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When fiction is not enough

Written by eastern writer on Monday, June 30, 2008

Martin Amis and Susan Faludi are brave enough to face up to some of the realities of 9/11

IN his otherwise disappointing new novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (Cannongate, $32.95), British journalist and author James Meek includes one marvellous page. A wannabe novelist, the protagonist Adam Kellas, is so stricken by 9/11 that his journalistic colleagues imagine he must have had a friend die in the towers. But no. He's devastated because the headlines have almost perfectly reiterated the climax of the would-be bestseller that Kellas has already outlined, and beaten him to the punch:

He'd known the thriller market was crowded. He'd allowed for the danger that he might have to compete with a book with the same plot as his. But he had not foreseen the extent to which naive idealists might persuade real people to act out their lousy plots in the real world. It hadn't occurred to Kellas that men might find it easier to sell their thrilling, unlikely narratives to the masses by asking armies of believers to perform them than to vend their imaginations at airport bookstalls in the accepted fashion.

Thus Meek identifies that the events of September 11, 2001, were so over the top, so improbable and invented-sounding, that the hijackers essentially co-opted the fiction writer's job. A group of Islamic firebrands driving airliners into the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre is not a matter of you-could-not-make-this-up; you could make this up. Because reality has taken the form of fiction, novelists have had a wicked time competing. A subtle, literary treatment of 9/11 has genre problems. How do you couch nuanced relationships within the context of a cheap thriller? In comparison to the history of that day, a fiction writer's sad embellishments are bound to look lame.

In the main with The Second Plane, British novelist Martin Amis has taken on 9/11 in nonfiction. In this collection of essays, Amis characterises himself frankly, if not as an "Islamaphobe", at least as an "Islamismophobe, or better say an anti-Islamist, because a phobia is an irrational fear, and it is not irrational to fear something that says it wants to kill you". I would characterise his bristling outrage as brave, but what is interesting -- and what Amis finds interesting -- is how odd it is that any Westerner's unbridled disgust with 9/11 and the forces and people that gave rise to it should ever come to seem brave.

Amis is keen to call our attention to the fact that, in our drive to understand 9/11 -- to find logic in unreason, to impose order on chaos and achieve an illusion of control, for if we grasp the cause and effect we make subsequent such tragedies preventable -- we have changed. We have moved far from the shocked, horrified, incredulous indignation that almost universally characterised our immediate reaction, and that continues to constitute the only sane response to violence so vicious, nihilistic, pointless, gratuitous and lunatic that each sorry little adjective grows more impotent than the last.

In an era when we are meant to be meekly respectful of other people's faiths, what is especially refreshing for this fellow agnostic-cum-atheist is the fact that Amis holds not only Islam but all religion in undisguised contempt:

To be clear: an ideology is a belief system with an inadequate basis in reality; a religion is a belief system with no basis in reality whatsoever.

With no apology, Amis asserts: "Today, in the West, there are no good excuses for religious belief -- unless we think that ignorance, reaction, and sentimentality are good excuses."

He characterises the pious zealot as having retreated to the "dependent mind" -- Islam means submission in Arabic -- in perfect opposition to the West's emphasis on free thinking and individual judgment. Islamic terrorists are "fabulists crazed with blood and death; and reality, for them, is just something to manoeuvre around in order to destroy it".

Immediately after 9/11, statements like that would have sounded merely by the by. Yet to read these essays now is to appreciate the truth in Amis's charge that in the years since 2001 we have grown cowed, chronically guilty and cravenly cautious. When he observes that "Islamic states lag behind the West in every index of industrial and manufacturing output, job creation, technology, literacy, life expectancy, human development and intellectual vitality", a little voice in me pipes up: "Shut up! Don't say that! You'll make them mad!" Admittedly, there is a danger in decrying fanaticism so fanatically that one grows shrill or strident, meeting hatred with hatred to reach a stalemate of antipathy. But Amis would claim he is meeting irrational hatred (or perhaps rational envy) with rational hatred. Moreover, his uncompromising revulsion serves as a welcome corrective to the West's increasing drift toward fearfulness and appeasement.

Amis makes the mistake of including two short stories, neither distinguished, which formally jar. But his final essay alone is worth the price of admission. Titled simply September 11, this piece best encapsulates Amis's central message about religion ("The rolling creed we call Islamism is also an embrace of illusion, as indeed is religion itself: a massive and multiform rearguard action, so to speak, against the fact of human mortality"), and the trap we have set for ourselves in so straining to comprehend that we risk justification:

We are drowsily accustomed, by now, to the fetishisation of "balance", the ground rule of "moral equivalence" in all conflicts between West and East, the ... inability to pass judgment on any ethnicity other than our own (except in the case of Israel), ... thus becoming the appeaser of an armed doctrine with the following tenets: it is racist, misogynist, homophobic, totalitarian, inquisitional, imperialist and genocidal.

In The Terror Dream, American journalist Susan Faludi also makes an argument that, according to her thesis, her country is in no mood to hear. Faludi addresses how 9/11 affected American relations between sexes. In her view, the US went retro, bungee-cording back to a pre-feminist, 1950s absorption with helpless damsels in distress (illustrated in the media frenzy surrounding the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch from the supposed custody of Iraqi insurgents), old-fashioned John Wayne masculinity (embodied in the swashbuckling persona of the President) and traditional motherhood (iconified by the "security mom", obsessed with the safety of her family, which Faludi exposes as a media myth).

Taking a feminist angle on 9/11 when the tragedy occasioned immediate hostility to feminism -- a culture-wide conviction that feminism was, in a time that demanded national unity and conventionally male qualities of strength and fortitude, irrelevant and petty -- requires a bravery akin to Amis's. While overdrawn, Faludi's point is well taken: that Americans sought to bulwark the myth of America's he-man invincibility in reaction to what was really a nationwide experience of naked helplessness; after all, the whole country was caught with its pants down.

Likewise, she astutely observes that the elevation of the beefy "heroes" of 9/11, the police officers and firefighters at the World Trade Centre, was largely wishful thinking, a hasty historical rewrite. Heroes have to do something, and when those towers came down there was little to do, and no one left to save.

So far, most of Amis's fellow novelists have chosen to tackle 9/11, unsurprisingly, in novels. In Jay McInerney's The Good Life (2006), two well-off, married New Yorkers meet while assisting a soup kitchen at ground zero and begin an affair. This is a good example of how sometimes making use of American history's Big Kahuna can backfire. In comparison to 9/11, the romance pales to soap opera. Attaching a rather ordinary story to such extraordinary circumstances risked making the setting seem a ploy, a device to cast the commonplace bed-hopping of his characters as more momentous and relevant.

Perhaps humbled by the material, McInerney keeps the gloves on when it comes to satirising local reactions to the cataclysm, which is a pity. Greater temporal distance might have allowed him to take the mickey out of New Yorkers' moral grandstanding and theatrical grief: their social competition over who was closer to the towers when they fell, and the giddy intoxications of altruism from which the city's citizens would all too soon recover, as if from a vial of crack. Some day an author may feel free enough to write a 9/11 novel that is gleefully brutal, or even funny.

My least favourite 9/11 novel so far is Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), which is Extremely Gimmicky and Incredibly Irritating. It is littered with graphic pyrotechnics: photos (not of trade centre rubble but of keys, a tennis star, early man -- don't ask), whole pages of numbers and finally a flipbook of a man falling from one of the towers. The narrator is a boy who lost his father on 9/11, his voice oh-so-wise and riddled with weak whimsy ("Does a cave have no ceiling, or is a cave all ceiling?"). Given the novel's inexplicable critical acclaim, one wonders if the respectful, hands-off rule that has applied to 9/11 itself extended, for a time, to books about 9/11 too.

By contrast, Don DeLillo's Falling Man (2007) is deserving of its praise. Considering the impact of 9/11 on a constellation of ordinary people, DeLillo successfully bridges the public and the private, one of the things the novel form is good for. Less remarked upon, however, is Frederic Beigbeder's Windows on the World (2004), which defies the truism that you can never write well about such a considerable event until achieving the perspective born of time. The Frenchman admits that in the immediate wake of the disaster, "It is impossible to write about this subject, and yet impossible to write about anything else."

Beigbeder anticipates the accusations that McInerney would soon invite with The Good Life: "... in leaning on the first great hyperterrorist attack, my prose takes on a power it would not otherwise have. This novel uses tragedy as a literary crutch." Alternating between authorial commentary and the story of an advertising agent who has brought his two boys for breakfast at the north tower's chic roof-top restaurant Windows on the World, Beigbeder's novel is elegiac, rueful and suitably embarrassed. Moreover, this, Mr Foer, is successful whimsy: When previous to the attacks a huffy Windows patron is ejected with his lit cigar, the author cracks, "They should put a new health warning on cigarette packs: SMOKING CAN CAUSE YOU TO LEAVE BUILDINGS BEFORE THEY BLOW UP."

Declaration of interest: I, too, included 9/11 in The Post-Birthday World, briefly, as an event in passing. I reasoned that in any realistic novel taking place in 2001 the news would arrive in the lives of its characters, much as we all remember where we were and how we learned of the events of that day. Moreover, I conceived of a scene in which a couple bickers long and bitterly, for days absorbed in a petty private hell without turning on the television, and meantime the rest of the world is falling apart. Capturing the scale of their chagrin on learning of 9/11 days after everyone else was irresistible.

Yet I've not written "a 9/11 novel", nor do I plan to. I may have been in New York that day, but so were eight million other people. This is not a subject that I especially own, and the competition is already fierce. Certainly there should be no cordon around September 11; if we can write about Pol Pot or Rwanda, 9/11 is fair game too. But the risks are several: the appearance of me-too-ism, or make-weight; seeming trendy, or, not long from now, seeming passe; simply not being up to the material. And chances are high that the number of available 9/11 novels will soon exceed the public's appetite for reading them.

Meanwhile, Amis's opting for nonfiction commentary is probably sound. When real life displaces fiction, a savvy novelist switches sides to become the critic.

The Second Plane: September 11, 2001-2007
By Martin Amis
Jonathan Cape, 214pp, $39.95 (HB)
The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post 9/11 America
By Susan Faludi
Scribe, 351pp, $49.95 (HB)


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