Dr. Kristiaan Versluys, a professor of English at the University of Ghent, takes a close look at a handful of 9/11-themed works of fiction in his new book, Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that it prompted me to rethink my reactions to the novels he discusses—I may never be a great admirer of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, but the book reveals how carefully DeLillo worked to mimic the ways that traumatic events unsettle our ability to tell stories. Dr. Versluys does much the same for the other books he covers in-depth, including Art Spiegelman‘s graphic memoir In the Shadow of No Towers, Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Frédéric Beigbeder‘s Windows on the World. Out of the Blue is an academic book, but it’s low on jargon, and provides some useful context for the debates about 9/11 fiction that are bound to emerge in the future.
Dr. Versluys answered questions about Out of the Blue via e-mail.
Much of Out of the Blue discusses 9/11 fiction in relation to trauma studies. Did you have an interest in the relationship between trauma and literature before writing the essays in this book? What led you to look at trauma as one of the main prisms you use to study this literature—as opposed to, say, through the prism of politics?
When I spent a sabbatical year at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies in 2004-5, the idea was to write a book on recent New York fiction. I have taught many courses on that topic both at Ghent University, my home university in Belgium, and as a guest professor in the Columbia summer school program. The way I had planned it, the last chapter would be devoted to 9/11 fiction. For reasons too intricate to explain I started with the last chapter, only to realize that in the short time since the terrorist attacks had taken place, a body of work had come out that was substantial enough to be the subject of a separate book.
The first text I studied in depth was Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers. Spiegelman looks upon the events of September 11 through the conceptual screen of the Holocaust. That led me to take a closer look at trauma studies in general and Holocaust-studies in particular. I have always treated post-structuralist approaches to literature with a great deal of skepticism. But especially the writings of Dominick LaCapra (rather than the canonical Cathy Caruth) made me aware of the fact that in trauma studies post-structuralism – so often abstract and theoretical in its orientation – touches ground and provides a tool to talk with respect and deference about things that remain essentially unsayable. Nonetheless, I feel that, at bottom, I remain an old-fashioned humanist. I prefer to read novels in the grain, rather than against the grain. And while I am indebted to post-structuralism for its attention to language and though I take into account that language introduces fissures and ruptures, I also perceive it to be an instrument of healing and restoration.
You write that the 9/11-themed works you discuss “testify to the shattering of certainties and the laborious recovery of balance.” I imagine that novelists writing on subjects such as war, or totalitarianism, or even domestic abuse, might feel they’re doing the same kind of testifying. What, if anything, distinguishes 9/11 novels from fiction about those other kinds of traumatic experiences?
As a traumatic event, September 11 is comparable to other traumatic events. Paradoxically, though, one of the characteristics it shares with similar events, is that it is singular and irreducible. In the first place this is the case, of course, for the victims, their families and friends. No analogy is capable of capturing what it means to be trapped in a burning tower or to lose one’s parent, spouse or close friend.
In addition, 9/11 is arguably the first instance of what one could call global trauma. It was witnessed not only by the people in the direct vicinity of the WTC-towers on that bright Tuesday morning. It was also witnessed by millions and presumably hundreds of millions on TV, either live or in the many repetitions of the iconic images that everybody remembers. It is possible that in order to talk about this new kind of trauma, we will need a new vocabulary, a new or at least a modified conceptual framework. We know a lot already about indirect witnessing and secondary trauma, esp. with regard to second- and third-generation Holocaust survivors. We also know that a whole culture can undergo a sense of shock so severe that its collective assumptions are profoundly disrupted and that a catastophe can “create ‘problems of identity’ for individuals and communities well beyond its circumference of material destruction” (Gray and Oliver). So there is a lot of theory to go on already. Yet it seems to me we are dealing here with something that is different from what preceded. Notions such as those of authenticy or inauthenticity, the traumatic sublime, postmemory, trauma transference, empty empathy etc. – all notions that are current in trauma theory – may have to be adapted or revised to fit the new category of global trauma. Televised indirect experience raises new questions as to what is genuine and what is hype and it establishes new conditions for making memorializing into an act of approximation and not an act of appropriation.
You note that there are about 30 literary novels available currently about 9/11. Were there other 9/11 books that you considered writing about at length? I suspect you’ve already heard from people wondering why the book doesn’t mention, say, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.
In order to keep the study manageable, I made the decision early on to deal only with novels in which 9/11 is not just a background event, but in which it plays an essential role in the plot development. Apart from the two novels you mention, there are more novels of merit in which 9/11 is part of the background: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, to mention only a few. I deal with two such novels (Anita Shreve’s A Wedding in December and Ian McEwan’s Saturday) in the epilogue to indicate that, as time goes by and the first shock wears off, 9/11 is bound to become “spectralized.” Its presence will become less and less visible, but for that reason all the more haunting. The direct treatment of the events on September 11 is bound to be replaced in the collective imagination by the indirect treatment. To study that phenomenon requires another book.
Your chapter on Falling Man ends with a provocative statement: Because the novel “allows for no proper mourning or working through,” you write, there’s a danger that “it can serve as a prelude to, or be used as an excuse for, wholesale, reactionary and even totalitarian movements of redress and moral restoration.” Can you elaborate on how these movements might manifest themselves?
I borrow this idea from Dominick LaCapra. The point he makes is that a condition of collective grief that is considered irredeemable might be the breeding ground for a revanchist logic. If the nation does not learn to deal with loss, it might be tempted to restore normalcy “through the elimination or victimization of those to whom blame is imputed” (LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, 65). This line of reasoning is related to the distinction between true and false witnessing, made by the psycho-analysist R.J. Lifton. False witnessing, according to Lifton, occurs when death anxiety is converted directly into killing. The example he cites is the massacre at My Lai. But it could easily be applied to the way the Bush administration reacted to September 11 and in fact to the ultra-conservative backlash that lasted till the election of President Obama. The novels I discuss argue for an ethics of responsibility, in which the complexity of the situation is fully presented and the simple binary logic of “us versus them” – so cleverly exploited by the Bush administration – is avoided.
Critics have been largely (though not uniformly) unkind to the books you discuss, and you elaborate on some of the reasons why. Writing about Falling Man, you note that “the characters are so thin that their whole existence boils down to mere nomenclature” and that “no narrative momentum is allowed to develop.” You note the “flatness” of Grandpa’s character in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and the “soppy happy ending” of Terrorist. But you also point out many rewarding characteristics of these novels that you believe critics missed. Do you feel the negative critical reaction to these books is related more to their unconventional structures and approaches, or more to the way they are, as you write, “subversive of nationalistic imperatives”?
Let’s be clear about one point: the great September 11 novel has not been written yet and maybe it never will. To a point, the negative critical reactions are justified and understandable. No writer has yet been able to capture the magnitude of the event or the shock it produced. The unsayable remains unsaid. The negative critical reactions might, therefore, be understood as the result of disappointment. Here is an event that cries out for a definitive reading and it is not forthcoming. Nonetheless, there is much more to these books than some reviewers have spotted. My study is a tribute to the few writers who have been courageous enough to tackle an impossible topic. Even though they succeeded only partially, there is much insight to be gained from their efforts.
You note that nearly all the books under discussion have been written by white American men, and write that it’s an open question whether future 9/11 fiction will be “marked by more gender and ethic diversity or acquire a more outspoken international dimension.” What do think has made 9/11 the province of such a singular kind of writer thus far?
The answer to this question can only be pure guess work. Minority writers might have no need to deal with 9/11, as long as they are dealing with the traumas in their collective pasts. As to women, Anita Shreve and Claire Messud have been prominent in recording the dispersion of 9/11 in the culture at large as a spectral presence, a vestige, palpable but invisible.