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Looking Away from 9/11: The Optics of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland

From: Contemporary Literature
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2014
pp. 249-269 | 10.1353/cli.2014.0017

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

As September 11, 2011, approached, publishers began planning cover treatments, feature stories, and magazine issues that would mark the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center. At the London-based Sunday Times Magazine, editors prepared to run a cover designed by Alyson Waller, on which a grayscale American flag turned vertically down the page evokes one of the Twin Towers. The flag’s stripes represent the building’s linear latticework of windows, and the blue corner of the flag, printed on the cover in black, becomes the zone of impact. The stars are no longer ordered in neat lines but jumbled in disarray. Seven stars run down the side of the flag, as though they have tumbled out of the top of the design. Above the image, text cues readers to associate the stars with “The Fallen” and promises to explain “Why America won’t talk about the scores who jumped from the Twin Towers.”

Executives at The Sunday Times rejected the design, perhaps fearing that the political implications of the image were too volatile. Waller herself has said that the design was meant to pay tribute to “the people who were forced to jump” from the towers—allegorizing their deaths in an image that bestows both political and poetic meaning. Readers, however, could also perceive the image as a desecration of the American flag that abstracts real deaths in order to hint toward national disorder or dissolution. If the rejection of this image wasn’t altogether surprising, the cover that ran in its place may seem an unlikely choice. Waller’s figurative image was replaced by a photograph of a man falling from the North Tower, while the cover text remained the same. Given the controversy surrounding photographs of falling victims, which most American news outlets refused to run, it seems surprising that this photograph replaced Waller’s flag illustration. How is it that the unflinching photograph has become more palatable, safer, than the illustration that asks viewers to think more elastically about the meaning of such deaths?

What these covers so concisely demonstrate is just how difficult it remains, even more than a decade after 9/11, to move away from the supposedly documentary images that have come to define the attacks. These images persist like obdurate objects in the field of vision, not only unchanging but unchangeable. The visual record of 9/11—the streaking plane, the smoking towers, and the death clouds attending their collapse—retain both the libidinal charge that SlavojŽižek claimed it borrowed from Hollywood catastrophe films (17) and the air of authenticity that made 9/11, in Jean Baudrillard’s words, “an absolute event” (3). The staggering visibility of the attacks, the relentless coverage by the new millennium’s media, and even the new museum erected over the wreckage at Ground Zero have ensured that what and how one sees remains at the heart of responses to 9/11. Of course, for the vast majority of people without a direct connection to the towers or to the people who perished in them, the images themselves became the events. What Katalin Orbán describes as “the constitutive visuality of the event” captures the fact that the attacks were conceived and perceived as a spectacle (70). The endless relay and replay of that spectacle has had the curious effect of making 9/11 images seem simultaneously distant and intimately familiar. Laura E. Tanner sums up this paradox: “For spectators around the globe, the proliferation of images rendered the 9/11 attacks spectacularly immediate yet simultaneously unreal” (59).

The repetition of those unwavering images fixes them in a discourse about distance and intimacy that informs much of the literary response to 9/11. Many 9/11 novels attempt to get closer to the attacks while simultaneously stressing that which is unknowable about them. As a result, 9/11 novels often reproduce the dynamics of the well-worn photographs and news footage: they present readers with unflinching accounts of the attacks while insisting on their unreal or distant nature. Given this enduring visual paradigm, Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel Netherland stands out as a singular text that introduces a new visual...


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