a beach or airplane. Sure, it’s got the usual Pynchon trademarks–it’s overcrowded with zany, one-dimensional characters, it operates on a Looney Toons system of logic, it’s full of linguistic goofs–but it’s also incredibly easy to read (unlike, say, just about everything else Pynchon has ever written). It’s also a lot of fun. And to prove it’s a beach read, I’ll finish it this week at St.Augustine Beach, inebriated by strong margaritas and even stronger sun. Full review when I get back.