- Homeland Security and the State of (American) Exception(alism):Jess Walter’s The Zero and the Ethical Possibilities of Postmodern Irony
Our complicity begins with our country’s reaction to [the 9/11 attacks] and our failure…to debate the response honestly. The war in Iraq, the abuse of detainees, electronic eavesdropping, Guantanamo Bay—these things were all done on our behalf and they may turn out in the end to have created more terrorists.—Jess Walter, “A Conversation with Jess Walter”
In 1991, Fredric Jameson opened his famous study of postmodernism by claiming that the concept served “as an attempt to think the present historically in an age that has forgotten how to think historically in the first place” (Postmodernism ix). Although there is little evidence that Americans have suddenly remembered how to think historically, the post-9/11 period has not been kind to postmodernism, which was already on the wane in the 1990s with the rise of postcolonial studies. Two theses regarding post-9/11 cultural production work against a serious consideration of twenty-first-century postmodern narrative, despite the potential it has to open an ethical discussion of America’s ongoing state of exception initiated by the Bush Administration and continued by the Obama Administration.1
The first thesis, initially articulated in the days following the terrorist attacks, claims that irony died on 9/11. While by now the end-of-irony thesis has largely been laughed out of court in the media, it has a certain resiliency in academic criticism.2 In a 2009 survey of American fiction, David Wyatt reiterates [End Page 279] this totalizing claim, one oddly complicit with Dick Cheney’s political canard that “9/11 changed everything”: “On September 11, any reign of irony ended” (Wyatt 139). For Wyatt, the terrorist attacks “and the imaginings arising out of them mark a turn toward ‘seriousness,’ a turn away from modern irony and the lightness of the postmodern turn,” a seriousness marked by “an upwelling of unironized emotion” (140). However, to claim that irony died on 9/11 is to selectively read the fiction published since 2002. Two novels that appeared in 2006, both finalists for the American Book Award, deploy irony to explore the aftermath of the terrorist attacks—Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country and Jess Walter’s The Zero. Just five years removed from the event, both novels satirize Americans’ responses to the terrorist attacks, a risky move in Bush’s America where a new form of PC (Patriotic Correctness) shaped most discussions of the US response to terrorism domestically and globally.
Kalfus’s novel opens with a wonderful premise that challenges the pieties constituting the discourses of grief and commemoration of the 9/11 victims: a Manhattan husband and wife in the midst of messy divorce proceedings can barely suppress their joy when each supposes that the other has been killed in the terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, the novel remains so claustrophobically focused on the couple’s domestic problems that this early promise is undercut. If the beginning of the novel clearly ironizes the affective response to victimhood and collective trauma identity, the abrupt ending of the final eight pages merely shifts the ground from naughty personal wish-fulfillment to political fantasy: America quickly and effortlessly wins the war in Iraq; the Iraqi people universally embrace their liberation; Osama bin Laden is captured and a spontaneous celebration erupts near Ground Zero. But it is a fantasy that leaves the reader wondering what one should be laughing at. The novel’s ending becomes an instance of Jameson’s pastiche, “amputated of its satiric impulse” (17), inasmuch as the object of its critique becomes almost impossible to discern: is it the Bush Administration, American jingoism more broadly, or perhaps those who protested the war on terror?
Despite its inability to articulate a clear political or ethical vision, Kalfus’s novel has been incorporated into discussions of 9/11 fiction, perhaps because it confirms the second near-consensus thesis about this body of fiction, namely, that it is a failure because, instead of depicting the geopolitical or imagining the other, it merely focuses on domesticity. While a...