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.

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.

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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.

Comic Book Writers on The Simpsons

Even a die-hard Simpsons fan such as myself–I’ve been watching the show for over half of my life on a near-daily basis–cannot deny that the show has been in a slump for the past couple (some might say dozen) years. And so far, the 2007 season has been pretty awful–even the highly anticipated “Treehouse of Horror” episode failed to elicit a single laugh. So I was unduly excited by the first segment of last night’s episode, which featured three of our favorite comic book writers: Art Spiegelman, Daniel Clowes, and Alan Moore. Jack Black guest-starred as the owner of Coolsville, a new comic book shop where the elite underground trio gathers for a book signing (much to the ire of Comic Book Guy, of course). Somehow (and of course, if you watch The Simpsons, you know exactly how), this plot lasts exactly until the commercial break: in part two Marge opens a gym, and in part three Homer gets plastic surgery. Sigh. Luckily, Youtube allows us to preserve and isolate the most pleasing fragment of last night’s episode and watch it again and again obsessively.

Check out the super trio here (and take note of the prominent display of one of our favorite graphic novels ever, From Hell):

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.

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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.