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Out of the Blue: September 11 & the Novel

Versluys, Kristiaan. Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009.

Three months after the attacks of September 11, 2001, Don DeLillo wrote in an essay titled, “In the Ruins of the Future”: “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us. Is it too soon? We seem pressed for time, all of us. Time is scarcer now. There is a sense of compression, plans made hurriedly, time forced and distorted…The writer begins in the towers, trying to imagine the moment, desperately.”[1] DeLillo asks, as many have and continue to do in the time since that awful day, whether it is possible for literature to reconstruct what happened, to provide a medium for making meaning, and thus move beyond the traumatic. Kristiaan Versluys, in his critical examination of “9/11 fiction,” argues that while the great September 11 novel has not been written and maybe never will, there have been genuine attempts made to “affirm and counteract the impact of trauma” (13).

Versluys’s book is primarily, though not consistently, structured around this idea of the 9/11 novel as a means of, “wrenching trauma out of the realm of the inarticulate and nudging it toward expression [as the] first step in the healing process” (70). In the two strongest chapters, he examines the process of both national and self-recovery in the wake of September 11, as depicted in Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), a graphic representation, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). Spiegelman’s depiction is worth noting in part, Versluys states, because he was a direct witness to the event. As such, he experienced the trauma in a way incomprehensible to those authors who have written about it from a remove and experienced it indirectly through the filter of the media, which Spiegelman charges with having “cheapened [the] trauma into mere sensationalism” (75).  His direct experience is said to allow Spiegelman to approach the subject matter with the authenticity necessary to ensure that the trauma of the day, and the difficult process of recovery that followed, is relayed appropriately–something that, in one of the few political discussions in Versluys’s text, it is charged the Bush administration failed to do when it, “hijacked September 11 and ‘reduced it all to a war recruitment poster’” (74).

Versluys is also keenly interested in Spiegelman’s work because of his role as an indirect witness to the Holocaust. As the child of Auschwitz survivors who, through the recording of the story of his father’s experience in Maus, also functions as a secondary witness to that tragedy, Spiegelman’s debilitating reaction to September 11 was, in part, a product of the history of trauma in the 20th century. Spiegelman had, as he states in the introduction to In the Shadow of No Towers, stumbled upon “that faultline where World History and Personal History collide” (qtd. on 51). Through his engagement with Spiegleman’s “faultline,” Versluys is able to demonstrate the dangers posed by the continued “transmission of trauma” and the need for a means through which to come to terms with great shocks, something Spiegelman credits the writing of In the Shadow of No Towers with having done for him. The discussion regarding the role of trauma in 9/11 fiction continues fairly straightforwardly in regards to Foer’s Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close, which also provides an important examination of the role of language and the paradoxical inability of words to replicate the experience of trauma while remaining necessary for the working through of trauma.

Continuing the question of the resolution of trauma, Versluys discusses the continued reenactment of trauma in his critical reading of DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007). DeLillo’s work, however, is not credited with reaching the same cathartic outcome as Spiegelman or Foer’s. Instead, Versluys states that Falling Man “is, without a doubt, the darkest and the starkest” of 9/11 narratives because it “allows for no accommodation or resolution” (20). Situating his criticism of the novel within the context of the post-modern condition of drift, Versluys charts the novel’s apparent lack of central narrative structure. The characters experience little growth or development, plot lines are rarely, if ever, resolved, and the literal and figurative fall of man is a repeated theme. The explanation given for DeLillo’s choice of structure is that the novel is intended to serve as “a counterdiscourse to the prevailing nationalistic interpretations” (23). Versluys further suggests that the novel, “in stressing the paralyzing effects of September 11…is a novel contrary to the national trend” (30), and could “serve as a prelude to, or be used as an excuse for, wholesale, reactionary and even totalitarian movements of redress and moral restoration” (48). What remains unclear from Versluys’s argument, however, is to what extent he believes that rather than imagining a pessimistic outcome, DeLillo is simply reflecting in literature a very real and significant current that exists in society in the wake of September 11, and that the novel lacks resolution precisely because society has yet to find one.

The strength of these three opening chapters makes it difficult to fully understand Versluys’s decision to switch gears and refocus his discussion in the next chapter on the representation of hyperrealism in the critically panned, French novel Windows on the World (2004) by Frédéric Beigbeder.  The choice of Windows on the World is especially confusing, as Versluys himself admits the book to be a “shallow” examination in which “the cliché wins out” (121). The novel is characterized by what Beigbeder terms “hyperrealism,” taken in this context to mean a “departure from the strictures of conventional realism” (125). However, the technique, in this case, seems to be less a way of adding depth to the narrative, as DeLillo’s unconventional narrative techniques do in Falling Man, and more a way of justifying poor writing. Versluys tries to excuse Beigbeder’s technique by stating that it reflects the notion that, “there is no narrative ploy strong enough to deflect the event, no trope or stylistic device capable of stopping the irreversible progress of time” (144). Even if there were such an argument to be made here, however, the chapter, like Beigbeder’s book itself, meanders too much away from this line of thought and focuses instead on arguing that September 11 was a globally experienced event that had as much of an impact on those outside the United States as it did for individuals who directly experienced the event in New York. Versluys even tries to justify his inclusion of Beigbeder by stating that it is an important representation of the “international dimension [of] this discussion” (121). There is no denying that September 11 had global repercussions; but this argument by Versluys seems to only prove Spiegelman’s assertion that the trauma of that day has been hijacked (74).

Versluys’s final chapter lacks an obvious connection to the rest of the book, but it has merit. In the epilogue to the book, in which he briefly discusses Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2006) and Anita Shreve’s A Wedding in December (2006), two novels that only indirectly deal with September 11, Versluys admits that as time continues to pass, “the concerns expressed [in 9/11 fiction] will be less directly related to the experience of trauma” (183). Instead, he recognizes that the literature is already shifting toward the aftermath of the event, dealing instead with, “the confrontation with the Other” (183). In this respect, the inclusion of the final chapter of the book, which focuses on the concept of the Other and the process of “othering” makes sense. Interestingly, Versluys chooses to frame his remarks using the concept of the Other proposed by Emmanuel Levinas, which “locates [signification] in responsibility for the Other”–meaning that “everyone is essentially and before anything else interpellated by the face of the Other” and “we are preordained to be touched by what happens to the Other, in particular the suffering Other” (149). Using this theoretical framework proves particularly illuminating in his reading of Martin Amis’s “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta” (2006) and John Updike’s Terrorist (2006), both of which have as their main character a terrorist. Though Versluys ultimately, falling in line with much of the critical response to these works, finds both Amis and Updike’s portrayals of the terrorist to be limited by their role as projections of the ideologies of the authors, he is also right in pointing out their success as exercises in coming “face to face with the Other” (182).

Overall, Versluys presents an important, engaging text that deals thoroughly and expertly with the role of trauma and post-9/11 fiction. It would interesting to see what, if anything, he does with further investigations into the trend toward a more indirect treatment of September 11 as its role changes in the “collective imagination,” especially considering the critical success of novels not touched on in the book, including Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006) and Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland (2008).[2]

Notes

[1]DeLillo, Don. “In the Ruins of the Future.” The Guardian. 22 Dec. 2001. Web. 6 Mar. 2010.

[2]Versluys, Kristiaan. Interview by Mark Athitakis. “Q&A: Dr. Kristiaan Versluys, Out of the Blue.” Mark Athitakis’ American Fiction Notes. 29 Oct. 2009. Web. 14 Dec. 2010.

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