Is/Is Not 9/11

Last week the website Creative Writing Now invited me to answer a few questions about books and book reviewing. The first question was about my take on the past decade in American fiction—a subject way too broad for me to address without appearing presumptuous and/or arrogant, but it was a chance for me to bring up something I’ve been thinking about for a while:

Though there are a fairly small number of novels that address 9/11 head-on, there seem to be plenty of novels that’ve sublimated the past eight years or so of military adventures into other settings, imagining oppressed states (as in Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio) or recalling repressive regimes (as in Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases and Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants). It may be meaningful that in the past few years there have been two prominent big books of literary fiction about the Vietnam War, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Karl MarlantesMatterhorn. Weren’t we supposed to be past these books? Aren’t literary readers supposed to be more interested in The Way We Live Now? It’s almost as if we’re clinging hard to old war stories in spite of their irrelevance to our current state of affairs, as if the Vietnam era is now “the good old days.”

It’d require a lot more research, but there seems to be a category of novel that couldn’t exist after 9/11, is informed by 9/11, but isn’t explicitly about 9/11—where the concerns about war and repression and individual security are very much there but thrust into some other, non-9/11 setting. Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin might qualify; so might Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, though post-9/11 anxieties are very much present in that novel even if it doesn’t dwell on the event itself. When I interviewed Kristiaan Versluys last year about his study of 9/11 novels, Out of the Blue, he mentioned a few more candidates, and suggested that we’re probably due for more novels that address that event only abstractedly:

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 [Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Ken KalfusA Disorder Peculiar to the Country], 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.

I don’t think American literature would be diminished if it failed to produce a quintessential 9/11 novel that was very much about 9/11. (Maybe Keith Gessen is right and we’ve still got a long wait.) But its relative absence is still curious and, in its own way, revealing—after all, it says something that fiction writers are more comfortable addressing 9/11 by, as Versluys put it, spectralizing it, making it a ghost. Maybe that’s more an intention than a side effect.

Third-Person Shooters

I spent most of last week in Halifax, Nova Scotia, so I didn’t have an opportunity to blog.* I was able to get some reading done, though: I left with Tom Bissell‘s Extra Lives, a collection of personal essays, reporting, and essays on video games, and Karl MarlantesMatterhorn, a hefty novel set during the Vietnam War. The two have a lot to say to each other, it turns out. Both to a large extent wrestle with the same question: How do you tell a story about combat without boring people?

The first time I heard about Extra Lives, it sounded like the worst-case scenario of the stunt-memoir trend: Bissell, a talented reporter and fiction writer, had apparently squandered a great deal of his time and talent in recent years snorting coke and playing Grand Theft Auto IV. True enough, he had: The Guardian excerpted the relevant chapter from the book last March. But Bissell’s book isn’t a story about morals and addiction—or even Bissell himself, really. It’s a story about story: It’s a study about how the people who create the console games Bissell favors struggle to create compelling guiding narratives while also giving users an opportunity to create their own compelling narrative as they play.** Both the former and the latter (also known as the “ludonarrative”) tend to fall short for Bissell; rare is videogame that can deliver the same satisfactions for him as a film or novel, though he’s more fascinated with game designers’ limitations than critical of them. He writes:

For me, stories break the surface in the form of image or character or situation. I start with the variables, not the system. This is intended neither to ennoble my way of working nor denigrate that of the game designer; it is to acknowledge the very different formal constraints game designers have to struggle with. While I may wonder if a certain story idea will “work,” this would be a differently approached and much, much less subjective question if I were a game designer. A game that does not work will, literally, not function.

For Bissell, the compromises designers must make to get a game to “work” can be a seemingly endless source of frustration for him as a gamer. Games that are too overtly gruesome and random can feel pointless, but games’ “cut scenes,” in which characters talk in an effort to give the game some movie-like gravitas, can feel hacky and ham-fisted. (Even the story of Bissell’s beloved GTA IV is only “pretty good for a video game, which is to say, conventional and fairly predictable.”) To that end, Bissell makes a point of discussing a few games that attempt to upend the typical game model. The most interesting one—the one I’d be most interested in taking a crack at myself—is Braid, a time-warping, save-the-princess journey that seems built to avoid giving players the familiar lizard-brain pleasures of killing combatants, or even putting your own life at risk. The deliberately counterintuitive structure of the game is exactly the point. As Jonathan Blow, the game’s designer, tells Bissell: “People want to have an interesting story, but what they mean by that is this weird thing that comes out of copying these industrial Hollywood process. The game developer’s idea of a great story is copying an action story. Isn’t it a little obvious that that’s never going to go anywhere?”

Well, it only goes so far. The dullest section of Extra Lives is a passage in which Bissell relates an extreme act of heroism he performed in the multiplayer zombie-apocalypse game Left 4 Dead. The emotions he felt in that moment, he writes, “were as intensely vivid as any I have felt while reading a novel or watching a film or listening to a piece of music,” he writes. But description of how he pulled it off dies on the page; it’s a string of this-happened-and-then-I-did-this sentences. I’m not sure if this is Bissell’s failure, though, or an occupational hazard of writing about war and violence. Here’s a passage from Marlantes’ Matterhorn that I think represents the problem:

The sawed-off M-60 stopped firing. The belt had run out. Vancouver dived for the side of the trail, and Connolly rolled over into it on his stomach. He let loose on automatic just as an NVA soldier emerged from the wall of jungle to finish Vancouver off. Connolly’s bullets caught the NVA soldier full in the chest and face. The back of the man’s head exploded. Connolly rolled over again, fumbling wildly for another magazine. An M-16 opened up on Vancouver’s right, almost on top of him, the bullets screaming past his right ear. The another M-16 followed almost immediately to his left. Vancouver was crawling backward, along with Connolly, as fast as he could. Connolly was pushing a second magazine into place, shouting for Mole. “Gun up! Gun up! Mole! Goddamn it!”

The hallmark of Matterhorn is its extreme plainspokenness. Marlantes avoids metaphor, similes—anything that might smack of “literary” writing, actually—presumably because doing so would risk romanticizing or prettifying war, the last thing the author wants to do. In fact, the novel is probably as much dialogue as description. I’m a little more than halfway through and intend to finish it, but not because of I’m enjoying combat scenes like the one above. It’s a study in flat-footed prose, from the bullets that scream (what bullets always do) to the head that explodes (what heads always do when they’re shot at in war) to the soldier’s “Goddamn it!” (what solders always say when they’re shooting screaming bullets at exploding heads in war).

For the most part, Marlantes’ keep-it-simple strategy is to the book’s benefit. But if Matterhorn were strictly a novel about combat, it would be an utter failure. A war novel needs something besides fighting, and Matterhorn has the benefit of multiple threads about race, the everyday lives of Marines, and, especially, how flaws in the command structure trickle down to the soldiers, sometimes fatally. Is there a game about organizational failure in command structures, and how those failures trickle down? Can there be?*** Novels and more ambitious films seem uniquely capable of capturing human interaction with that kind of scope, in a way that (in Bissell’s reckoning) videogames largely don’t. The games he describes tend to live at the level of the exploding head, or at least need to return there regularly. The game that finds (has found?) a way to integrate the way people struggle to relate to each other, not just fight against them—that’s the game that competes with the novel.

* So I wound up feeling like a crummy host late last week, when M.A. Orthofer cited this blog as an example of one of many places where efforts at engaged criticism are happening online—contrary to Nation literary editor John Palattella, who recently lamented the death of the book review and bemoaned the web’s inability to fill in the gaps. More later, maybe, if I can think of a way to address it that doesn’t feel like preaching to the choir.

** If I sound a little tin-eared talking about videogames, there’s a good reason: I don’t play them, at least not the console games Bissell discusses. That’s not a value judgment; it’s just that there are only so many hours in the day for so many cultural pursuits. I mean, I’m certain that I’ve spent more hours in the past year on my favorite futzing-around web-game site than I’ve spent watching plays or seeing live music.

*** To perhaps put the question another way: What would the videogame version of The Wire look like? What would I, as the player, get to do?

Links: For Want of a Blurb…

Novelist Robert Girardi, author of Amelia’s Ghost Madeleine’s Ghost, has run into some bad luck of late and is now working janitorial and maintenance jobs in the D.C. area—though I can only work up so much sympathy for a guy who wound up in jail after “he came home bombed on scotch and tried to wrestle [his wife] to the floor.” Girardi fumes that he’s been unfairly neglected by the Washington Post—“You’d think my first book in 10 years, they’d at least give me a two-incher”—but there are some problems even a book review can’t solve.

Independent publisher MacAdam/Cage, which seemed to have fallen off the face of the earth in the past year, is apparently active again, sending out galleys and saying it plans to put out some of the books it had delayed. The MacAdam/Cage website suggests the revival is not yet complete—the homepage is still pushing Brendan Short‘s Dream City, which came out in 2008—but I’m hoping that Jack PendarvisShut Up, Ugly eventually hits shelves.

Southern Methodist University Press isn’t quite saved from the chopping block, but its existence now seems a bit more secure than it did a week ago. Ron Hogan has spent the past week at Beatrice catching up with some of the writers SMU Press publishes.

Annie Proulx sees a bit of her life in Wyoming in the wood sculptures of British artist David Nash.

Lionel Shriver values her life at around $20,000. “They have actually put a literal price on human life in [Britain]; it is worth $15,000 a year… I thought that was a little on the low side. If it were a matter of my life I might throw in an extra five grand.”

Julia Keller sounds a dissenting note about Karl MarlantesMatterhorn, advocating instead for Susan Fromberg Schaeffer‘s 1989 novel, Buffalo Afternoon.

John Waters has some suggestions for a high-school reading list; his heart is in the right place, though it’s doubtful he’d get much teaching work. “You have to give kids books that surprise them a little. I didn’t care about ‘The Life of Benjamin Franklin’; I wanted to read ‘Naked Lunch.’

If Curtis Sittenfeld is going set a book in Wisconsin, shouldn’t she know better than to use a non-word like “Wisconsonian”?

John Updike‘s typewriter will be auctioned next month. A study of the ribbon reveals that he used the machine to inform his typist that “her services will no longer be needed because he purchased a word processor.”

Links: Status Symbols

Ray Bradbury: “Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor.”

Nathan Englander on his relative disinterest in historical accuracy in fiction: “So if a reader wants to write in and say, ‘There’s no way that an Egyptian soldier ever accidentally sat down with an Israeli soldier because they were wearing identical French-supplied uniforms,’ I’d feel comfortable responding, ‘That may generally be true, but it definitely happened once—because it happened to Shimmy Gezer. It says so right there in paragraph two.'”

Parsing the strangeness of Walker Percy‘s Lost in the Cosmos.

Gerald Early discusses jazz in literature the upsides of urban fiction with the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson. (via)

An in-progress illustrated version of Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (via).

Given a sizable enough advance, Michael Chabon would write a nonfiction book on baseball.

A new book of scholarship on Ralph Ellison reveals that the hero of Invisible Man had a wife in early drafts of the novel.

Yiyun Li on why her books haven’t been translated into Chinese: “Just from a literary point of view, my stories rely on space: what you say and what you don’t. It doesn’t work to translate them. I would have to rewrite a lot, which I don’t want to do. I’m not going to rush into that.”

It’s been years since I thought to track down a copy of Cometbus, then a Berkeley-centric fanzine dedicated to the personal essays and fiction by its author, Aaron Cometbus; once upon a time I was in a mood to overstate things and called him the Great Bay Area Writer. Not quite, but I’m happy to hear he’s still writing.

I’m working on a series of Q&As with literary websites for Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle. The latest one, with C. Max Magee of The Millions, is now up.

Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes on Eudora Welty‘s influence: “When I read her book, Delta Wedding, about 30 years ago it taught me the power of literature. She said to me, through that book, ‘Karl, this is worth doing.’ ”

A blogger, perhaps having lost a bar bet, is spending 117 days reading James Patterson: “[W]hen I was timing how long it took me to read each chapter, I realized that they were all readable in under 2 minutes, placing them conveniently within the space of a 2-minute commercial break on television. Coincidence? Maybe.” (via)