- Analyzing Literature after 9/11
No one wants 9/11 to be misrepresented, politicized, coopted, or distorted. Yet, it seems difficult not to do just this.—Ann Keniston and Jeanne Follensbee Quinn, Literature After 9/11
It seems that the peculiar nature of trauma demands it be addressed in postlapsarian terms. “These are the days after,” Don DeLillo writes in Falling Man. “Everything now is measured by after” (138). Sometimes, however, the process of measuring is as interesting as the subject of measurement itself. In the context of this essay, I am interested in how analyses of 9/11 literature present their own ideologically informed narratives of the tragedy. These analyses are also valuable in managing trauma, not because they seek to recreate the attacks as DeLillo does in Falling Man, but because they rewrite the history of the event. Cognitive scientist Kitty Klein argues that for [End Page 607] psychologists tracking the value of narrative for healing trauma, “the emphasis is on how developing a narrative produces a new version of the original memory as opposed to helping a person understand what ‘really’ happened” (65). That is, rather than recovering lost memories or seeking mimetic repetition—two approaches privileged in contemporary trauma theory—we might be better served by producing new versions of the original.
It is this function that best fits the projects of Kristiaan Versluys, Richard Gray, and Martin Randall. Out of the Blue, After the Fall, and 9/11 and the Literature of Terror are some of the earliest book-length attempts to construct compelling narratives that synthesize the disparate fictional accounts of 9/11 into stable configurations. All three authors prescribe the engagement of alterity in some capacity for “proper mourning” (Versluys 13) in order to appropriately demonstrate an “enactment of difference” between pre- and post-9/11 worlds (Gray 29). Such a prescription is valuable but demands evaluation; the traumatic restatement Klein proposes does not give free license to rewrite history. Particularly considering our temporal proximity to the tragedy, the narratives we generate set a precedent for future discussion of the subject, making a thorny conversation all the more difficult to navigate.
Consider, for instance, how the titles of Gray’s and Versluys’s books appeal to a sense of lost innocence: After the Fall directly invokes the postlapsarian while Out of the Blue implicitly claims a violent irruption in an otherwise pristine world. These texts are certainly not alone in adopting this position; a simple glance at the plethora of 9/11 dust jackets depicting unblemished blue skies and/ or the absent presence in the New York skyline demonstrates the point. The rhetoric of loss and violation are so deeply enmeshed in discussions of 9/11 that it is difficult to gain critical perspective. We are participant-observers in this tragedy, and as important as it is to establish stable narrative configurations, it is equally important to interrogate how those configurations are constructed, how texts are chosen and placed in relation to one another, and to what ends they are employed.
In Out of the Blue, Versluys is primarily concerned with the forms 9/11 literature employs to represent trauma. He wants to understand how these texts name “the unnameable” (15). “Novelists arrogate to themselves a certain power of explanation,” he writes, “comprising not systematic knowledge but a kind of affective and empathic understanding” [End Page 608] (12). It is this understanding that Versluys attempts to tap into, casting the usual suspects in 9/11 literary studies: DeLillo, Art Spiegelman, Jonathan Safran Foer, Frédéric Beigbeder, and John Updike. Versluys lays out his book as a trajectory from DeLillo’s Falling Man, a novel of “pure melancholia without the possibility of working-through or mourning” (15), to Updike’s Terrorist, which Versluys claims grapples with the “dichotomizing discourse” of us/them. Each chapter tracks a...