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Maria Kondo

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9/11 and American novelists

Maria Kondo
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Contemporary American Novel, Jewish American Novel

Introduction

After the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2011, novels dealing with this incident appeared. The novels that writers wrote as they struggling through the process of trial and error are now still being published. How would they verbalize a disaster that does not welcome to be verbalized? Do the authors have the right to tell stories of the many victims and the deceased? In the contemporary American novel that I specialize in, these issues can be examined through the works concerning September 11, 2001. I would like to introduce the speeches and works of several writers regarding this incident, with a focus on the modern American writer, Paul Auster.

Movies Smoke and Blue in the Face

Smoke (directed by Wayne Wang and written by Paul Auster, 1995) received The Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is a story of people who come to a small cigar shop in Brooklyn, New York. In addition to the stories interwoven by three main characters, Auggie, a cigar shop owner, Paul, a writer who lost his wife, and a youth called Rashid, another compelling element of this movie is the wide variety of supporting characters. Being African, Italian and Asian, they have various jobs such as cigar shop owner, writer, garage owner, horse race bookie, and bookstore clerk.

Auster, who is a Brooklyn resident himself, explains the background of the story in an interview in 1994. People of all races, religion and economic status live in Brooklyn, therefore creating a high tendency to generate hatred and violence. However, in spite of the differences, people make an effort to live together, and they manage to get along somehow. Auster describes this as a “miracle” and praises New York, including Brooklyn.

After Smoke, a follow-up movie called Blue in the Face was developed, which was also set in Brooklyn. Auster calls this movie “a hymn to the great People’s Republic of Brooklyn.” Together with Smoke, these two films can be considered as Auster’s “hymn to New York.”[1]

In reality, the city of New York consists of people of diverse races. Once you speak to them, you can experience various forms of English with different accents. Many residents are immigrants whose native language is not English. According to the data of the US Census Bureau, about half of New York City residents use language other than English at home.

Magazine Articles after 9/11

On September 11, 2001, the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorist attacks in Auster’s beloved city, New York. It was 7 years after the above-mentioned interview. Immediately after this unimaginable incident, many writers and poets in America were asked to be interviewed and write articles.

For example, two weeks after the incident, on September 23, The New York Times Magazine already had a special feature. Among many writers who wrote their essays for the feature, Richard Powers[2] said the following. He was preparing to teach his creative writing class at the University of Illinois when he learned about the incident. On this day, he was planning to teach figurative language: metaphor and simile. The media after the collapse of towers were filled with expressions using simile. “The shock of the attack was like Pearl Harbor,” “Lower Manhattan was like a city after an earthquake”… However, Powers emphasized the powerlessness of words faced with the reality and said, “No comparison can say what happened to us.”

On the following day, on September 24, The New Yorker featured articles of writers and thinkers discussing the incident from various perspectives. John Updike[3] witnessed the scene of the collapse of the World Trade Center from less than 1 mile away and described it in details.

One of the questions that were often asked to the writers in the interviews after 9/11 was how 9/11 was going to be reflected in their works. Many writers gave an answer to this question very carefully. They were afraid that their works would be affected by political will and they would write novels that were carried away by the times. Some writers said they would need a long period of time to write about it, if they were to eventually novelize it[4].

Novels using 9/11 as a subject

Nevertheless, many novelists eventually did write about this incident that seemed impossible to verbalize. The critiques towards those novels clearly show how difficult such a task is.

For example, Jonathan Safran Foer[5] wrote a novel titled Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005). A 9-year-old boy, who lost his father in the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, discovers a key in his father’s closet. To search information about the key, the boy walks all around New York. To him, this is an act to understand what his father wanted to tell him and to rediscover his father who had already gone.

Although this novel obtained many readers and became a movie (2011), there were some criticisms towards it. One of them was of the way the incident was described. A criticism says this incident that caused so many casualties might be used to make the readers sentimental. Another criticism refers to the experimental structure of the novel and says it may be too playful to deal with such a serious incident.

These are common criticisms that are often given to the novels dealing with 9/11. Verbalizing this historic incident and incorporating it in a work of fiction require not only the writer’s capability. It seems to matter whether the writer is sincere, the writer’s political position is not too obvious, and the historic meaning of the incident is described.

Essays and Novels of Auster

Then, what are the works of the above-mentioned Paul Auster that refer to this incident? First, I would like to take a look at his essay published in The New York Times Magazine on November 11, 2001, just two months after the terrorist attack.

The narrator describes the scene in a crowded subway train in New York. The narrator counts the number of newspapers written in languages other than English and watches passengers with various skin colors and features. The diversity that the narrator sees is described in detail. Later, the train suddenly stops and the lights go out. However, without making a fuss, the passengers quietly wait in the darkness for the train to start moving again.

It is a very short essay, describing a segment of the daily lives of New Yorkers. It can be read as an essay that has nothing to do with the terrorist attacks. However, the train in which people with various languages, religion, culture and political positions are packed reminds us of the city of New York itself. The narrator observes the diverse passengers who stay together and continue to ride the train even in an emergency situation where the train suddenly stops and the lights go off.

In reality, after Auster wrote the essay, America invaded Afghanistan and rushed into the Iraq War. During this time, namely the period when the “War on Terrorism” led by President Bush was consuming the entire USA, Auster quoted “USA OUT OF NYC” in his essay to The New York Times (issued on September 9, 2002). He mentioned the possibility of New York seceding from the USA and becoming an independent city-state.

Six years later, Auster wrote a novel based on this idea, called Man in the Dark (2008). In the novel, a parallel world is described where 16 states including New York announce their independence from the USA after the presidential elections of 2000 when President Bush won, and the USA enters the second civil war. The author’s criticism to the Bush Administration is clearly expressed. The book also describes the process in which the narrator, his daughter and granddaughter are gradually freed from fear, sense of loss, and despair.

Conclusion

Smoke and Blue in the Face, Auster’s “hymn to New York,” describe his admiration for the city’s diversity. Later, this admiration became one of his approaches to 9/11.

Concerning 9/11, many writers try to approach it in their own way and struggle to depict it as one piece of work. The criticisms of those works are not always correct. It is up to each reader to decide what to read from these works.

*This article was based on the article in Kusa no Midori No. 220 (November 2008), after making major modifications.

  1. ^ This interview is in Smoke and Blue in the Face, Japanese translation by Motoyuki Shibata, et al. Shinchosha, 1995.
  2. ^ Richard Powers was born in 1957. His novels are written by making good use of scientific knowledge. His representative work includes Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.
  3. ^ John Updike was born in 1932 and died in 2009. He received the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. His representative work includes Rabbit, Run.
  4. ^ Ryoichi Niimoto, American Choice, Bungeishunju, 2005.
  5. ^ Jonathan Safran Foer is a Jewish writer born in 1977. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is his second novel.
Maria Kondo
Associate Professor, Faculty of Economics, Chuo University
Areas of Specialization: Contemporary American Novel, Jewish American Novel
Professor Kondo completed her master’s degree with a focus on English Studies at Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University in 2000. She completed her doctoral course work without degree at Graduate School of Letters, Arts and Sciences, Waseda University in 2006. After being a Research Associate at Waseda University, she became an Assistant Professor of Faculty of Economics, Chuo University in 2008 and took up the current position in 2012. Her areas of specialization are American literature, especially contemporary novel and Jewish American literature such as Paul Auster.