With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 having been commemorated on the weekend, I thought I might explore how 9/11 affected – if at all – Australian fiction. Before I start, though, I have two provisos: one is that my focus will be fiction, not literature, or culture more widely; and two is that, like many of my Monday Musings posts, this will not be a comprehensively researched post, but one intended to throw out some ideas that we all might like to think and share our ideas about.
So, here goes, starting with …
What, if anything, is the 9/11 novel?
I didn’t find a definitive answer, but I’d say the “genre” encompasses novels which speak directly of 9/11 and those which are (or which seem to be, even) inspired by it.
Arin Keeble, from Nottingham Trent University, discussed these novels in The Conversation back in 2016, in an article titled “Why the 9/11 novel has been such a contested and troubled genre”. Keeble discusses the intense debate that these novels engendered, including the concern by some that the focus on 9/11 has “undercut the complex prehistories and aftermaths of 9/11, giving it inflated importance in the world narrative”. He notes that the novels that came out around 2006/7, by Don DeLillo, Claire Messud, Jay McInerney and Ken Kalfus, all explored the event through marriage and relationship narratives. He quotes from a critique by Pankaj Mishra, who wondered whether we are “meant to think of marital discord as a metaphor for post-9/11 America?” Keeble writes that Mishra and others criticised these novels ‘for their “failure” to engage with otherness and the geopolitics of 9/11’. Other critics and commentators weighed in, disagreeing. Read the article – it’s short – if you are interested.
The point that Keeble makes is that, regardless of how “polarised” the debate became, the impact was to ascribe “great importance to the 9/11 novel” and, as a result, to reinforce “the idea of 9/11 as a defining moment”. Writers like Zadie Smith, however, saw this emphasis on 9/11 as an example of “American exceptionalism”.
Other novels did come out with a more political and/or international bent, like Mohsin Hamid’s powerful The reluctant fundamentalist, but marriage and relationships are still at their centre, and they “continue to explore the way privileged Americans absorb and respond to trauma”. Keeble concludes on a book that he believes most aligns with Zadie Smith’s views, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding edge which “goes the furthest in challenging the singular importance attached to 9/11 in its intertwined historical narrative, weaving in the significance of the collapse of the dotcom bubble in 2000 and a history of the internet’s transition from an anarchic to a completely corporate space”.
I have read several non-Australian books “inspired” by 9/11, from Don DeLillo’s Falling man (2007) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely loud and incredibly close (2005) to Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005) and the aforementioned The reluctant fundamentalist (2007). Each is quite different, but Hamid’s is particularly memorable because of its point of view and the tone he sustains throughout.
Unfortunately, none of this furthers my 9/11-in-Australian-fiction topic. My excuse is that it was in The Conversation and it provides a good introduction.
And, in Australia?
However, some Australian novelists have contributed to the genre. This 2010 article published in JASAL by Jen Webb sounds interesting, from its abstract:
Australian fiction is, arguably, as diverse as the fiction of any other culture or era. But in a globalised world, though the stories we tell may remain inflected by the local context, they will necessarily be informed by transnational relations and geopolitical events. Like writers in the USA, UK, Afghanistan and elsewhere, some Australian novelists have taken arms against a sea of troubles, and produced work that directly and consciously engages that new genre, the post September 11 novel. Only a small number of Australian novels have been published in this genre – perhaps inevitably, given our distance from the scene – and they can be read as relying on the familiar features of the thriller, the detective, or the citygrrl genres that readers find attractive. However, I will suggest that they do more than this. In a reading of Andrew McGahan’s Underground, and Richard Flanagan’s The unknown terrorist, I will discuss the ways in which a very local ‘accent’ is coloured by broader forces, and what contributions we can offer, here at the foot of the world, to the ongoing conflicts and human rights abuses in the hemisphere above us.
Regrettably, I don’t know what ways and contributions he discusses, so we’ll just have to guess. Meanwhile, I have read Flanagan’s novel, and will throw two other novels into the mix, though they’re not set in Australia, Janette Turner Hospital’s Due preparations for the plague (2003) and Orpheus lost (my review) (2007).
Richard Carr, in ‘”A world of … risk, passion, intensity, and tragedy”: The post-9/11 Australian novel’ (Antipodes, 23 (1), June 2009), mentions the novels by Hospital, Flanagan (2006) and McGahan (2006), but adds two I didn’t know, A.L. McCann’s Subtopia (2005) and Linda Jaivin’s The infernal optimist (2006). He says that all these novels:
entered a world attuned to the destructive potential of the terrorist and wary of the terrorist desire to wreak havoc.
In fact, the terrorist as a symbol of a New Australia defined against an older, safer country is a recurring thematic pattern.
Carr discusses the novels, individually, and, while they are all different, they express some commonalities regarding our “contemporary obsession with terrorism”. To simplify muchly, these include fear of other (often encouraged by government) and lying about other, which result in actions like the scapegoating or oppression of innocent people and increasing reduction in liberty.
Carr also draws some broader conclusions – remember he was writing in 2009 – that I found interesting, and still relevant. He proposes that this obsession
sublimates long-standing sources of guilt and fear: the taking of the land from its rightful owners, the cruelty of the founding penal system, the inhumanity of the treatment accorded Aborigines into the present-day. Whatever the reason … Australian has followed America’s lead in assigning national security its highest priority and identifying the terrorist as the primary threat to that goal.
Do you have any thoughts about this and/or the 9/11 novel?