August 10, 2008

In which I respond to the reader question, "What do you think of 9/11 Fiction?"

(UPDATE: Mea culpa! I was obviously thinking of DeLillo's Falling Man when writing up these thoughts; I apologize for the confusion. In my defense, it's been almost ten years since I've read the book, and it DOES feature on the front cover a creepy picture of the World Trade Center and a church in the foreground. Can you tell that I generally think of DeLillo's newest books as mostly forgettable and interchangeable?)

I mentioned, right, that I recently added 600 quick mentions and ratings at Goodreads of past novels I've read, right? Yeah, that's right, I did. And one of those was the September-11th-themed Underworld by Don DeLillo, who I actually like quite a bit in general but only gave three stars to in that particular case. And one random person over at Goodreads chimed in tonight with the random comment, "I'd love to read your review of this one," which ended up spontaneously inspiring a passionate reaction from me regarding the entire subject of so-called "9/11 Fiction," and especially how those of us in large American cities that contain a lot of skyscrapers react to such books.

It turned into a much longer response than I expected, something that could exist as its own standalone mini-entry here; so I decided to just post it here too, as a way of maybe inspiring a bit of spirited conversation in the comments. (Seriously, it's okay to be boisterous and opinionated in the comments, as long as you adhere to CCLaP's common-sense policies, and as long as you understand that comments usually aren't approved in real time.) Here is the full response from Goodreads, below...

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Hmm, your random comment actually brings up a thing surprisingly complex for any American to still deal with -- of what we think of so-called "9/11 Fiction." Is it weird to confess that seven years later, the subject still has the power to deeply, very deeply upset me, and that I'm still not sure I'm ready to deal with fictional artistic projects based around the subject?

Maybe it's better emotionally and intellectually to respond this way instead...

Pulitzer-winning "Chicago Tribune" cultural columnist Julia Keller has asked over and over in her column, "Where is the great 9/11 project? Where is our generation's Guernica?" And I answer, "Maybe no artist really can respond to that actual inhuman day, that day that makes so many of us so upset still, that will maybe make some of us upset to the point of tears to the day we die, even just by bringing it up. Maybe there simply is no decent artistic response to the actual events of that day, and maybe there simply never will be."

Maybe, Ms. Keller, it's better to ask what the great projects are that address how we RESPONDED to 9/11. That's a much easier question to answer: See McCarthy's "The Road," see Brooks' "World War Z," see Stewart et al's "The Colbert Report." Maybe 9/11 itself is just too horrible; maybe it's simply too horrible an event unto itself for any of us to react to in any kind of sensible, rational, interesting, thought-provoking way.

Maybe "Underworld" is f-cking terrible. Or maybe I'm unequipped as someone who lives five miles away from the Sears Tower to ever be able to judge a "9/11 Novel" on decent artistic terms. Maybe as an adult witness to 9/11 and the neocon years that followed, I am destined to be like the middle-class Germans of the 1950s, refusing to ever address the Nazi years directly except under the code term "Sonderweg" -- literally, "the wrong path," symbolically, "my God, how is it that we all fell under such a weird dark spell for so long?"

Ms Keller, maybe the more interesting question is this: not "why has there been no great 9/11 literature?" but "What's going to happen with this subject when Obama [most likely] becomes President?" When suddenly a whole wave of retired soldiers start feeling it ethically okay to finally share their personal opinions and stories with the public, the personal horror tales they went through and witnessed over there? When the subject suddenly switches like South Africa after apartheid to war crimes and international tribunals and retribution? The artistic projects that are produced THEN; that I think is the much more interesting subject to ponder than simple 9/11 fiction...

...which is my long way of telling you that I will most likely never write up a full review of DeLillo's "Underworld," like you asked in your comment. Sorry.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:12 PM, August 10, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |