AFTER THE FALL: American Literature after 9/11

Richard Gray, After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11 (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

by Daniel O’Gorman

A great deal of critical writing has been published on ‘9/11 literature’ over the last decade, much of it focusing on the way in which authors have struggled to represent the collective trauma associated with the attacks. Notable studies have included Out of the Blue: September 11 and the Novel by Kristiaan Versluys, 9/11 and the Literature of Terror by Martin Randall, and Literature After 9/11, edited by Anne Keniston and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn. Although many literary texts have been analysed, a canon of sorts has quickly begun to emerge, with a rather narrow selection of novels lying at the heart of research into the field. Chief amongst these have been Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, as well as a small number of others that attempt to bear witness to the trauma of the attacks, but that do so almost without exception from the point of view of estranged, middle-class, usually Caucasian New York families.

Postcolonial approaches such as those found in the collected volume Terror and the Postcolonial, edited by Elleke Boehmer and Stephen Morton, have provided some refreshing and much-needed alternative points of view. However, up until very recently, a frustrating rift has persisted between such alternative perspectives and the more ‘US Studies’-oriented research into the literary genre often referred to as ‘the 9/11 novel’ (the definite article speaking to some extent for a narrowness of focus usually displayed by texts within the category). With the emergence in recent years of a number of critically acclaimed, culturally ‘polyphonic’ novels such as Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, the first signs of change in the scholarship into the field have begun to materialise. In recognition of this recent wave of novels, critics have increasingly aligned themselves with Michael Rothberg’s claim that ‘[w]hat we need from 9/11 novels are cognitive maps that imagine how US citizenship looks and feels beyond the boundaries of the nation-state, both for Americans and for others’. [1]

Richard Gray’s After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11 is the first book-length study to begin bridging the gap between the fields of ‘US’ and ‘postcolonial’ – or ‘transnational’ – 9/11 literary studies. It responds to Rothberg’s claim (which itself formed part of a dialogue between the two scholars in a much-cited 2009 issue of American Literary History), by shifting the focus of post-9/11 literary studies from the event’s immediate trauma to a broader exploration of its still unfolding effects on a multiplicity of American national identities. In doing so, the scope of ‘post-9/11 literature’ as a category is substantially expanded in favour of a looser, more inclusively heterogeneous understanding of works that have engaged with the attacks and their fallout.

The study is divided into five chapters. The first, ‘After the Fall’, is the shortest, and functions as an introduction in which Gray lays out his central claims. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, his central thesis is that literature has the potential to help ‘deterritorialize’ the United States, a process that he goes on to suggest ‘presents post-9/11 America as a transcultural space in which different cultures reflect and refract, confront and bleed into one another’. The value of such a ‘deterritorializing’ process, Gray argues, lies in the fact that ‘Whether they know it or not – and as it happens, many of them do – Americans find themselves living in an interstitial space, a locus of interaction between contending national and cultural constituencies’. Moreover:

“What this offers to American writers is the chance, maybe even the obligation, to insert themselves in the space between conflicting interests and practices and then dramatize the contradictions that conflict engenders. Through their work, by means of a mixture of voices, a free play of languages and even genres, they can represent the reality of their culture as multiple, complex and internally antagonistic.”

In Chapter Two, ‘Imagining Disaster’, Gray analyses a selection of novels that he feels have largely failed to ‘dramatize the contradictions that conflict engenders’. In his view, novels such as DeLillo’s Falling Man, as well as The Good Life by Jay McInerney, Terrorist by John Updike and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud fall into this category because they remain ‘eerily analogous to the reaction of many politicians and the mainstream American media after 9/11: a desperate retreat into the old sureties’. What Gray calls for instead is a literary ‘enactment of difference’: that is, ‘not only the capacity to recognize that some kind of alteration of imaginative structures is required to register the contemporary crisis, … but also the ability and willingness imaginatively to act on that recognition’.

Chapter Three, ‘Imagining Crisis’, engages with texts that, in Gray’s opinion, ‘get it right, … thanks to a strategy of convergence, rooted in the conviction that the hybrid is the only space in which the location of cultures and the bearing of witness to trauma can really occur’. Four novels form the centre of Gray’s analyisis here: O’Neill’s Netherland, Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg, and The Garden of Last Days by Andre Dubus III. Reading them against the backdrop of classic American literature by the likes of Faulkner and Fitzgerald (upon which they variously draw), he posits that the polyphonic approaches of these texts is more conducive to a ‘deterritorialization’ of American identity than those of the novels discussed in Chapter One: they ‘enact difference’ in a more successful way than the post-9/11 writing of DeLillo, McInerney, Updike and Messud.

Chapter Four, ‘Imagining the Transnational’, is the book’s longest, and forms the crux of Gray’s argument. Expanding his scope to include novels whose content may, at least ostensibly, be only tangentially concerned with 9/11 and its surrounding issues, he suggests that approaching the field in a broader way might lead to a greater understanding of ‘how trauma … may provide an intercultural connection’. A wide and eclectic range of texts are analysed in this chapter, including (but by no means limited to) The Foreign Student by Susan Choi, Monkey Bridge by Lan Cao, Harbor by Lorraine Adams, and Sightseeing by Rattawut Lapcharoensap, as well as Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. Faulkner is another key historical touch-point in the chapter (Gray has published widely on the author), as is the American South more generally. However, many of the novels Gray selects here are also either written by authors with some lineage in South East Asia, or include substantial portions of narrative that take place in the region. Reflecting what he describes as ‘a flood of immigration’ in the American South over the last twenty years, this fiction provides Gray with a clear example of the way in which literature can help set in motion a process of ‘mutual transformation’. He argues that these texts ‘reconfigure language, the themes and tropes of American writing in terms that go way beyond bipolar, biracial models. In the process, they become a lexical equivalent of the immigrant encounter, transforming their literary environs just as they are transformed by them – and, in effect, force us to rethink 9/11’.

Chapter Five, ‘Imagining the Crisis in Drama and Poetry’, goes on to explore the extent to which non-prose texts have risen to the challenge of ‘enacting difference’ in the United States after 9/11. Plays such as Omnium Gatherum by Theresa Rebeck and Alexandra Gersten, The Mercy Seat by Neil LaBute and Portraits by Jonathan Bell are described as focusing ‘not on spectacle, the ritualistic and performative, but on words, words, words, in an almost obsessive embrace of the verbal’. Poems such as ‘Curse’ by Frank Bidart, ‘Somebody Blew Up America’ by Amiri Baraka, and ‘first writing since’ by Suheir Hammad, have meanwhile provided an alternative to what Gray sees as the problematic way in which ‘many of the poems written in response to the fall of the Twin Towers, and its aftermath, do not actually question or resist the consensual, conventional response’.

After the Fall is not without its problems. Gray’s important argument for ‘enactment of difference’, for instance, perhaps might have been bolstered by more detailed elaboration upon exactly what he means by ‘difference’: as it stands, the alterity that his favoured novels ‘enact’ remains chiefly determined by its relation to Middle America. [2] Also, there are an unfortunately high number of editorial lapses that should have been resolved before publication (Don DeLillo’s Point Omega, for instance, is repeatedly referred to as ‘Omega Point’, while Barack Obama is described as being ‘[b]orn in Kenya’).However, these are relatively small issues is an otherwise highly useful study. Gray’s erudite and far-ranging book constitutes a valuable contribution to post-9/11 literary analysis, breaking new ground by expanding the scope of what scholars might feasibly understand ‘post-9/11 literature’ to be. It offers a variety of productive new directions for further research into the field, reconfiguring the often narrowly delineated boundaries of ‘the 9/11 novel’ in way that will make it increasingly difficult to read such texts in isolation from postcolonial or transnational debates.

[1] Michael Rothberg, “A Failure of the Imagination: Diagnosing the Post-9/11 Novel: A Response to Richard Gray” American Literary History, Vol. 21, Issue 1 (2009), p 158

[2] Paul Gilroy There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (Oxford: Routledge, 2007) p 45