Does 9/11 Belong in Fiction? Part 1
This, from the guy who spent the entire morning of 9/11 waiting, crying, frantic to hear from me. But even through his tears, or perhaps because of them, needing something “useful” to do, he had the presence of mind to pop tapes in the VCR, which was helpful to me, since I had missed the televised version, and needed something to help me figure out what I had just witnessed.
And trust me, I prefer the rough accuracy, the speechless anchorpeople and unknown outcome of the 6-hour VCR version, over the beautifully-edited, artfully scored rehashes that start showing up on cable this time of year. When “It” happened, as we were heading away from the falling buildings, strangers around me kept saying, “this feels like a war movie.” And now that those surreal moments are etched permanently in our brains, the same footage, the same “Oh, shit,” so commonplace as to become cliché, I’m beginning to wonder if it hasn’t become a war movie after all.
Okay, so if it is a war movie, what kind is it? Are we thinking more John Wayne or Francis Ford Coppola? Are there bad guys and good guys or just guys? Will there be a set of rules about how we are supposed to feel? Or, will those rules be breached purposefully and disgustingly, a la South Park’s version of “The Aristocrats” (which some sick part of me thinks is really funny)?
Steve Almond reacted to Jonathan Safran Foer’s EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE (ELIC) in a guest column on Moby Lives a few months ago, calling the book “a melodrama, one that seeks to dazzle and soothe its readers, rather than placing them in any real emotional danger.” He slammed Foer’s Amazon fans, who “know that they’re being talked down to,” but find the novel “an act of heroism. They claim reading the book is an important way of working through their feelings about 9/11.” Almond’s column caused a small buzz of counteropinion on the Short Stories board of Zoetrope.com. I participated in the discussion too—Almond’s article angered me. Not because I love Foer’s work (I do), or because I had read ELIC (I haven’t), or even because I dislike Steve Almond (I adore his fiction and agree with all of his politics).
So why did Almond piss me off? Foer’s a New Yorker. Almond isn’t. What right does he have to be so critical? Was he there?
But if I think about it, I wasn’t there there either. I was in the building next door. There’s a big difference between an eyewitness and a victim. So by my own logic, what right do I have, having lost no one that day, to be offering my opinion right now?
I just reread the Almond column, and found myself letting go of my New York high horse, maybe wondering (in the generic sense; I still haven’t read the Foer) if Almond doesn’t have a point. His complaint is about using 9/11 as a kind of canned signifier, exploiting our pre-existing feelings on the subject, allowing us to do little more than relive the horror, then maybe claim it as ours. Like the annual TV rehash. Almond wishes that Foer had really dissected the event, maybe looked at complex political histories, motivations, culpabilities, instead of childhood fantasy and victimhood. Those are valid wishes from a reader, whether they are talking about Foer or anybody else.
In Foer’s defense, I believe he accomplished all of the above with a more loaded real-life tragedy, the Holocaust, in EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED. But since I’m not qualified to discuss ELIC, I’ll push Foer out of the discussion until I read it (which is feeling urgent at the moment).
Let’s look at the treatment of 9/11 in storytelling. And I mean any kind of storytelling: fiction, political treatise, documentary, etc. I’m starting to come around to Almond’s general point of view. If I let my 9/11 experience creep into my fiction, and I have been lately, it’s my responsibility to take a step back, to critique my drafts not as a New Yorker, or even an American, but as a citizen of the world, to take stock of my goals as an artist, and make sure I’m not just falling into the territory of a loaded gimmick. Because loaded gimmicks lose their potency over time. And if the potency is lost, true honor for the dead is not far behind.