Thursday, September 08, 2005

Does 9/11 Belong in Fiction? Part 2

So I didn’t answer my own darn question in my last post. Sorry about that. The simple, obvious answer is yes. (And Katrina, thanks for pushing the matter in comments.) 9/11 is acceptable fiction material if only because censorship sucks, especially self-censorship.

And many examples come to mind of undeniably artful literature focused on the crises of our time: Tim O’Brien’s THE THINGS THEY CARRIED (Vietnam War), Tony Kushner’s ANGELS IN AMERICA (AIDS epidemic). Neither of these works cheapen the experiences of those most touched by these disasters. Both have insights and imagery unique enough to be memorable and resonant. To declare true, large-scale trauma off-limits to artists is a ridiculous, inflammatory proposal.

But, assuming the goal of art is emotional resonance, or “to awaken mercy,” as Steve Almond says, using well-known crises with pre-assigned meanings presents a challenge. Consider the way the news media name events, complete with animated graphics. Even as the towers still stood burning, TV screens flashed “Attack on America.” The moniker sticks, assigning meaning to the event. People start saying “they hate us for our freedom.” (Really? Are you sure they don’t hate us for our wealth? Or our military forays? And who are they, exactly?) Almost immediately, American flags go up where the towers once stood. Flags everywhere. Huge ones cover the faces of scarred buildings. Lapel pins. Tiny window stickers. Firefighters and EMS are now dubbed patriots first, humanitarians second. An entrepreneurial fife player on Fulton and Broadway is playing “God Bless America,” repeatedly, and I’m sitting in my relocated office (read: conference room with laptops) four floors above him, surrounded by my Russian and Puerto Rican colleagues, losing my shit, thinking, wait a minute, wasn’t it the WORLD Trade Center? With a globe at the center of its plaza and a giant PEACE ON EARTH at Christmastime? And now everyone accepts this new assigned meaning without question? Wasn’t Eurobrokers one of the firms who lost a lot of people? What about the large Latin contingent at Windows on the World? What happened to my New York, the polyglot, international city? Or, was I putting too much faith in another assigned meaning, namely the great Salad Bowl / Melting Pot?

(Aside: my colleague suggested we show the fife player a lemon, an old Russian trick. That the sight of it would make it impossible for him to pucker. We laughed until we hurt, while the fife player kept on, while smoke rose from the rubble across the street.)

In his essay “On Defamiliarization,” writers’ uber-mentor Charles Baxter discusses methods of avoiding “cliché,” “boring,” or emotions that feel false or “cheap.” He argues that the key to emotional resonance is the “widowed,” or de-symbolized object or image. “This removes the tyranny of meaning over event. Art that is overcontrolled by its meanings may start to go a bit dead: The images in the story will have a wilted quality, the feel of the vehement message about to leap over the experience.” The events of 9/11 are full of vehement messages and controlling meanings, and I don’t just mean the America stuff. The excess of reportage in the aftermath focused on post-traumatic stress, collective grief and the modern tradition of memorial stacking: teddy bears and flowers and kids drawings left at the scene to express our outpouring of care. While I don’t question the genuine feeling embedded in these phenomena, their ubiquity in our consciousness creates risky terrain when one is crafting a story, especially after time has elapsed and the open wounds have begun to heal.

Baxter cites several writers and scholars on the idea of stripping meaning from object. He paraphrases Gerard Manley Hopkins’ notebooks: “Sometimes an obsessive image is the product of a trauma. The trauma cannot be remembered but has left its trace in misfit details.” The misfit details become a kind of fetish; “Hopkins describes these obsessive images of objects as things for which he has not ‘found the law.’”

But Baxter goes beyond emphasizing "novelty" as the way to breathe emotion into image. The key is not to have a new image. It is to break the image from its names and assignments, which opens up the narrative. Baxter gives examples of stripped or “widowed” actions in stories, in particular moments of the “banal” that creep into situations that are supposed to be emotionally charged. Like my colleague and the lemon idea, I suppose. The incongruous laugh in the middle of a disaster. Or the time we got clearance to go back in our building, and the security guard watered our plants. Moments of dumb life in the middle of death, examples of non-reaction to the surrounding drama.

He also brings in the ideas of Viktor Shklovsky, whose theory on “algebrization” as a coping mechanism for brain saturation applies well to the 9/11 drama:

Algebrization is the process of turning an event or familiar object into an automatic symbol. It’s like saying, Oh, she’s having another one of her crazy tantrums, or Yeah, it’s another goddamn freeway gridlock. We protect ourselves from the force of her tantrum by turning it into an algebraic equivalent: let x be the tantrum. Well, she’s having another x.

This Algebrization is the thing I mean to break in my exploration of 9/11. More Baxter on Shklovsky: “…if you have a familiar object or action to describe, you would do well not to name it, or to give it a new name, or to write as if you’re seeing it for the first time, in a state of profitable forgetting.”

So step one: 9/11 can’t be 9/11, or Attack on America. If I’m writing about it, it needs a new damn name.

I’m still thinking. Suggestions for new names welcome. I’m sick of these three numerals.

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