Arin Keeble. The 9/11 Novel: Trauma, Politics and Identity. Jefferson: McFarland, 2014. 216 pp. $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7864-7834-7.
Reviewed by Wayne E. Arnold (The University of Kitakyushu)
Published on H-Socialisms (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Gary Roth
9/11 and Trauma
The events of September 11, 2001, mark a complicated moment of transition in the modern mindset, one that may take generations to evaluate and decipher. The chain of events leading up to the terrorist attacks as well as the multifaceted and multidimensional aftereffects throughout the last fifteen years have proven far from measurable. Nevertheless, the medium of the novel, Arin Keeble stipulates in The 9/11 Novel: Trauma, Politics and Identity, provides us one method by which to take stock of the evolving and often conflicting interpretations of the traumatic aftermath. With a niche focus on literature directly connected to 9/11, Keeble seeks to deliver insight into the literature demonstrating a changing complexity surrounding 9/11 cultural politics. Specifically, Keeble considers the novels examined in this work to be “documents and artifacts” (p. 191) through which we can begin to unravel how the United States—and gradually, a larger global community—has come to terms with the events throughout the last decade. We look to literature for answers, Keeble argues, and the progressing methodology behind each selected composition embodies how the growing canon of 9/11 literature has struggled to encapsulate the diverse realms of reverberation. Yet, as we move further away from the events, we may “try and locate a movement from discontinuity to continuity” to better evaluate the perceived impact of that day (p. 9).
Keeble’s primary objective is to move the critical discussion surrounding literary representations of 9/11 back to the novels. There has been a shift, he suggests, in the manner by which post-9/11 literature is being examined, resulting in “a polarized debate” concerning the interpretation of the literary efforts to portray the human aftereffects, with some critics demanding that the literature engage more forcefully with “political or international imperatives” (p. 2). Thus, the 9/11 literature, Keeble believes, has been mistreated by certain critics who appear to have forgotten that the novels are confined literary interpretations of a catastrophic event. Within all the novels examined in The 9/11 Novel, however, there is a sense of conflictedness apparent in each author’s text as to how the aftermath may be expressed through the characters, plots, and narrative forms. Following a mostly chronological course, Keeble demonstrates how early authors revealed the difficulty of their compositional theme through “their limitations or omissions” just as much as through what they do include in the narratives (p. 6). Shock, rupture, and nostalgia constitute elements of the cultural politics invested in the 9/11 novel; but, often, readers (and more precisely, critics) have expected the novels to provide a pathway by which we can reach an understanding of the attacks. Certain critics have even gone so far as to suggest that there are specific expectations that the author of a 9/11 novel must meet for their readers. Interestingly, Keeble encourages the position that the emerging canon of 9/11-based literature underwent a directional transformation with the next major catastrophe to hit the US: Hurricane Katrina. Therefore, the literature covered can be also broken into pre-Katrina and post-Katrina themes, further allowing Keeble to support his stance that this expanding literary genre is now better capable of presenting “narrative strands of ‘continuity’ and ‘discontinuity’” in more comprehensible erudite forms (p. 15).
Meaningfully depicting the immensity of the attacks was the daunting task faced by early authors. The individual—yet collective—strain was compounded by the Bush administration’s “rhetoric of rupture” concerning a changed world, and the impact on the United States, and in particular, individuals of New York City, is often portrayed in the early literature as a form of “traumatic repetition” (pp. 20, 27). To illustrate, the first chapter examines Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (2004), a short graphic novel depicting the individual distress the author faced in the aftermath. Intermixed is also the frustration Spiegelman felt with the Bush administration, from the questionable election results to the quick military action after 9/11, thereby turning the attacks on the Twin Towers into a legitimizing pretext for Middle East confrontations. Keeble’s analysis of Spiegelman’s work positions In the Shadow of No Towers as a progressive text in that it portrays—in comic presentation—themes that would not be soundly represented in the novel form until the post-Katrina literature. The narrative incorporates both pre- and post-9/11 depictions of the Bush administration, including the election and the military deployment, which move the text “beyond the confines of trauma discourse,” and by doing so In the Shadows of No Towers “can be read as an act of defiance against the limitations of discourse around personal trauma” (p. 26).
Traumatic repetition continues as a theme in the second chapter, with an analysis of Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World (2003) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close (2005). Both of these works represent what Keeble calls a crisis of representation, as the novels resort to employing tried-and-true postmodernist narrative conceits that have clearly struck many critics as being reprehensible in the face of such unprecedented events. Keeble explains: “rather than attempting to push the boundaries of the contemporary novel, these texts engage in an explicit struggle to find appropriate tools or forms to represent 9/11, and a self-consciousness of this enterprise is evident in their aesthetics” (p. 41). These are two struggling texts, in other words, texts that rely on meta-fiction (the inclusion of photographs in the text, for example) and multiple narrators to convey the sense of individual distress. The stylistic forms chosen by Beigbeder and Safran Foer prove limiting, but if we can comprehend this quandary, Keeble argues, we will be able to understand the dilemma authors faced in choosing how best to represent early depictions of 9/11 in written form. While some reviews of the novels by Beigbeder and Safran Foer have been antagonistic to the narrative styles, Keeble believes that a common theme in the reviews has been to highlight that both novels carry “some kind of deeply rooted tension” (p. 67). This tension is revealed when the crisis is represented through each author’s choice in “decades-old stylistic conceits” (p. 45).
Common thematic trends have emerged in the post-9/11 novel, themes that are expressive of larger public significance and lasting impact. Specifically in chapter 3, Keeble focuses on marriage and relationships between men and women, claiming that this subject is the number one literary theme within this niche canon. Three novels that address the implications of 9/11 through relationships are Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (2005), Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006), and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007), as all of the primary protagonists are in some form of meaningful—although perhaps dysfunctional—relationship. The predominance of relationships in post-9/11 literature provides Keeble the framework in which to start breaking down the perceptions that the events of September 11, 2001, were completely life-altering. Indeed, it is through these literary relationships involving people who survived the attacks, as with Falling Man, or those couples living within New York City during the attacks, as in The Emperor’s Children, that the lasting impact of the tragedy may be gauged. “The narrative arcs of the relationship stories have an underlying compliance with the more contentious notion that the social realities of 9/11 and post-9/11 can be more accurately understood in terms of temporary disruption rather than an epoch or rupture, as so many felt or feel it was,” observes Keeble (p. 71). This position is perhaps the most volatile stance Keeble posits in his work, and while he is conscious of the negative reaction to such a suggestion, the narratives themselves relate how quickly daily events returned to normal, in some cases, with no significant changes registering in the characters’ relationships.
Chapter 4 approaches post-9/11 fiction with an emphasis on the political and cultural impact of Hurricane Katrina, the next tragedy to strike the United States. The primary analysis hinges on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006), which critics regard as having thematic connection to the natural disaster in Louisiana. Keeble specifically states his position as follows: “McCarthy’s novel is most usefully read as a conservative allegory of 9/11 that marks the exhaustion of the early paradigms of 9/11 fiction” (p. 92). Locating The Road as a turning point in this genre, Keeble goes on to examine its indirect approach to 9/11, revealing his opinion that the novel utilizes defamiliarization to address 9/11 and the War on Terror. Interestingly, Keeble establishes his framework about The Road by examining two films: Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center (2005) and Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006). Both films “have prominent allegorical components that relate in different ways to [The Road],” he argues, as they address a “clash of civilizations” theory, thereby recalling the Bush administration’s political position (p. 95). Moving through his analysis of McCarthy’s work, Keeble covers much that has been said about The Road: its relation to the “mythological American West” (p. 100), that it emphasizes “American self-reliance” (p. 102), and its messianic allegory (p. 103); he then narrows in on “the allegorical aspect of the novel that links [it] so clearly to a post-9/11 context” (p. 106). Overall, the impact of Hurricane Katrina brought about a broader examination of disaster in the United States. The handling of both 9/11 and Katrina by the Bush administration “was so bad that it forced cultural examination and inquiry” into new territories, beyond merely the political elements of disaster reaction, or human suffering (p. 113).
It was not until 2007 with the publication of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist that “otherness” was significantly addressed in the 9/11 novel. The novel addresses the position of “the mysterious Muslim ‘other’” and provides a look into the post-9/11 impact on a Muslim man living in New York City who, like characters in previous 9/11 novels, is involved in a relationship (p. 115). American national identity becomes the focus of chapter 5, as Keeble explores Hamid’s novel and its interpretation of post-9/11, with the first non-American as the lead protagonist. The Reluctant Fundamentalist is “overtly political” (p. 116); the focus on “otherness” enables Hamid to examine how accepting the United States really is as a melting pot and whether the country has fully embraced those perceived as “others” in the face of the increasing 9/11 “nationalism or American isolationism” (p. 120). Chapter 5 is in some respects almost two chapters, however, as Keeble devotes significant space to Spike Lee’s 25th Hour (2002) in another offshoot into the cinematic representation of 9/11. Keeble justifies this inclusion, as Lee’s film emphasizes one of the interpretations of Hamid’s novel: the idea that preexisting US political issues brought on the attack and that the United States had only itself to blame. The novel’s representation of otherness and Lee’s emphasis on self-reflection are compatible, in Keeble’s view, as both works “problemtize the polarized paradigm of discontinuity and continuity, and locate points of reconciliation,” although the reconciliation is less pronounced in Hamid’s novel (p. 137).
Returning again to a relationship novel in chapter 6, Keeble examines Joseph O’Neil’s Netherland (2008) to illustrate his argument that 9/11 literature, post-Katrina, has indeed altered as a genre. Keeble describes Netherland as “the first genuinely self-conscious 9/11 narrative, as it demonstrates an awareness in several ways, of some of the perceived limitations of 9/11 fiction” (p. 139). O’Neil is cognizant of the shortcomings of previous 9/11 novels, and Keeble sees four areas where Netherland addresses these issues by expressly incorporating certain elements into the narrative. To begin, as O’Neil’s plot follows a couple’s relationship, he is “making a direct reference to this domestication of 9/11”; next, with the incorporation of a group of US immigrants, in particular a Trinidadian, the novel is including the “other” factor often left out of previous 9/11 fiction; additionally, Keeble believes the novel “is very aware of the difficulty, in cultural representation of 9/11, in rendering trauma” and is thereby able to avoid prior narrative pitfalls; finally, Netherland moves beyond prior novels by addressing the question that has often been avoided, specifically: “What is the lasting impact of the attacks?” (pp. 139-140). These components within the novel cause Keeble to esteem Netherland as “the most convincing narrative reconciliation of 9/11 in the emerging corpus of 9/11 novels” (p. 141). As such, it is a novel that is capable of engaging the public and private traumas of individuals while also dealing with themes of continuity and discontinuity, which Keeble considers an integral element to his overall analysis of the genre.
Keeble successfully outlines the transition of the 9/11 novel over the ten-year trajectory since the first publication in this genre and he ends by examining what may be the most complex novel of the group, Amy Waldman’s The Submission (2011). Waldman’s novel deals very specifically with politics and identity (of the “other”) in the complications surrounding the rebuilding of Ground Zero. These issues give rise to The Submission becoming a form of meta-fiction, Keeble argues, as “the meta-fiction comes from the simple fact that like the subject of the novel, the disputed process of memorializing 9/11, the novel itself is invested in the questions of how to remember and represent 9/11” (p. 168). As meta-fiction, the novel allows for “multidirectional memorialization of 9/11” through its “formal qualities” as having both literary qualities but also journalistic traits—an aspect that has garnered Waldman some negative feedback (pp. 168-169). The novel’s plot, with a Muslim architect winning the design for Ground Zero reconstruction, illustrates how the topic of Islam has been problematic in 9/11 fiction. In the narrative, the winning architect comes to be judged by the masses on his religion, rather than his design, thereby causing “his sense of identity as an American [to become] deeply problematic” (p. 175). Keeble argues that Waldman’s plot, in which the creator is judged rather than the creation, may also be applied to authors of 9/11 fiction, as Waldman’s novel has been interpreted by critics who may have looked too closely at the Waldman’s biographical background.
Overall, Keeble’s examination of the 9/11 novel accomplishes the goals he lays out in the introduction by returning to a close examination of the corpus. The narratives clearly move through new forms of representing trauma, politics, and identity in the post-Katrina environment and the limitations found within the early 9/11 novels are shown to be evolving resourcefully. Keeble ensures to ground his viewpoints by thoroughly supporting his stance with prior criticism. At times, however, the originality of his ideas seems dampened when the quotations of the selected criticism reiterate too closely the idea he just presented, causing me to wonder if some of the arguments he posits are mere extensions of prior criticism. This thought aside, Keeble’s analysis of each chosen text supports his hypotheses through solid and meaningful presentation of every novel. Additionally, there is cohesion through each chapter that is often lacking in other publications that analyze multiple texts on a specific theme. Part of this synthesis is perhaps attributable to the fact that only two of the seven chapters had been previously published in journals, thereby—I presume—allowing Keeble to write the five remaining chapters while bearing in mind this intended collection. Overall, while not groundbreaking, Keeble’s textual analysis is thorough and convincing, examining the trauma resulting from 9/11 in terms of the continuity and discontinuity found within the plots of these select novels.
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Wayne E. Arnold. Review of Keeble, Arin, The 9/11 Novel: Trauma, Politics and Identity.
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