Thursday, July 10, 2008

American post-9/11 fiction

Every year the International Literature and Psychology Conference offers scholars an opportunity to discuss literature and the other arts, using insights from psychoanalysis and other psychological approaches. We have psychoanalysts, psychotherapists, Freudians, Lacanians, a few Jungians and myth theorists, Zizek'ers, post-Zizek'ers, plus an assortment of literature and culture scholars who like to dabble in the psychology of narratives and objects. The 25th annual conference took place in Lisbon at Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada, ISPA, and just finished a few days ago.

My paper there had a certain American Studies relevance, as I spoke about recent American post-9/11 fiction as trauma narratives. Here are a few excerpts from that paper:

The post-traumatic aftermath of 9/11 is currently playing itself out in every conceivable arena, generating cultural texts in many different modes and genres: memoirs, documentaries, political analyses, therapeutic discourse, poetry, drama and film, to name but a few. Not surprisingly, given such a plethora of discourses, several novels have also recently appeared which thematize directly the effect of the 9/11 events on individuals, in or outside America. In my paper I propose to analyze these novels as trauma narratives, as well as aesthetic products. I shall focus mainly on Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, but I also draw in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and, to a lesser extent, Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.

The 20th century has often been dubbed the century of trauma – hardly surprising given the list of horrendous events occurring as the technology of destruction seemed to outpace the ethical development of the human race. WWI; WWII, featuring genocide in too many forms to number, including the Holocaust and the advent and use of nuclear weapons; Communist mass internments, dislocations and extermination; colonial and post-colonial wars world-wide, but particularly violent in Africa and south-east Asia; assorted minor wars and conflicts, often with a component of ethnic or religious cleansing at their core – the list could go on and does go on as we speak. The truth of the matter seems that the 21st century promises to outdo the previous century in terms of traumatic quantity.

If this had not been painfully obvious to that proportion of the world’s population living in the USA, the events of September 2001 certainly constituted a rude awakening. While the number of lives lost in the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon was not very high by comparison to war-time events, the exposure of the events by the media and their secondary effects once disseminated and re-disseminated gave us a hitherto unprecedented example of what I would term ‘trauma by proxy’. I personally lived through the aftermath of 9/11 at close proximity in New York City and felt the effects of post-traumatic stress to a nearly career-ending extent, so I do not speak lightly or frivolously of these events – yet one cannot but wonder why such a relatively small-scale occurrence should generate a massive discourse body, large enough to rival that generated by the holocaust or the nuclear and other civil terror warfare strategies of the entire WWII…

I have in fact addressed the specifics of this phenomenon in another piece, so suffice it here to say that an innocent, even naive people’s state of mental unpreparedness, combined with a ruthless exploitation of the initial trauma by the media and a war-hungry political and military establishment has led to an unusual and disproportionately protracted post-traumatic phase in the American public unconscious. Novelists have latterly turned to this rich story for material for tales of trauma and survival, and as is always the case with trauma narratives thereby run the risk of further perpetuating the post-traumatic phase. On the other hand, literature may just have a role to play in healing the trauma, or at least to lend voice to the victims, and therefore we should perhaps turn to an examination of a few post-9/11 novels.

Jonathan Safran Foer was born in 1977 and represents the third generation of postmodern American writers (first wavers include Thomas Pynchon, John Barth and Kurt Vonnegut; second wavers Don DeLillo, Paul Auster and E.L. Doctorow). Foer’s debut novel Everything Is Illuminated tackled contemporary teenage consumer culture and the Eastern European Holocaust/survivor legacy all at once. The result was a funny, infuriating and haunting novel which redefined the trauma narrative genre in its own right. In his 2005 follow-up Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close Foer continues to mix historical narratives in the best tradition of historiographic metafiction as developed by first and second generation postmodern authors such as Pynchon (known for his two-tier novels which construct a nexus between WWII and contemporary America of the 1960s), Vonnegut (same dual strategy in Slaughterhouse 5, with some futuristic sci-fi mixed in), and Auster (whose 1980s novels, such as Leviathan, frequently examined the historical roots of politically motivated terrorism, although they did not feature the explicit two-tier structure Pynchon, Vonnegut and Foer all employ). Foer’s novel constitutes an obvious intertext with the works of all three older writers and with several other practitioners of postmodern narrative (such as Don DeLillo).

The most obvious intertext is Vonnegut’s oeuvre, particularly Slaughterhouse 5, with which Extremely Loud shares the theme of the fire bombings of Dresden, as well as Vonnegut’s later, extensive use of graphic tricks, illustrations and samples of handwritten texts, all of which features are also employed to excess by Foer. Auster haunts Foer’s text in several ways, not least in the implicit (as in never stated) Jewishness of several of the protagonists, but also in the multiple references to walks and rambles in New York, which is strongly reminiscent of scenes in Auster’s New York Trilogy where apparently random rambles literally produce texts and messages (but little meaning). In Extremely Loud the young protagonist Oskar Schell spends a good deal of the novel searching for a lock to match a key he has found among his dead father’s belongings. In the process of this quest he visits every single person in New York named Black (another allusion to Auster whose protagonists are frequently colour-coded). The outcome of the search is however as disappointing as any postmodern quest for epistemological insight (cf. Oedipa Maas in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49) as the lock turns out to have no relation to Oskar’s father’s life at all.

The trauma narrative in Extremely Loud consists in two story tiers each representing a different historical period and its traumatic events. Oskar is traumatised by proxy by the 9/11 terrorist attack, during which his father dies in the WTC collapse. Oskar is the only family member who knows that his father left several phone messages from the WTC tower on the day of his death, and Oskar is plagued by survivor’s guilt, not least because he did not pick up the phone the last time his father called, immediately before the collapse. All Oskar has left are memories of his father and the recordings from the answering machine. He desperately tries to make sense of these texts and clues that remain, but much of the time he is in fugue from the trauma content provided by these memories and texts. He zips up “the sleeping bag of his self” (dissociation), wears “heavy boots” (depression), compulsively counts the seconds until he falls asleep, and is generally incapacitated by his trauma and grief. The search for the lock that the key he finds may open is his last resort at finding a solution to the conundrum of why his father had to die.

Another narrative strand is interspersed, accounting in Oskar’s grandparents’ alternating voices for some of the events in Dresden, before, during and after the British and American fire bombings in February 1945. Oskar’s grandmother (who was not present at that time in Dresden) further listens to a survivor’s account of the atom bomb’s effect on Hiroshima, which lends another layer of historical depth to her and Oskar’s experiences (and allows increased reader horror and empathy). Her husband, Oskar’s grandfather, experiences the bombings first-hand and loses his first love, Anna (the sister of Oskar’s grandmother) who is newly pregnant with his child. As a result he gradually loses the ability to speak, his artistic gift as a sculptor, which it has been his life’s dream to pursue, and in his bitterness and powerlessness he swears never again to have children. He immigrates to America to put as much distance as possible between himself and the scene of his loss.

The two narrative strands meet in the present of post-9/11 New York, but prior to that there is a mediation phase where Oskar’s family history is recounted. Oskar’s grandparents have re-met shortly after WWII and decided to marry, despite their handicaps and the lack of mutual love between them. He is trying to survive despite his oral aphasia and an artist’s block; she is trying to come to terms with the loss of her entire family, and through a complicated system of text production they try to cope with these losses. In both cases, however, the trauma effect erases all possible narratives of itself. He writes thousands of daybooks, filling them with phrases that he needs in everyday communication, but which make little sense outside their specific pragmatic use; she tries to cope with her gradual loss of sight by writing her life story on an old typewriter he provides her with. The story she fills thousands of pages with turns out to be written without a ribbon in the typewriter and therefore no legible traces are left on these many pages. He tries to hide this fact from her by pretending to read and discuss the narrative with her.

This lie on which their relationship rests is mirrored in another deception, as she quickly realises that he still loves her sister and is only using her as a sexual and emotional stand-in for that, to him, all-important person. In effect, he is reliving the traumatic experience of Anna’s loss every day by being married to her sister instead. She decides to be her own person and to follow her destiny instead of performing a tragic repetition of her sister’s life and breaks their agreement to never have children by becoming pregnant. He leaves her the very day she tells him this. After that his writing changes, as he begins a new string of thousands of letters addressed to his son, in which he tries to justify his actions. In the only one of these letters his son ever receives he succeeds in narrating the horror of his Dresden experience. That letter is reproduced in the novel’s diegetic world, complete with the son’s copy editing of the discourse, marked in red as a literal form of trauma redaction.

At the point in time where the two tiers of history and narrative are brought together (post 9/11) Oskar’s grandfather and grandmother have begun living together again. He has brought all of the unsent letters to his son back from Europe and now has no living person to send or read them to. Their son has died a death as meaningless as Anna’s, and he has a hard time finding a way to be present in his grandson’s life. It is only by gradually involving himself in Oskar’s project of visiting the Blacks that he finds a way back in a newly constituted family. The better solution to the trauma of both these generations turns out to lie in another act of textual transmission, and Oskar and his grandfather decide to exhume Oskar’s father’s empty coffin and instead fill it with the letters grandfather never sent. Through this exchange the grandfather purges himself of a burden of guilt, an act of outpouring or kenosis, which then fills the cenotaph or empty grave and by proxy fills some new non-trauma tainted content into Oskar’s life. The trauma is thus worked through to some extent, or at least partially cathected by the confrontation with the void/gap which has led Oskar to a pattern of avoidance behaviour (he invents impossible gadgets that will keep everyone safe, he avoids “obvious targets” of terrorism such as trains and ferries, he collects evidence of “stuff that happened to me” (pictures he downloads from the internet containing victims, crimes, porn etc.)), leaving Oskar and his family with the possibility of forming new attachments in a more anger-free, de-affected, non-addictive manner.

Don DeLillo’s post-9/11 novel, Falling Man, by contrast contains the story of a literal survivor of the WTC collapse, but more importantly also demonstrates the effect by proxy of such a traumatic event on a small family. The strains on the married couple in the narrative are quite similar to the ones described as tearing Oskar’s grandparents apart in Foer’s novel. DeLillo’s protagonist feel equally dissociated from the routines of his actual family who desires nothing more than a continuation of life as it was before the disruption, and eventually he seeks the company of a fellow survivor whom he hopes has the capacity to understand his emotions of anger, depression and suicidal numbness. De Lillo’s novel also draws narrative lines to Germany, but not the Germany of WWII. Instead the protagonist’s mother-in-law has an affair with a former Rote Armé Fraktion terrorist, and another German strand consists of us occasionally sharing the viewpoint of one of the 9/11 terrorists who has been trained partially in a German university and there has been converted to the cause by Mohammad Atta. Falling Man is a collective novel, as almost all its characters are allowed representation and narrative point of view. This causes the novel to be diffuse and uneven, especially as the terrorists (former and present) come across as little more than stunted human beings, stereotyped beyond sympathy. As the main protagonists all suffer from PTSD, one also encounters in their diction the deadening of affect so typical of trauma sufferers (recreated in a virtuoso performance by DeLillo) and this means that the novel is flat and uneventful on a surface level. The book ends with a tour de force scene where for the first time in the novel we enter into the burning tower with the protagonist and witness the traumatic event directly through his eyes. The scene begins onboard the hijacked plane and is narrated from the terrorist’s point of view. The second the plane hits the tower and he dies, the point of view is propelled out of his body and into the protagonist’s physical experience of the explosion. This transition is probably meant to suggest the communality of destiny between victim and terrorist, but somehow leaves the reader dissatisfied. DeLillo is in my opinion more culpable of 9/11 exploitation than Foer, despite not providing any cathexis of trauma content for his characters.

DeLillo and Foer of course share the trope of falling as central to the dynamics of their novels. Foer’s protagonist Oscar wishes to know how his father died and imagines that he can see him in the grainy news footage of people jumping from the burning tower. In the end he invents a mechanism that can play back the events in his head in reverse, and the novel closes with a series of images of a man falling up toward safety which can be activated by flicking the pages of the book in the manner of a primitive animation (an oblique reference to E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime). DeLillo’s falling man is a body artist who enacts a body falling towards the ground in a number of public settings in New York, much in the manner of what Yves Klein, the French situationist performer, painter and photographer did in real life.

In the novel the New Yorkers are angry with this artist who reminds them of an event many would rather repress the memory of thoroughly. However, the protagonist’s wife comprehends the necessity of the artist acting out the trauma content and mourns him when he dies as a result perhaps of a re-enactment going wrong. Thus DeLillo illustrates well the function of art as a solution to the ill effects of trauma-by-proxy which might otherwise be contributing to the trauma content being perpetuated unnecessarily. Nonetheless, ultimately one does not need DeLillo’s novel to the extent that one needs Foer’s. Both authors have renounced their frequently employed satirical repertoire and in the case of DeLillo this leaves him with little else to offer.
I hope that a longer version of this paper will appear shortly in PsyArt: An Online Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts.


Anonymous said...

Dr Sorensen,
I've been looking for material for my dissertation on traumatic literature post 9/11. Thank you, you are a lifesaver!

Best wishes,
Hattie Earle
3rd Year English and American Literatures
University of Keele

Anonymous said...
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Kathmeista said...

Thanks so much for this post - I am just embarking on my thesis which will be looking at post 9/11 literature so this has been most helpful!