- Literature and Terrorism: Comparative Perspectives ed. by Michael C. Frank, Eva Gruber
This collection of essays has a complicated backstory. First, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, there was a general worry that fiction was not up to the task of dealing with events. The novelist Thane Rosenbaum (not quoted in this book) worriedly asked, “Does the imagination have anything to say when it has to compete with the actual horror of collapsing skyscrapers?” (qtd. in Versluys 11). James Wood more or less agreed, asserting in a column published in The Guardian that contemporary fiction (he has in mind Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis, Salman Rushdie, and Don DeLillo, among others) is beset by “trivia and mediocrity” (2), and so incapable of meeting the challenge of writing an insightful narrative equal to terrorism’s gravity.
Concomitantly, literary studies also suffers from something of an inferiority complex when it comes to terrorism. As one might expect, after 9/11 there was a spectacular increase in research on terrorism. Outside of literary studies, dissatisfaction with previous modes of inquiry led to the creation of Critical Terrorism Studies (CTS), an umbrella term for approaches that focused more on terrorism as a social and political construct. Two anthropologists, Joseba Zulaika and William Douglass, co-wrote a book, Terror and Taboo, that has become something of a bible for CTS, arguing that terrorism is not a freestanding object, but instead, “heavily relies on myth, making fact and fiction largely indistinguishable” (12). However, the [End Page 327] problem is that literature and literary criticism seem to have no place in CTS: “In its emphasis on representation and narrativization, the approach laid out by Zulaika and Douglass seems to call for the expertise of literary studies” (13), and the editors criticize Zulaika and Douglass for failing “to explain the specific contribution of ‘fiction’” (14) to the understanding of terrorism.
Literature and Terrorism has, therefore, a double purpose. First, the editors want to show, pace James Wood et al., that literature does have something to offer the study of terrorism. Specifically, they offer fiction’s “capacity to narrativize terrorism” (15), or, as Martina Wolf puts it in her essay on Roth’s American Pastoral and Updike’s Terrorist:
By providing the various reasons for Merry’s and Ahmad’s terrorism, literature offers us new perspectives which take into account social, ethnic and geographic heterogeneousness. Beyond such rational approaches, it requires readers to engage with the characters’ emotions and thereby offers an insight into “the other.” Where, if not in literature, can we dwell inside other peoples’ thoughts.(120)
Second, the volume implicitly argues that the discipline of literary criticism, with its expertise in close-reading and historicizing, deserves a place at the table of terrorism studies.
To these ends, Frank and Gruber give us a collection of thirteen essays divided into four sections: “The Emergence of the Terrorist in Fiction”; “Pre-and Post-9/11 Representations of Terrorism”; “Narrativizations of Terror”; and “The Question of Genre.” Do the editors succeed in their aims? Partly yes, partly no.
On the one hand, if you want to argue that the analysis of fiction can contribute to the understanding of terrorism, it does not help that two of the essays do not deal with fiction at all. Gudrun Braumspender gives us an excellent and lucid explication of the political background for Dostoevsky’s The Devils, but almost nothing on the novel itself. Similarly, Hendrik Blumenrath explores, in a manner indebted to Foucault, how the inability to discern terrorists led to a shift in cognition: “The rise of statistical knowledge goes hand in hand with a decline of faith in the optical gaze” (73). Fascinating in itself, but saying nothing about literature.
This may be a good thing, however, as often enough, the authors do not seem to like their subjects very much. Roy Scranton, for instance, dismisses Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as “a tedious, childish novel” (127). Margaret Scanlan bemoans how, a decade after the 9/11 attacks, “we...