- Beyond 9/11:Trauma and the Limits of Empathy in Sherman Alexie’s Flight
In 2007, while working on his National Book Award-winning young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie wrote and published an almost-epigrammatic novel, Flight. This latter brief book was inspired in part by a documentary on 9/11, in which some of the flight instructors who had trained the terrorists to fly expressed their sense of betrayal at the use to which their instruction had been put.1 Flight provides an extended analysis of betrayal and guilt, although, perhaps counter-intuitively, the book has a more hopeful resolution than almost any of Alexie’s other novels to date.2 In fact, the surprising moment of grace at the end of Flight suggests that the book is positioned in response to American national rhetoric that isolates the events of 9/11 as a “rupture” in history. Instead, the novel contextualizes the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 within a condensed history of acts of domestic terror on U.S. soil, primarily focusing on acts committed by European Americans against Indigenous Americans. Flight thus poses a critique of national responses to the catastrophe as a national catastrophe. Constructing a series of fragmentary scenes of violence while leaving implicit the actual events of 9/11, Flight simultaneously critiques popular definitions and descriptions of collective trauma while exploring the potential for the semiotics of trauma narratives to expose suffering and to create spaces for healing.
The main narrative arc of the novel—a brutalized adolescent turns his rage against the American public by firing an automatic weapon in a crowded bank—is an ordinary enough, if horrifying, story. But Flight takes a turn for the supernatural as the [End Page 123] narrator is hurtled at the moment of his death through time, dying and resurrecting again and again until he achieves some measure of enlightenment. The apocalyptic brutality of the tale of a time-traveling gun-slinger is not unique as a literary conception of social upheaval; after all, Alexie says that the novel’s structure was influenced by Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.3 Just as Vonnegut’s novel infuses supernatural elements with a compressed view of historical events in order to de-normalize the war experience and expose veins of collective guilt associated with the disseminated images of the American-led bombing of Dresden, so also the apocalyptic time-traveler in Flight becomes the device around which larger questions about collective guilt and terror coalesce. In this stylistic and tonal aspect, Flight’s approach to the events of 9/11 correlates to other doom-laden depictions of contemporary American culture found in literary responses to 9/11, such as Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes (2006) or John Updike’s rather pessimistic view of Muslim American integration in Terrorist (2006).
However, the specific depictions of trauma in Flight provide a sharp contrast to these other literary responses to the events. Rather than fixing the narrative gaze upon the immediate causes or consequences of 9/11, either through analyzing the psychological impact of the events on the collective national psyche or through analyzing the United States’ complicity in causing such acts of terror, Flight’s episodic structure turns the focus of the narrative eye away from the event itself and toward a series of primarily domestic acts of violence. In fact, the three chapters describing a flight instructor’s reactions to his student’s participation in a suicide attack are the only chapters that deal with betrayal and violence not explicitly related to European American and Indigenous American contact. The novel’s explosive and apocalyptic violence thus shears away from the singular traumatic event (the suicide attacks on 9/11) in order to lay bare a catalogue of collective traumatic events experienced both in isolated moments (such as the torture and murder of an American Indian Movement [AIM] activist) and as recurring horrors (an orphaned Native child fostered by white families). In this regard, Flight also bears a tonal familiarity with many other Native American authors’ portrayals of historical and political trauma in the United States...