Fear Itself: Literary Reflections on 9/11

Paul Harvey

Editorial note: Over the past few days and continuing through this weekend, reflections, essays, and artistic responses pour in on the 10th anniversary of September 11th. I have written my own consideration historicizing our national response to the event for Religion Dispatches, and Kevin Levin has developed much further and more insightfully the comparison I draw between Civil War commemorations and 9/11 remembrances

Just this evening I have been reflecting on Judith Weisenfeld's look at "The Ephemera of Commemoration," about "grassroots modes of mourning" which sprung up in impromptu 9/11 memorials to those murdered that morning; on Hussein Rashid's consideration of works of art since/about 9/11; on Randy Balmer's history lesson on why Ground Zero and lower Manhattan were sacred spaces for America's best pluralist ideals long before 9/11; and on Mark Silk's reminder of why memorializing the epochal events for an entire community work best as collective secular rituals that bring the community together, and not (as has happened already) as food fights over whose religious leader was or wasn't there.

One voice that will stick with me this weekend whom I had not heard before is that of Fekkak Mamdouh, the Morocco-born waiter at Windows on the World restaurant on the top floor of the Twin Towers, who spoke about the loss of dozens of his friends and co-workers that day and his life since 9/11 for the radio program The World today.

Mamdouh might have appeared as a character in Amy Waldman's powerful novel
The Submission; as I blogged about a few days ago, don't miss Haroon Moghul's interview with Waldman. In trying to think about some of the major artistic literary responses to 9/11, I recently read Waldman's The Submission alongside Netherland, Joseph O'Neill's much-noted novel from a few years back. I read some other short stories and novels as well, including Don Dellilo's Falling Man, and listened to a variety of music that reflected on the day and its aftermath, but ultimately these two works stick with me the most.

The definitive artistic work may come in a future generation, but in the meantime, below is a consideration of O'Neill's and Waldman's moving novels on this anniversary weekend, along with some thoughts putting them with my favorite piece of popular music which beautifully reflects on our era of fear, Arcade Fire's
Neon Bible. If nothing else, I hope the following short essay provides some food for thought on your own reflections and responses to that day and all that has come since.

We were trying to understand . . whether we were in an apocalyptic situation, like the European Jews in the thirties or the last citizens of Pompeii, or whether our situation was merely pre-apocalyptic, like that of the Cold War inhabitants of New York, London, Washington, and, for that matter, Moscow. (Joseph O’Neill, Netherland)

The fear is there, Paul. The fear is real . . People need someone to blame at a time like this. They’re not consoled by abstract notions of process. (Amy Waldman, The Submission)

I can taste the fear
Gonna lift me up and take me out of here
(Arcade Fire, “Intervention,” from Neon Bible)

In his inaugural address in March 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt said that “this is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly.” He warned against “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” During the war, when reasons for fear were all too numerous, he proposed “freedom from fear” as one major plank of his “four freedoms.”

Since then, we’ve learned to fear fear itself. During the Cold War, fear became the basis of “security,” as well as the subject of a huge volume of artistic production which tried to understand how fear would shape democracy – what Ira Chernus has called the “national insecurity state.”

And again, in the last decade, we’ve learned to fear fear itself, in part because America’s civil religion of security and religious impulse towards boundaries of belief have embraced fear. Those fundamentally religious impulses – with all the complicated forces forming them, and the opposite if not quite equal reactions against them – have informed artistic productions reflecting on the events of September 11 and their years of aftermath. From Don DeLillo and Philip Roth forward now to novels and music emanating from post 9/11 America, artists have been drawn to fear as a theme which has color-coded our anxieties, shaped our politics, produced our wars, and deepened our divisions.

In our version of the day that will live in infamy, fear expressed through social conflicts and allegories of wonderful but unachievable neat resolutions drive the plots of two of the most engaging novelistic works addressing post-9/11 America: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (published 2008) and Amy Waldman’s new novel The Submission.

And the same notions drive many of the songs of the single best exploration of nameless fear in popular music of the last decade, Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible. On that recording, the fear is omnipresent and real, but unexplained and without a specific referent except that the tide is high, and it’s rising still/And I don’t want to see it at my windowsill.

“I’ve heard it said that the indiscriminate nature of the attack transformed all of us on that island into victims of attempted murder, but I’m not at all sure that geographic proximity to the catastrophe confers this status on me or anybody else,” Hans van den Broek, the narrator of Netherland, notes of the fact that on the morning of 9/11 in midtown Manhattan he watched televised images of the attack just as he would have done if he were in Madagascar. It’s the same observation about the mediated sensations of mass tragedy and mourning that Don DeLillo, our best novelist of “nameless fear,” would have made.

One’s interpretation here all depends on what the meaning of it is. It’s a nameless it that drives the lyrical prose of Netherland, as well, and that it compels the actions of many of the characters who step out of real life and from the green rooms of cable talk shows and into the pages of The Submission

From different ends of the 9/1l literary shelf, Joseph O’Neill’s and Amy Waldman’s novels explore the taste of fear and foreboding after 9/11, combined with a sense that the sheer everydayness of life and the foibles of human nature survive the most devastating of attacks.

And in both novels, reflecting a generalized American experience of the last decade, actual wars reside elsewhere. They are there to be commented upon, observed, argued about, and watched on the television screen. Of the invasion of Iraq, the oddly passive protagonist in Netherland simply comments “The war started. The baseball season came into view.” Hans, a Dutch oil futures analyst, tries to piece together a life taken apart by the events of 9/11, on the one hand, but more by his own passivity and inability to seize meaning in human relationships, on the other. “Hot” wars abroad scarcely matter.

America’s wars play little direct role in The Submission, either, but provide the indispensable backdrop for a plot exploring America’s conflicted relationship with religious diversity and media hype. The story follows the fortunes of Mohammed Khan (an architect and secular son of a Muslim immigrant from India who goes by the name “Mo” and prefers Chinese takeout food for his meals), the designer of “the submission” which has won the competition for a Ground Zero memorial. When the name of the winner is revealed to the competition committee, all hell breaks loose. From there, the novel follows a cast of recognizable character types, in a manner reminiscent of Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities.

In writing The Submission, by her own account, Amy Waldman struggled to make her novel not seem quite so ripped from the headlines, but life kept overtaking her art. When the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy sprang up (a sequence which parallels the response to the revelation of Mohammed Khan’s winning the prize for the Memorial in the novel), she rewrote portions of the plot so that it would not seem quite so plagiarized from real life. She could not do that for Alyssa Spier, the tabloid reporter for a New York Post style paper in the novel. Despite the author’s best effort at satirizing the tabloid press, Spier comes across as a whiter shade of Rupert Murdoch’s pale, unable to match the cellphone-hacking shenanigans of the News of the World crowd.

While these novels take philosophically different approaches, from the most elegant/restrained to the most ripped-from-the-headlines full of action, one truth unites the two: outsiders, immigrants, and the marginalized ultimately understand America and represent it best. In Netherland, the rogue-hero is Chuck Ramkissoon, the cricket-playing and illegal lottery-organizing charming shyster who befriends the drifting upper-class Dutch immigrant banker. Hans van den Breuck believes he can take care of Chuck and his world of dark-skinned West Indian cricket players, who come out of their taxis and their bodegas to engage in cricket matches, but realizes later that “they’d already been looking after me.” Chuck’s dream, presented with gracious humor in the novel, is that the United States cannot fulfill its destiny as a carrier of civilization until it has embraced cricket. Chuck recognizes and wants to mass commercialize (in the form of huge sports stadiums) a renewed British Empire, only with America at the helm, even as he recognizes that cricket in America is underwritten by “the same agglomeration of unspeakable individual longings that underwrites cricket played anywhere—longings concerned with horizons and potentials signed or hallucinated and in any event lost long ago.” Cricket is their attempt to impose a religious order – one of clearly defined rules, rituals, and grace – on a turbulent America whose moves and motivations cannot be grasped or controlled.

Chuck is also the immigrant on the make, combining inspiring dreams with the gritty reality of running a shady lottery in his community on the side, the side job which leads to his being killed and body dumped in the river. By that point, the endpoint of the story which begins the novel, Hans has rejoined his wife in London, and in trying to explain Chuck to her unfolds the story which frames the novel. In replaying his relationship with his family, with America before and after 9/11, and with the cricket crew gathered around the central character of Chuck, he realizes that “we all find ourselves in temporal currents and that unless you’re paying attention you’ll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or of years has pulled you deep into trouble.”

Both Netherland and The Submission give voice, in their stylistically contrasting ways, to the uglier underside of the entire decade since 9/11—the vast machinery of war blithely unleashed, the maddening car-alarm sirening of cable news, the hypocrisies both big and small of individual daily lives, the sensation-hungry press. O’Neill’s more lyrical, poetic prose expresses this best: “The rinsed taxis, hissing over flesh slush, shone like grapefruits; bit if you looked down into the space between the road and the undercarriage, where icy matter stuck to pipes and water streamed down the mud flaps, you saw a foul mechanical dark.”

The way that fears from contending places in the social fabric feed on each other, indeed need each other, is chronicled in journalistically skillful sociological detail in The Submission

The novelist takes satiric swipes at the recognizable character-types who depend on fear to maximize their own media exposure, but ultimately takes seriously the socially destructive role of nameless fears.Waldman chronicles the doings of everyone from obnoxious “headscarf pullers” harassing Muslim women, to high-society philanthropists who just want us all to get along, to organizers of media-ready groups such as Save America from Islam, to equally media-ready spokesmen of groups such as the Muslim American Coordinating Council, which uses the Memorial competition in the novel to promote its own interests. In the midst of the media hubbub, the original point of everything – the geometrically patterned garden that was to memorialize the victims of that day – is lost in a swirl of accusations that the design is a “martyr’s paradise” meant as a dog-whistle to jihadis across the world. Again, while the novel is meant to be parody, its painful humor in depicting what happens to Mo’s design seems more true to life than the real-life parody of the “9/11 Mosque” fiasco. In both cases, though, FDR’s warning against “nameless, unreasoning fear” seems swamped by the manipulations of fear by our media culture, and the ways those fears overtake even those who seek to poo-poo their power.

As the novel progresses, the real heroine emerges, the parallel (in part) in The Submission to Chuck in Netherland. In The Submission, it is Asma, a Bangladeshi woman and New York undocumented immigrant whose janitor husband had been crushed in the collapse of the Towers, and who later, after barely receiving acknowledgement and compensation for her husband’s death, realizes quietly that “there was no one to speak for her husband, for the army of workers who cleaned and cooked and bowed and scraped and when the day came died as if it were just another way to please . . . she couldn’t shake the sense . . . that history had only narrowly made room for him.” Asma’s encounter with her personal tragedy, losing her husband when the towers fell, and with being among the “uncounted” among the victims afterwards, shook her: “Faith for her had always been something like an indestructible building. Now she had spotted a loose brick whose removal could topple the whole structure, and her hand hovered near it, tempted, afraid.”

And yet, her entire experience makes her not fearful (even though she has every reason to be the most fearful of all, as the hand of the state investigates the details of her life and status), but the most bold in defense of Mohammed Khan’s submission for the Memorial of a geometrically patterned garden, with tufts of steel sticking up as tree branches in the center. At a media-made event in which “the families” can praise, vent rage at, or otherwise comment on the submission, Asma states her truths most simply and directly, chastising those who would fear fear itself: “The gardens of paradise are for men like my husband, who never hurt anyone. . . I think a garden is right . . . because that is what America is—all the people Muslim and non-Muslim, who have come and grown together. How can you pretend we and our traditions are not part of this place.”

Asma’s plea makes her a media celebrity, which exacts a heavy price. But hers is the voice that stays with the reader after the nonstop cultural chatter parodied in the novel finally fades to black.

The characters portrayed by Waldman ultimately build walls rather than gardens. They suggest the viscerally religious response towards exclusion and suspicion, a powerful force in American religious and political history. But Asma’s dignity through her tragedy suggests that America’s diverse religious and cultural fabric is too interwoven ever to be pull apart by the cultural tug-of-war fueled in part by the well-funded Islamaphobic kulturkampf of the nativist right. That’s a message of hope coming from a novel which deploys satiric characterizations of nameless fear to devastating effect.

Postscript: And it's a hope enacted by the myriad interfaith groups, conversations, meetings, and public forums which have happened over the last decade. Amy Sullivan has noted the importance of understanding religion in a post 9/11 world. Given the subject of this blog that is probably preaching to the converted, but after thinking through Amy Waldman's novel of ideas, that work seems more important than ever.


Everett said…
More for my get-to-asap shelf. Thanks for highlighting these, Paul.