Sunday, September 11, 2011

Narrating 9/11: Crisis and Community in American Fiction

By Patrick Thomas Henry

Ten years later, the September 11, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the United Airlines Flight 93 crash in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, still cloud over the American imagination. The resonant images—the exhaust-black sky over the cindering, collapsing Twin Towers, or the plume of flame jetting from the Pentagon’s side, or the ash pit in Shanksville where the plane crashed—have metamorphosed into cultural touchstones, vividly re-evoking the tragedies. Pundits and politicians have analyzed and capitalized on the attacks, while America’s fiction writers, essayists, and poets have shouldered the Atlas-like task of re-witnessing these events and guiding us, as readers and human beings, through the devastation.

The news media instilled an unsettling reality—a sense of helpless paralysis—in those distanced from the sites. CNN, and other news agencies streamed the footage of the Towers disintegrating on a disturbing loop; newspapers were hardly better, centering the destruction of the iconic Towers on their front pages. In Elizabeth Strout’s novel-in-stories, Olive Kitteridge (2008), the eponymous character prepares to visit her son in New York and trembles from the psychological shock of observing—from a safe distance in Portland, Maine—the devastation:
. . . back when those planes ripped through the towers, Olive had sat in her bedroom and wept like a baby, not so much for this country but for the city itself, which had seemed to her to become suddenly no longer a foreign, hardened place, but as fragile as a class of kindergarten children, brave in their terror.
Strout’s effortless glide into Olive’s subconscious demonstrates a key intent of 9/11 writing as a genre: 9/11 narratives do not re-create the tragedy but process its vast scope into something that shapes a community of similarly spirited readers. Olive, a former teacher, likens New York’s inhabitants to kindergarten students valiantly grappling with something beyond their understandings. This pings a rare dent of sentiment into Strout’s ornery protagonist, and 9/11 transforms into a metaphor for how Olive might repair her relationship with her son.

Re-building families from the ground up recurs throughout 9/11 narratives, including novels such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010), Porochista Khakpour’s Sons and Other Flammable Objects (2007), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007). A portion of DeLillo’s novel was published as a short story entitled “Still-Life” in the April 9, 2007, edition of The New Yorker; the excerpt tracks Keith and Lianne, an estranged couple, as they resume their domestic routine after Keith narrowly escapes the carnage at Ground Zero. We learn, as Keith rekindles a relationship with his and Lianne’s son Justin, that the collapse has founded in Keith a desire to better understand his world, even as terrible possibilities lurk in the unknown:
Keith as well was going slow, easing inward. He used to want to fly out of self-awareness, day and night, a body in raw motion. Now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection . . . drawing things out of time and memory into some dim space that bears his collected experience. . . . Something is always happening, even on the quietest days and deep into the night, if you stand awhile and look.
DeLillo reminds us, though, that this vigilance is meant to counteract paranoia, to re-forge those ties that matter most. Notably, the section of “Still-Life” containing the above quotation concludes with Justin snapping Keith from his reverie with the statement, “We go home now.”

9/11 narratives shift readers from cataclysm to fostering communities by propelling us from terrified stasis into tentative yet meaningful activity. This often occurs through fragmented narratives moving between multiple points of view. Strout displaces Olive’s reaction by placing her trip to New York after the attacks, and DeLillo’s work exhibits these tendencies as the novel reacts to 9/11 in the following days. Perhaps one of the most splintered 9/11 stories, Deborah Eisenberg’s “Twilight of the Superheroes” ping-pongs between a post-9/11 New York, the pointless paranoia of Y2K, and an array of homes and art galleries. This frequently reminds the reader of art’s import in coping with any suffering. Eisenberg’s story generates momentum, urging her characters forward and reminding her readers in the concluding clause—“and then the children turned the page”—that better futures await the next generation.

9/11 writings—a genre too broad to fully describe in this brief piece—do not commemorate disaster, but memorialize how to persevere. If the genre possesses a shortcoming, it is that the lessons of 9/11 fiction extend beyond New York’s city limits. (I write this as a long-time resident of central Pennsylvania, one who was astutely aware of how the crash in Shanksville transformed the region overnight.) Regardless, no guides were better suited to the task of re-imagining America than our favorite stories of the past decade. Fiction, particularly in catastrophe’s wake, brings us together as thinking and emoting human beings in a way that nothing else does.