- “The stricken community”: Recidivism and Restoration in American 9/11 Fiction
The happiest reigns, we are taught, you know, are the reigns without any history.Henry James, The Golden Bowl
They were replete with errors.Herman Melville, Pierre; or, The Ambiguities
Quite Predictably, the Narrative Response to 9/11 has had the effect of galvanizing two established paradigms in readings of contemporary fiction, namely trauma studies and simulacrum theory. And yet, if we are to credit the psychosocial doctrine emerging from this new critical orthodoxy, American pre–9/11 fiction was already busy spawning crafty shams in order to defuse trauma. This trauma was either genuinely American (Beloved, Blood Meridian, Levia-than, American Pastoral) or somewhat imported (Gravity’s Rainbow, How German It Is, Running Dog, The Tunnel). In view of this continuity, one is tempted to interrogate the widespread assumption that 9/11 ushered in not just a new American era but also a new body of literature (Morley 295; Keniston & Quinn 3; Houen 422). It seems to us doubtful that such a resilient artifact as the American novel in English should yield to such a naïve and mechanically reactive psycho-sociologic.
Admittedly, most interpretations of 9/11 fiction subscribe to the following argument: the WTC attacks made visible the pervasiveness of a trans-national terror accountable only within the historical logics of globalization (Baudrillard 158; Žižek, Welcome 38; Butler, Precarious 11). [End Page 145] This logic, moreover, is coterminous with the cultural logic of postmodernism, one that invests in simulacra and trans-realistic effects. Simultaneously historical and cultural, the postmodern condition became fully apparent in the WTC attacks, for these were not only a real expression of global terror, but also a “performance” insofar as their reality got suspended through prime-time TV mediation (Baudrillard 158; Žižek, Welcome 9–16). Therefore, some critics conclude, narrative accounts of the WTC attacks are bound “to defy the logic of traditional narrative realism” (Morley 295). This train of thought is further complemented with an extravagant speculation, famously sparked by Don DeLillo in Mao II, on the power shared by novelists and terrorists to influence their society (Houen 424–23; Kauffman 355).1
In our view, the potential relevance of this dominant interpretation concerns exclusively its sociological and historical thrust.2 When the argument engages the literary logic, the interpretation flounders. Such failure results from a very reductive conception of narrative realism, one that overlooks the genetic complicity of this textual tradition with the modern project of registering historical violence. Since Nashe and Defoe, the English novel has always traded in the economy of violent death. Ominous traces of civil war, religious strife, popular rebellion and organized revolution, are visible in the narrative territory—the terra damnata—unfurled by English and American novelists. Since Walter Scott, moreover, the novel registers historical terror through a finely calibrated device of psychosocial balance where the domestic and political spheres are inexorably intertwined. Yet between the family and the state arises a plethora of alternative communities offering shelter (a “world elsewhere,” Poirier would say) to the dislocated individual.3 This shelter is elusive, however, since the modern novel invariably shows that there is no community without attending (on occasion, founding) violence. This holds for nations as much as for social classes, churches, ethnical groups or unionist associations, to name only a few potential communities. But it also applies to domestic communities insofar as all homes are under-written by a Familienroman featuring sexual origins, legal oppression and internecine strife.
Thus, it is within the notional realm of the term community that the narrative response to 9/11 may be most effectively gauged. In our [End Page 146] view, when confronted with the 9/11 event, the novelist does not ask “Is that real?” “Does that have a meaning?” “Can I describe that?” or “Can I compete with that?” He raises rather the very simple question, “who am I with?” more technically rephrased as “which is my true community?” and further elaborated into “which of the various communities I belong to provides me with the best means of inter-personal communication...