Jonathan Franzen’s third novel The Corrections arrived in bookstores on September 1st, 2001. I can imagine shoppers at Borders and Barnes & Noble (where people still went to buy books ten years ago) reading the first two sentences: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: something terrible was going to happen.” Less than two weeks after the book’s publication, the lines must have sounded both prophetic and outdated. The vague menace that Franzen alludes to had found its referent in images of planes ramming into the symbols of America’s financial and political might. But the novel had also suddenly become the last major American work of pre-9/11 literature—a historical document that depicts ordinary American life in a way that had been rendered obsolete.
Ten days after the publication of The Corrections, many critics argued that the entire business of literary production and consumption had been thrown into a blender. In an essay for The Guardian, critic James Wood said The Corrections proved that “whatever the novel gets up to, the ‘culture’ can always get up to something bigger.” He had a point. Franzen’s novel deals with millennial America’s overdependence on prescription antidepressants, its fears of fallout from the dot-com bust, and its obsession with foodie culture. His gripes sounded quaint with 3,000 dead, the entire population of New York chewing on Zoloft, trading halted on the major financial exchanges, and the Bush Administration mobilizing for war in places few Americans could find with an atlas and a magnifying glass.
Yet depending on who you asked, 9/11 had changed either everything or nothing. It seemed impossible to figure exactly how writers would produce work that would help us understand the post-9/11 moment, a term which itself seemed a construction meant to justify certain political objectives. As Martin Amis famously put it, “After a couple of hours at their desks, on September 12th, 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation.”
The question was: What would come next?
Ten years later, a body of works about the terrorist attacks has already begun to congeal into a genre. essays, short stories and poems began to appear while emergency construction crews were still working overnight shifts at Ground Zero. It took a while longer for novelists to tackle the events of the terrorist attacks. Though several novels included references to 9/11 before Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), that book arguably stands as the first major novel to deal centrally with the attacks. Foer was joined shortly thereafter by Claire Messud (The Emperor’s Children), Don DeLillo (Falling Man), Mohsin Hamid (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and Joseph O’Neill (Netherland). Other authors, like John Updike in Terrorist, Lorraine Adams in Harbor, and Ian McEwan in Saturday keep references to 9/11 at the margins, but grapple with questions about terrorism in a context informed by the rise of Islamic extremism.
Magazines and newspapers produce annual rankings of “how well,” “how accurately” or “how subtly” certain novels portray 9/11 and its aftermath. As I write this in September of 2011, during the peak of memorial fever, I’ve read no fewer than ten such surveys in publications trying to rank literary output about 9/11, or grouping together different kinds of literature dealing with the terrorist attacks. But this type of exercise misses an important division. To better understand how the literary response to the terrorist attacks of ten years ago has evolved over time, it seems useful to draw a distinction between “9/11 literature” and “Post-9/11 literature.” Perhaps 9/11 literature and Post-9/11 literature can stand for two discrete stages in the process by which we collectively revised our expectations about the world after the terrorist attacks. While 9/11 literature reflects the ways in which we are all marked by cultural trauma, Post-9/11 literature depicts the mental and emotional conditions that evolve as individuals adapt to new political and social contexts, helping us begin to think about what comes next.
Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers was one of the earliest major literary works to emerge after 9/11. American editors were reluctant to publish the series of comics in the months following the attacks, forcing Spiegelman to complete the ten broadsheets that make up the heart of the work for the German publication Die Zeit between 2002 and 2003. Just about a year after the last episode, the comics were collected and published as a book in the United States.
In the Shadow of No Towers is first and foremost a memoir. It recounts Spiegelman’s personal experiences as a witness of 9/11, while grappling with the enduring effecs of trauma on his mental and emotional life. In the introduction to the collected volume, Spiegelman writes that a single image “remains burned onto the inside of my eyelids several years later.” The comics revolve around his attempts to artistically represent—to do justice to—the “looming north tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized.” This compulsively repeated memory becomes the mental imprint of trauma, and like a flashback the skeleton of the towers appears in every “episode.” It serves as both a refrain that repeats throughout the comic, and the graphic evidence to support Spiegelman’s claim that trauma marks the moment “when time stands still.” Like many Americans, Spiegelman felt stuck on September 11th, 2001. He spends the bulk of the work trying to figure out how to restart time and move out of his post-traumatic moment.
But the patriotic rhetoric that emerged in the weeks and months after 9/11 compounded and confused the personal effects of trauma on Spiegelman, making it more difficult for him to figure out how to resume his ordinary life. Like many, Spiegelman finds it disingenuous to appeal to national unity in the name of recovery from 9/11, arguing that the attempt to standardize the nation’s response to the attacks simply became a way for the Bush Administration to commit America to new wars. for this reason, he feels “equally terrorized by Al-Qaeda and by his own government,” doubly traumatized by the attacks themselves and his helplessness to object to the policies that followed. “Trauma piles on trauma!” he laments, but at the same time “everyone’s too scared, stupefied or demoralized” to object. When he tries to find solace in patriotic imagery, he only feels worse. “I should feel safer under here,” Spiegelman says, hiding beneath an American flag in the seventh episode. “But—damn it!—I can’t see a thing!”
How familiar this seems, even ten years later. We hung flags; we put bumper stickers on our cars; we read the “Portraits of Grief” series about 9/11 victims in the New York Times. We even, guiltily, went shopping and took our families to Disney World. Yet we couldn’t shake the sense that these things were just making us feel worse, angrier, more fearful. In the Shadow of No Towers gives us a reason for why this was the case: the call to patriotism proved unsatisfying to so many because it unified us as victims.
Spiegelman defines cultural trauma as a condition where the consolidation of political power depends upon the constant re-traumatization of citizens. Take for example the assertion that we should “never forget,” or the introduction of the candy-colored terror threat warning system. The first literally encourages us to languish in a traumatic past, while the latter offers a future fraught with the promise of violence. The important thing to note is that these two bits of post-9/11 vocabulary—along with flag pins, enhanced interrogation, the Patriot Act, the War on Terror, etc.—constitute a kind of standardized lexicon for talking about America in the wake of the attacks. Our shared way of thinking and feeling about 9/11 as a cultural trauma becomes an outgrowth of our shared political way of talking about it.
Spiegelman doesn’t offer us any escape from this post-traumatic moment, suggesting that even as our memory of the towers fades, they will continue to haunt our expectations for the future. In the final episode, he holds a kitschy 9/11 memorial clock, which features a miniature replica of the World Trade Center. “On 9/11/01 time stopped,” he observes, repeating the same observation from the first plate, and “by 9/12/01 clocks began to tick again. But everyone knew it was the ticking of a giant time bomb.” In the third panel, the towers transform into two sticks of dynamite, which subsequently explode in his face. This sequence of images drives home one last time our inability to escape the effects of 9/11—if we try to move on, we’ll be subject to a new violence. Though Spiegelman offers that the towers “seem to get smaller every day,” they only shrink in comparison to new and more pressing traumas, which in turn were made possible by 9/11. Once the political and the personal have been bound together, it becomes impossible to disentangle them—to determine which events originated with 9/11, and which did not.
This perhaps explains the “Comic Supplement,” a series of seven plates included as an addendum to the collected In the Shadow of No Towers. This series of early twentieth-century comics seems an attempt to situate the work within a broader history—to draw a clear line from the past to the present. In Spiegelman’s words:
That they were made with so much skill and verve but never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy; they were just right for an end of the world moment.
It’s still just possible to remember that sense of the world ending. There was the D.C. sniper, then a plane crash off the coast of Long Island. Anthrax scares. Threats of dirty bombs, neutron bombs, shoe bombs. It seems fitting that Spiegelman would reach to old comics for a sense of continuity, rather than attempting to draw a vision of a future. The blissful boringness of routines and rituals simply seemed beyond his reach. Indeed, 9/11 Literature does not give us much insight into a new ordinary. it makes us close our eyes and remember the moments right after we were standing in our kitchens, our living rooms, our classrooms, watching the glowing north tower on our television sets or hovering across the east River, teetering. As if it might fall.
Post-9/11 literature points insistently toward the moment in which the attacks of September 11th no longer constitute the central preoccupation of individuals. The difference is not merely a question of a novel’s taking place further in the future. for example, Netherland and The Reluctant Fundamentalist are both told from a narrative perspective well after 9/11, but the terrorist attacks remain central to the way characters in these novels see themselves. What sets Post-9/11 literature apart is thematic, not temporal. Rather than languishing in ruminations about the destabilizing effects of 9/11, authors of Post-9/11 books concern themselves with how other considerations begin to drown out the noise of crashing planes and ambulances. To use an easy metaphor in the trauma vernacular: they ask what it means for the wound of 9/11 to become a scar.
Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes strikes me as the characteristic work of Post-9/11 literature because it attempts to perform this transition. The title story that leads off the book, which often appears on those annual inventories of “Best Literature About 9/11,” describes the neuroses of Lucien and his nephew Nathaniel, who witness 9/11 from the balcony of Lucien’s apartment with a group of twenty-something friends. Eisenberg portrays the desperation of New Yorkers who are trying to “get back to normal,” but though the story takes place three years after the attacks, they remain stymied by the same concerns that Spiegelman explores in his work. Lucien worries about his generation’s capacity to recover from the trauma of 9/11, while Nathaniel finds himself searching his family’s past for instructions on how to act.
Preoccupied with politics and history, neither character is capable of moving on. Lucien thinks, “Maybe his nephew’s is the last generation that will remember what it had once felt like to blithely assume there would be a future.” he has a firm sense that it is their responsibility—and not his own—to figure out how to move forward. Nationalist fervor again complicates matters. Lucien tries to get control of his emotions but finds “all one’s feelings had been absorbed by an arid wasteland—policy, strategy, goals.” Nathaniel proves similarly paralyzed. He looks for inspiration in the story of his parents and grandparents, who escaped the Nazis. Longing for clarity of purpose, he thinks, “It must have been pretty clear to them how to behave, minute by minute. Men in jackboots? Up to the attic!” But what does one do after 9/11? When the effects of trauma are so diffuse, and the bad guys seem to be everywhere, what does “normal” even look like? And how does one move forward?
Throughout the remainder of the collection, Eisenberg shows us. The portrayal of 9/11 in the first story influences our reading of the collection, and even though none of the characters in the subsequent stories are directly affected by 9/11, we look for evidence of the attacks. In effect, Eisenberg maps a pathway from the hysteria of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to a context in which the trauma of terrorism has been woven into ordinary life. The attacks no longer seem like the primary trauma in the lives of eisenberg’s characters, just as we readers have gotten back to the business of relationships and the mundane daily injuries that we inflict upon one another. The effects of 9/11 don’t disappear from our consciousness as time passes. Rather, as Eisenberg’s collection demonstrates, they echo and reverberate softly, working their way into the background. That is, Eisenberg shows us, not how we got back to normal, but how a new historical context produced a new normal.
In “Revenge of the Dinosaurs,” characters catalogue the anxieties that have emerged in the years since 9/11. “Flying is no joke at all these days,” Lulu reflects. Lulu’s allusions to “interrogations at the airport and worrying about the nail scissors,” and her reflections on footage from war protests, place us clearly in the context of the Iraq War, but seem more an inconvenience than a deep threat to her emotional well-being. The primary concern in the story is the impending death of Lulu’s grandmother, not the attacks of 9/11.
In “Some Other, Better Otto,” the story that immediately follows “Twilight of the Superheroes” and revisits its characters, the aging Otto reflects on his own mortality and inability to experience happiness, even though he lives a comfortable life. In its lack of overt descriptions of 9/11, the story marks a sharp break from the pages that immediately precede it. Like Lucien, Otto just wants to feel “all right.” But Otto’s suffering is the product of a whole life, rather than that of a singular event. He wonders, “Did each grieve for an ordinary life—a life full of ordinary pleasures and troubles—children, jobs, lovers?”
At Thanksgiving dinner, Otto’s sister and brother-in-law express concern for their daughter Portia, who in their estimation appears to be suffering from an amorphous psychological disorder. Their worry arises from Portia’s conviction that the world is about to end. She tells Otto, “Factoid: According to the Mayan calendar, the world is going to end in the year 2012, the year before this reporter’s eighteenth birthday.” Portia fears that she will never be old enough to live on her own, and were it not for her present age—she’s just turned nine—it would seem plausible to attribute this fear to 9/11. Instead, it becomes apparent that her parents’ divorce stands as the primary trauma in her life, an event that stands out much more than the terrorist attacks.
Twilight of the Superheroes offers a perspective on the terrorist attacks unavailable to readers of 9/11 literature. It comes from Kate, the protagonist of “Like It or Not.” She’s been through a divorce and is struggling with the news that her ex-husband is about to die. Her conception of loss reads like a primer for understanding how ordinary life swallows even the most emotionally devastating grief:
You couldn’t feel love once it was gone. What you could feel for a long time was the sorrow … of its fading, like the burning afterimage of a setting sun. Then that was gone, too. What she … would remember for the rest of her life was the fact, at least, of the shocking pain they’d been forced to inflict on one another. Eventually when they’d touched, it was like touching a … wound.
It is the newness of loss that Kate remembers as a wound whose pain fades over time. In the wake of grief, Kate offers silent advice: “Be patient. It will be over soon, it will be better tomorrow, next week you won’t even remember.”
By last fall, it was possible for a major writer to publish a novel about America that barely mentioned 9/11 at all. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, although preoccupied with the climate created by the Bush Administration, emphatically turns the page and forces our attention on the new ordinary space of American familial and political life. The attacks lurk beneath the surface, for the book’s characters as surely as for its readers, but only as the kind of background radiation to which we have become accustomed in the last decade. There is a difference, the book implicitly argues, between planes colliding into buildings and the slow exhaustion of the American body politic by the period that followed. But the traumatic and the ordinary are bound to one another; it’s impossible to understand one without feeling the other.
Art credit: Art Spiegelman, Sketch for panel that appears in In the Shadow of No Towers