Does “It” Belong in Fiction? Part 3: Terror as Metaphor
And stepping back, I realize that for most New Yorkers, those who didn’t lose loved ones, “It” happened fairly quickly, then became a charged backdrop for our daily lives, or the new ones that we were leading, given displacements, heightened security (and maybe too the loss of personal freedoms, though I won’t go there today), and the changed cityscape. I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of literature that captures this feeling. There are numerous examples of “post 9/11 fiction,” but this moniker has a slightly different meaning. “Post 9/11 fiction,” in my understanding, is about our “new” world, post loss-of-innocence, and many writers have been using metaphor to point to the event and its cultural implications. But it’s hard to find work that uses the event itself as mere setting, allowing its own metaphorical properties to comment on other, unrelated human dramas.
In other words, stories that are inside “It,” but are not about “It.”
Maybe using “It” as setting can be most easily accomplished in film. Jane Campion’s “In the Cut,” an adaptation of Susanna Moore’s novel, has some of what I’m seeking. The novel, published in 1999, is an exploration of the dark side of one woman’s sexuality, part who-dunnit thriller, part Mr. Goodbar, part poetic-textual analysis. But filmed in the surreal cityscape of the new downtown (Summer 2002? Autumn 2001?), the markers of change loom red-white-and-blue in the background, and throw another dimension of threat onto the protag, Frannie, as she continues to have sex with the cop she suspects is a murderer.
Conventional wisdom might dictate that the scarred buildings and ashy flags in the background could be distracting, maybe even gratuitous. My friend Jon Baskin filmed “Beef,” a documentary about poets, pre-“It,” then in fall 2001, scrambled to remove footage of the intact World Trade towers before sending it to festivals. I fought him on this choice—“it’s a record!”—but he was right. The film is a fully upbeat tour of free speech and po-culture, and allowing innocent pans of the towers to remain would have felt like a cheap trick.
But letting the cityscape speak for itself is an intentional move in Campion/Moore’s “In the Cut.” We see the dust in the warm yellow light. In the beats between lines, Frannie looks at the black shell of the building just south of the WTC emptiness. She watches strangers carry an enormous funeral wreath on the subway platform. But too, she observes a bride and groom through the train windows, and images begin to bleed: the Poetry In Motion verse she copies in her notebook, the same words on the tee shirt of a sexy teenager on a Tribeca stairway. Frannie is a writer herself, and in Meg Ryan’s pensive portrayal, the dream of metaphor and language overwhelms the canned signifiers of “It” all around her. And as the serial killer literally “disarticulates” dead women, Frannie becomes “disarticulated” herself, quietly building and breaking connections between the words and images in her surroundings.
The result is an accurate portrayal of the city’s post-crisis mood, that of continuing life but constantly acknowledging mortality and murder. The threshold of mortality is both sexy and scary. Or, as one of my Merrill Lynch co-workers said, “Everybody was fucking on the night of September 11.”
Okay, but I’m not trying to make films. How can this effect happen on the page? I haven’t found a perfect example, but…
Arthur Nersesian is a true New York novelist, and in his latest, UNLUBRICATED, he allowed “It” into the narrative. It wasn’t a matter of writing a 9/11 novel. Nersesian’s work is about artists and subcultures of a particular place and time, and UNLUBRICATED is the latest in his continuous oeuvre. (BTW I don’t think it’s his best…that would be DOGRUN,.) But unlike “In the Cut,” Nersesian’s work is largely comedy-of-manners. So how much time and/or distance is necessary to make “It” funny?
Nersesian took the opposite route, no distance at all. The funny characters happen to travel through “It.” His actress narrator, Hannah, finds herself in a jumble of evacuees downtown on September 11, and befriends a stranger, as many of us did. But then the terror and tragedy become more of an economic obstacle, as Hannah struggles to pay bills and produce the feminist play, “Unlubricated,” a loose nod to Valerie Solanas, the real-life gal who shot Andy Warhol. (The play itself is about a community of artists— Nersesian’s calling card—a writer’s group in this case.) Confusing enough? That’s the point. The book is full of Nersesian moments—appointments almost missed, money barely made. But foremost, the novel is true to its voice and its literary context, the quirky, “cult,” insider view of the New York underground that only this author has found.
Nersesian’s critics have poo-pooed him for not truly “taking on” the terrorist attack, for letting it in without letting it take over. I firmly disagree. While light in tone, the chaos does inform the narrative, the way chaos does, delivering both difficulty and opportunity in a high-speed simultaneity. I’m not looking to write another UNLUBRICATED. But this reader, for one, is glad Nersesian had the courage to let the events of his time be a part of his ongoing setting.
Perhaps most importantly, the “It” of 9/11 brings to mind the other “It” taking place right now. It may be too early to think about the bigger trauma of the Gulf Coast in the same way. Perhaps the writers of that region will need to tour the changed landscape themselves, go beyond the canned and politicized images we get on CNN, into their own charged memories and continuous oeuvres. I, for one, am eager to see what they deliver.
Last night I spoke to a New Orlean who has been living in New York for some time. He said, surprisingly, that he is eager to go back. I think of the breathtaking footage in Jim Jarmusch’s “Down by Law,” and the same houses now submerged, and wonder what these images will mean to those who have lived there for some time. Call it apolitical and banal, but is the narrative I crave, after all the disrupted lives find new traction, and all the yelling and blaming is done.