Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel

November 5, 2009

Trauma theorists have made much of a simple human reaction: when we are traumatised, we do not know what to say; words literally fail us - a debilitating problem if you happen to be a novelist.

As with other traumatic events, literary critics are applying theory to post-9/11 literature, asking at what point it is appropriate to discuss or represent this event, and diagnosing novels and novelists with "trauma". The writer's role in times of human catastrophe is also under scrutiny.

It is out of this contextual framework that Kristiaan Versluys' latest book comes, and hardly "out of the blue". His study will be particularly useful to those who are not widely read in post-9/11 fiction as it usefully outlines some of the key questions that other critics have examined in relation to trauma writing - alongside a good discussion of contemporary theory and the discursive responses to the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States - in its introduction.

Versluys, an American literature and culture scholar at Ghent University, goes on to offer readings of fiction by Don DeLillo, Art Spiegelman, Frederic Beigbeder and John Updike, among others. He does, at times, make a reasonably compelling argument that each of these writers shows signs in their aesthetic practices of a numbing historical trauma, which some of them are able to move beyond. DeLillo's Falling Man, however, is said to be a narrative of endless grieving without recuperation that Versluys fears could be construed as an excuse for "reactionary ... movements of redress and moral restoration". In this example lies the deepest flaw of the book as a whole. The narrow view of 9/11 as the deadly result of a clash of cultures (modern democracy and medieval theocracy) is never discussed, theorised or challenged. I do not raise this point for the sake of any political agenda but in relation to the question of the purpose of fiction. While Versluys occasionally notes that good fiction should provide a way out of binary thinking, in the chapters on DeLillo and Beigbeder in particular, the implication of such thinking when it is applied to fictional characters affected by 9/11 is overlooked.

In DeLillo's essay "In The Ruins of the Future", discussed at some length before his novel is mentioned, he sets out a binary political agenda, which is reinforced in the novel by the tragic nature of his American protagonists and the depthlessness of the character who represents Islamic extremism. If the role of the storyteller, like Scheherazade in The Thousand and One Nights, is to offer comfort while subtly encouraging the reader towards moral vigilance and self-improvement, then DeLillo's failure to do so (when he is elsewhere forcefully critical of American ideologies) constitutes an ideological stance that negates this role. Versluys is unwilling to address this point.

In the chapter on Beigbeder's Windows on the World, Versluys makes the point that Beigbeder's French and American narrators' qualities are not fully explored, and glosses over the French narrator's nakedly insincere claim that he abhors "anti-Americanism". The uncomfortable truth here is that Beigbeder's alter-ego narrator writes about 9/11 from a position of European snobbery and limited sympathy, but attempts to be frank while seeking out the universally human, albeit clumsily. This, rather than trauma, causes the novel's awkwardness.

In these examples it can be seen that Versluys himself is too "overawed" by 9/11 to acknowledge openly views that point the finger of blame anywhere except at Islamic extremists. Noam Chomsky is unmentioned, as is Paul Auster's Oracle Night, an excellent post-9/11 novel and one that urges self-examination among everyday Americans concerning the ways that their freedoms and liberties impact on others across the globe. In this respect, Out of the Blue is as illuminating for what it does not say as for what it does.

Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel

By Kristiaan Versluys. Columbia University Press 240pp, £55.00 and £17.00. ISBN 9780231149365 and 149372. Published 22 September 2009

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