After the Fall: American Literature since 9/11

July 28, 2011

In exploring the wealth of fiction, poetry and drama written in response to and in the wake of the events of 11 September 2001, Richard Gray begins by asserting the uniqueness of the event. He points out that 9/11 was the first attack on "the heart of the nation" since the British invaded in 1812. He also notes the iconic status of the Twin Towers and the fact that their cinematic presence on the New York skyline would remain a "lingering presence despite their disappearance".

It was, he observes, an event that "the whole world was watching". As a visual spectacle that blurred the distinctions between life and art, it raises the question: does literature deserve to survive after 9/11? And are words of any use at all? Gray sets out to categorise the writers who succeed in answering these questions and those who do not, prefacing that examination with an informative historical lineage of US writers who have been read through the prism of national crises, from Washington Irving to W.D. Ehrhart.

Initially he trains his focus on fiction that "fails" at this challenge through resorting to familiar models of "American exceptionalism" or "withdrawal into the domestic". He makes fair comments about the numbness of Don DeLillo's prose in Falling Man and argues that it, and works such as Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children and Jay McInerney's The Good Life, rely on "a familiar romance pattern" that envelops the unknown in the known. In concentrating on the fictions that "get it right", Gray employs the notion of deterritorialisation to argue for the success of works such as Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist that resist traditional models and the binary oppositions of "us versus them". Instead, they focus on the fault lines and interstitial spaces where definitions are necessarily blurred. Gray concludes that "trauma itself may provide the very link between cultures", and explores this theory through fictions situated between cultures, such as Nell Freudenberger's Lucky Girls, about an American woman's affair with an Indian man.

As Gray illustrates, drama in the wake of 9/11 has been used as a platform for debate, as in Omnium Gatherum, Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' play set at a post-9/11 dinner party. In talking about poetry, Gray differentiates between the "overflow of feeling" that embodies verse written to commemorate sentiment and poetry written from a hybrid space where the location of culture can properly "occur", as in Martín Espada's collection Alabanza. Perhaps inevitably with a book with a focus as recent as this, there will be omissions: here, Simon Armitage's poem Out of the Blue is disappointingly overlooked.

Gray sets the parameters of his thesis and focuses his analysis accordingly. But despite the breadth of authors considered, there are a number of research problems that are hard to overlook. He cites Wikipedia, rather than a more authoritative source, when giving the number of deaths resulting from the 9/11 attacks. In a particularly unfortunate lapse that surely should have been caught before publication, he states that Barack Obama was "born in Kenya". When he describes Islam replacing communism as America's "sinister other", this statement may not at first appear incorrect, and Gray illustrates the prevalence of this view in fiction such as John Updike's Terrorist. But there is an important distinction to be made between current US policy of opposing extreme Islamism and the view that the US is at war with Islam itself. It is this lack of rigour that may leave readers disinclined to accept all of Gray's emphatic conclusions.

After the Fall: American Literature since 9/11

By Richard Gray

John Wiley & Sons, 240pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780470657928

Published 18 April 2011

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