Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Specter of September 11th in Literature

Part 2: Can Images Silence Us?

These questions might be addressed again through two contemporary examples. I restrict myself to literature, because I haven’t yet seen the cadre of films produced (United 93; 9’11’01; World Trade Center—the list is quite long): Don Delillo’s Falling Man (2007) and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006).

I hope those who’ve read Delillo’s work will agree with me that he is eminently qualified for this task. As Andrew O’Hagan recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, Delillo’s books have dealt repeatedly with the interpenetration of impersonal geopolitical catastrophes and intimate, individual experience. He does this particularly well, without judgment and drama. Although narrative may be poorly suited for it, as it is the linguistic analogue of the function of attention in perception, his writing disrupts that function and manages to gloss over the surface of things. One wonders how Delillo achieves this state in which events reveal themselves without investment, in which all lives and activities and personal meanings are potentially comical and therefore denuded of all dramatic urgency. I will never forget the poignant choral effect of the television in White Noise, that softens the faces of interfamilial tension and returns life to the quotidian.

O’Hagan claims that Delillo has been silenced by September 11th, the event being the subject portended by his work theretofore. This claim is very powerful. For myself, I admit that I read Underworld during the summer of 2002, picking it up because the image from the cover—the World Trade Center towers marked by the outline of a bird flying across them—had a new significance and I wanted the book to speak to that, somehow, without speaking to it. And this is precisely what the novel did, through narratives of: the so-called “shot heard around the world” inaugurating the Cold War and nuclear arms escalation; the collection of trash in Russia for atomic incineration; an artist taking on the task of painting a graveyard of military aircraft; the construction of the World Trade Center towers; and a famous baseball game. That work was powerful because the events always eclipsed the individuals.

In Falling Man, Delillo is obsessed by images and these images are what have silenced him. The title draws forth the image of a performance artist, who after the event, mysteriously appears at different sites in the city and jumps from an overhang to a position in which he lies treacherously hung over the earth. Technically, the book should have been written about him. But that is a book Delillo is not equipped to write. What he does is wield and work with ideas and words, not images. Although his books produce images, they cannot themselves reproduce images.

Delillo knows this, I think. In the novel one of the character's is a famous art historian. Her daughter and lover repeatedly come together around a painting, which the daughter believes bears the outlines of the towers. There are moments when we join the daughter in meditation on the image. But the narrative fails to bring this painting forth. It cannot reproduce this image. Merely the outlines which we must imagine peopling it.

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