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A Question of Attribution: An American Story And The Literature Of 9/11
Nina Allan , October 21st, 2018 10:08

The new novel by Christopher Priest, An American Story, joins a growing literature concerned with, or circulating around, the atrocities on 9/11. Author and critic Nina Allan weighs up the competition

For the next 50 years, people who were not in the area when the attacks occurred will claim to have been there. In time, some of them will believe it. Others will claim to have lost friends or relatives, although they did not. — Don DeLillo, ‘In the Ruins of the Future’, Dec 2001

Or is it, she considers, simply that the world had gone in such a different direction, in the instant of having seen that petal drop, that nothing really is the same now, and that her expectations of the parameters of how life should feel are simply that, expectations, and increasingly out of line the further she gets from that window in the SoHo Grand. — William Gibson, Pattern Recognition 2003

Taking control, or trying to, leads inevitably to censorship, which in turn leads to the temptations of manipulation. When the motive is malign, facts and known events are no longer empirical. They can be downgraded into theories, suspicions, lies, alleged conspiracies. They can be redacted. History itself falls into doubt. Excuses for the mistakes or misjudgements of those in power can be made, cover-ups for their wrongdoing can be spread, prejudices can be sanctioned, imagined threats can be treated as real, wars can be started. — Christopher Priest, An American Story 2018

With any event of worldwide significance, there comes a moment when the boundary between those who were there and those on the periphery – the rest of us – begins to blur. As shocking images of personal tragedy rebrand themselves as the iconography of history, we begin to believe we are certain enough of what happened to recite it by heart. It is at this point that the question of what happened begins to give way to the question of what it means.

In the case of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001, ‘what happened’ has never been in doubt, not least because so many of us – uniquely in history – watched the events play out in front of us on TV. As for what those attacks mean, writers who choose to tackle the subject face a tricky predicament: to question the accepted narrative and risk rejection or ridicule, or to ignore its conspicuous anomalies and risk becoming what Don DeLillo has called corporatized? Much of the literature of 9/11 has tended to concentrate on the fact of the attacks and their immediate aftermath. Novelists have so far seemed much less curious about the nature of the ongoing narrative surrounding those attacks, leaving curious gaps in the telling of this American story.

Arguably the greatest of the works that appeared in the decade following 9/11 is Don DeLillo’s 2007 work Falling Man, a novel of America in the throes of PTSD. The protagonist Keith Neudecker, a corporate lawyer, is one of the hundreds who escaped the towers with the aid of fire fighters via the choked stairwells. Keith has only minor physical injuries, but the trauma he experiences acts as a kind of rewind button, sending him backwards into a life he thought he’d left behind. As the towers fall, Keith walks through a desecrated landscape towards the apartment he used to share with his wife Lianne, from whom he is separated, and their son Justin. He is covered in blood, but the blood turns out not to be his. He is carrying a briefcase, a briefcase he later realises does not belong to him.

Though the novel’s main focus is Keith – in spite of the famous photograph for which the book is named, we could indeed say he is the titular character – we soon notice that the three other main characters in Falling Man are similarly dealing with trauma, and with the painful, entwined intricacies of remembering and forgetting. Keith’s wife Lianne becomes obsessed with the failing memories of the members of a writers’ group she runs for Alzheimer’s victims. Lianne’s mother Nina, who is dying of cancer, battles to retain her sense not just of self, but of the passionate objectivity that has defined her in her career as an art historian. Meanwhile, Nina’s lover Martin struggles to forget the self he may once have occupied as a member of a left wing terrorist organisation in his native Germany. Though he has renounced violence completely in favour of art, it is Martin who most feels the need to analyse not just the how of what has happened to New York, but also the why. As Nina’s response to the attacks is viscerally personal, so Martin stands apart, asking questions.

If the détente and reconciliation between Keith and Lianne forms the emotional heartland of Falling Man, so the debate between Martin and Nina forms its intellectual headspace. In the end, Nina dies and Martin disappears back into the European art world he once emerged from, pointing towards the death of rationality amidst the resurgence of darker forces that will not stay buried:

“There is a word in German, Gedankenübertragung. This is the broadcasting of thoughts. We are all beginning to have this thought, of American irrelevance. It’s a little like telepathy. Soon the day is coming when nobody has to think about America except for the danger it brings. It is losing the center. It becomes the center of its own shit. This is the only center it occupies.”

DeLillo has often been criticised for a chilly prose style, an alienating rigour that puts up a barrier between the reader and the experience being described. Such a tendency might equally be described as DeLillo’s obsessive need to analyse, to look for the larger significance behind individual events or subjective observations, the ineradicable presence of the general within every specific. In either case, the sense of chilly estrangement generated by DeLillo’s approach might just be the perfect medium for transmitting the numbing effect of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath. As DeLillo himself put it in an essay written for Harper’s in December 2001:

When we say a thing is unreal, we mean it is too real, a phenomenon so unaccountable and yet so bound to the power of objective fact that we can't tilt it to the slant of our perceptions. First the planes struck the towers. After a time it became possible for us to absorb this, barely. But when the towers fell. When the rolling smoke began moving downward, floor to floor. This was so vast and terrible that it was outside imagining even as it happened. We could not catch up with it.

Within the novel itself, Lianne’s obsessive rewatching of the footage – ineradicable, era-defining – will carry an instant resonance and – in spite of DeLillo’s reputation for writing at a distance – sense of identification for anyone who reads it:

Every time she saw a videotape of the planes she moved a finger towards the power button on the remote. Then she kept on watching. The second plane coming out of that ice blue sky, this was the footage that entered the body, that seemed to run beneath her skin, the fleeting sprint that carried lives and histories, theirs and hers, everyone’s, into some other distance, out beyond the towers... Every helpless desperation set against the sky, human voices crying to God and how awful to imagine this, God’s name on the tongues of killers and victims both, first one plane and then the other, the one that was nearly cartoon human, with flashing eyes and teeth, the second plane, the south tower.

Similarly, the novel’s closing sequence, which brings us full circle to the events that immediately precede Keith’s exit from the World Trade Center, is a tour de force of wonder and terror, a slow-motion sequence from a movie with the sound turned down that propels us seamlessly from plane to building, from perpetrator to victim in what must be one of the deftest feats of imagining in all of 9/11 literature to date.

As a work of art, Falling Man is close to flawless. Yet the commentary it provides, especially when considered alongside DeLillo’s Harper’s essay, is uncomfortable in places, an Americanised perspective that frames 9/11 as an archetypical boss battle between the rational – free, progressive, American society – and the regressive – fundamentalist, jealous, unknowable ‘them’. Many will remember Martin Amis’s now infamous reaction to the atrocity and his expansions upon that reaction in his 9/11-themed collection of essays and short fiction The Second Plane (2008). DeLillo’s Harper’s essay would appear to support some of the same rhetoric. It is easy to criticise such sentiments at a distance of almost two decades, just as it is difficult, in the light of the Islamophobia that has driven much of US foreign policy since 9/11, to imagine DeLillo writing the same essay now.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, William Gibson was one of many high-profile writers approached by media outlets hungry for literary commentary on the attacks. Of an article he wrote for the Canadian national newspaper The Globe and Mail, Gibson later observed that ‘this piece became part of my decision not to abandon a novel-in-progress’. The piece in question, ‘Mr Buk’s Window’, is a short, personal reminiscence about a particular shop window in downtown New York, which for Gibson becomes painfully symbolic of the violent changes wrought upon the city and the wider world. The novel he chose not to abandon is Pattern Recognition (2003), in which Gibson reprises the same events and emotions that formed the subject matter of ‘Mr Buk’s Window’:

Cayce herself had been in SoHo that morning, at the time of the impact of the first plane, and had witnessed a micro-event that seemed in retrospect to have announced, however privately and secretly, that the world itself had at that very instant taken a duck in the face. She had watched a single petal fall, from a dead rose, in the tiny display window of an eccentric Spring Street dealer in antiques.

Pattern Recognition’s protagonist, Cayce Pollard, is a freelance ‘coolhunter’ employed by ad agencies and high-end fashion manufacturers to identify logos that have the potential to go viral and make their owners’ fortune. Cayce’s father, an intelligence operative named Wingrove Pollard, went missing on the morning of 9/11, although there was never any evidence to prove he was either in or near the World Trade Center at the time. His absence has induced in Cayce a kind of emotional stasis, an inability to move forward with her life.

As the novel opens, Cayce finds herself getting drawn deeper into the activities of an online forum for fans of a mysterious series of found footage images, each appearing to be part of a longer work, maker and origins unknown. Hubertus Bigend, boss of the influential Blue Ant corporation and Cayce’s current employer, believes the footage could offer a hitherto unprecedented opportunity for understanding content creation and monetisation. He wants Cayce to track down the maker and forge an introduction. Meanwhile, there’s the issue of Cayce’s missing father. Did Win really die in the 9/11 attacks, and is he somehow connected with the mysterious footage?

It’s slick, professionally executed stuff, characterised in every sentence by Gibson’s magpie attraction for surface detail. What a shame though that Gibson’s fiction isn’t more dangerous than it apparently is. Pattern Recognition leaves the reader itching to disrupt the shiny flow of Gibson’s narrative with some actual conflict, to drag a car key along the gleaming flank of his refusal to engage. Especially since when Gibson finally gets around to talking about 9/11, we catch a glimpse of the kind of novel this might have been. In the midst of all Gibson’s trademark guff about brands, inexhaustible credit cards and the kind of ghastly people who seem to spend their lives stepping into the lobbies of exclusive hotels we stumble, as into someone’s private living space, into passages of such honestly imagined emotion the effect is something akin to a physical shock.

Even in Gibson’s plastic reality, 9/11 is the one existential event that could not be ignored, could not be packaged and codified and sold for a profit. In an interesting parallel with Martin in Falling Man, Cayce finds herself drawn towards the realisation that the progress of history is defined by its fault lines, and how easily one conflict can superimpose itself upon another:

Perhaps the workers who’d made that part, if they’d thought at all in terms of end-use, had imagined it being used to kill Russians. But that was over now, Win’s war and Baranov’s, old as the brick compound behind Baranov’s caravan: concrete fence posts and the echoing absence of dogs.

The key problem with Pattern Recognition as a novel of 9/11 is – to paraphrase Gibson himself – the uneven distribution of serious intent. The disjuncture between Gibson’s powerfully personal writing about 9/11 and the flimsy plot that constitutes the bulk of the novel is so acute it is as if two entirely different books have been stapled together. Gibson’s refusal to name his subject comes close to being ridiculous on occasion: ‘things have been different in computer security, since last September’, ‘since the recent unpleasantness’. Gibson’s coyness could be characterised as satire, an expression of existential despair at a world where nothing matters but the size of your corporate account. Still, this textual blandness is a serious flaw in his conceit. One cannot help wishing that Gibson would stop people-watching just for a second and show us some rage.

If Falling Man concentrates its attention on the attacks themselves, and Pattern Recognition spends much of its energy trying to make us forget they happened at all, Christopher Priest’s new novel – his fifteenth – sets itself apart from all other 9/11 novels to date by concerning itself not so much with what occurred as with what the events of September 11th have come to mean for the world in the decades since.

The protagonist of An American Story, Ben Matson, is a science journalist living in a newly-independent Scotland in the very near future. On September 11th 2001, Matson was in the United States, on his way to meet up with his girlfriend Lilian in Los Angeles. When the plane he is on is abruptly diverted from Detroit to Columbus, Ohio, it rapidly becomes clear that something extraordinary is happening. It is only on arrival at the Columbus terminal that Ben and the other passengers are able to discover what that is.

As he watches the footage of the terrorist attacks on the airport TV screens, Ben makes desperate attempts to call Lil’s cellphone, but cannot get through. At first, he is not too concerned. All mobile networks appear to be down and most of the other stranded passengers are experiencing similar difficulties in contacting their loved ones. But as time wears on and Ben is still unable to reach her, he is forced to accept that there can be only one – horrific – explanation: Lil was aboard American Airlines Flight 77, the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Her name does not appear on the published passenger list, however, and as more anomalies pile up, Ben finds himself caught in an obsessive search for information, not just about Lil’s particular circumstances but about the accuracy of the official narrative of 9/11 itself.

In many ways, the narrative of An American Story mirrors the narrative of Ben’s transcontinental flight, as an ordinary story slides towards the surreal before metamorphosing finally into an archetype. Ben’s world is turned painfully upside down by 9/11, but in the world of the novel it is Ben’s search for answers that is more important as Priest attempts to demonstrate how all our worlds have similarly, without our knowing it, been capsized.

Though the subject matter of An American Story is situated very much in the heartland of historical actuality, the materials Priest brings to bear on the subject of 9/11 – the deliberate confabulation of two or more contrasting ideas, the use of cognitive estrangement to jolt the reader out of their comfort zone – are avowedly science fictional. Priest’s emphasis on the commandeering and restructuring of history as key concerns – the ways in which stories are told to serve a particular purpose – eschews simple realism in favour of abstract analysis, even as the driving force of the narrative remains rooted in ordinary people in desperate situations.

In this, his novel shows a markedly different approach from both DeLillo’s, which focuses closely on specific characters, and Gibson’s, in which the author glides past his subject matter in what amounts to passing references, a bump in the road. If the thrust of mimetic fiction lies in acuity of observation, science fiction relies for its greatest impact upon acuity of imagination, the ability to draw conclusions from occurrences, to engage the reader in passionate argument around those conclusions. By this definition, one could insist that An American Story is not really ‘about’ 9/11 at all, but rather uses the discourse around the World Trade Center attacks as the most urgent example of a phenomenon that is coming to define the times in which we live.

Central to An American Story is the mathematician, Kiril Tatarov, an enigmatic genius who has been co-opted by the US government to create what would be, in effect, an algorithm for truth:

“The conjecture they are struggling with here is a societal one. They wish to change the reality of events they do not agree with by surrounding them with false facts they prefer.”

If the emotional heart of the novel is Ben’s search for Lil, its intellectual cornerstone is his meeting with Kiril Tatarov at the Port Bannatyne hydro in Chapter Fourteen. It is here, through a series of thought experiments, that Priest shows how our apprehension of realworld catastrophe might be altered when viewed through the prism of mathematics. During what purports to be an interview for a youth magazine, Tatarov records his own analysis of what is going on at the hydro – in effect, he chooses Ben as his emissary, trusting that he will eventually bring the information to a wider world:

“These authorities claim that the story they have told, [the official interpretation of the events] is not only true but it has been fully investigated by them and is now final. The case is closed, because they closed it. Most people accept that. However, [the inexplicable irregularity of the official story] continues to stand up to calm and logical examination, the science is good, the arguments are compelling, it fits the evidence. But because of the doubts it raises, it no longer resembles [the series of events everybody saw] at all. [The official story] stands undamaged by facts, because it is not about facts at all. [The official story] is a myth but it is all most people have, all most of the world wants to have. The false has replaced the real, and we are living now with the consequences.”

Tatarov is researching the Thomas Theorem, which states that ‘if people define situations as real, they are real in their consequences. In other words, the interpretation of a situation causes the action’. In the moments when the planes hit the towers, what mattered most was what happened – the thousands of individual deaths, the devastating impact on the victims’ families, the actual and symbolic destruction of a particular reality at street level. How these events have since been weaponised for political purposes – how within days of the attacks occurring we all found ourselves conscripts in a manufactured conflict, the so-called War on Terror – is only part of the story. Priest is talking not just of this particular atrocity, but of all such atrocities, and the way history – all story – is shaped in general.

His arguments are complex, and compelling. One of the key strengths of Priest’s fiction has always been his ability to combine a powerfully human narrative with intricate and thought-provoking ideas. The effect of this is to take us into territories we might not have explored otherwise. We go there because we are led by people we have come to care about. An American Story handles its abstractions with dizzying panache. It also does not shrink from showing us why they matter, not just in demanding fuller clarification on the events of 9/11, but in being aware of how the story of our times continues to be manipulated even as we read this, and responding accordingly.

Christopher Priest, An American Story, is published by Orion