Netherland and The Notion of the Post-9/11 Novel

 

Guardian Books: “’No better mind has gone to work on where we are post-9/11,’ author and judge Lee Abbott told the Washington Post,” about Joseph O’Neill and his PEN/Faulkner award winning novel Netherland. It “made the longlist for the Booker prize and was the bookies’ favourite to win before it was snubbed for the shortlist….” “It was described by the New York Times as ‘the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Centre fell’, while James Wood in the New Yorker called it ‘one of the most remarkable post-colonial books I have ever read’.”

Meanwhile, Shelly Ettinger at Read Red comments, O’Neill  

“means well, no doubt, and he is it seems trying to get at several complexities about identity and immigration and friendship and history with the novel’s title, but it strikes me that what he’s cooked up is more like Neverland, one more postcolonial fantasy of what life is like for those driven across the world by the crimes of colonialism – as told by the inheritor of the riches stolen from their forebears. There’s a liberal smugness to it, or at least that’s how it sits with me.”

Discussion of the notion of the post-9/11 novel and literature in general leaves out the question of whether or not 9/11 is much of an appropriate touchstone, given the great catastrophe that was kicked off in the March 2003 ground invasion of Iraq, an extension of the murderous US-UN sanctions era kicked off by invasion more than a decade prior…. Our suffering defines a literary era but the far more massive suffering we inflict on others does not.

That’s retrograde, it seems to me, even though much of the “post-9/11″ lit conceit may be of liberal or progressive intention. The unthinkable has been filtered out prior to the discussion. Along these lines, other significant moments or era shifts – the various US invasions, the shift to a finance based economy in recent decades, the rise of the PR industry beginning about a century ago, the fall and rise of widespread activist movements – seem like far more meaningful markers of changing sociopolitical and cultural eras that would most insightfully and most dramatically inform literature.

Of course, 9/11/01 is in its own right a “novel event” – as Noam Chomsky notes:

“It is correct to say that this is a novel event in world history, not because of the scale of the atrocity – regrettably – but because of the target. How the West chooses to react is a matter of supreme importance. If the rich and powerful choose to keep to their traditions of hundreds of years and resort to extreme violence, they will contribute to the escalation of a cycle of violence, in a familiar dynamic, with long-term consequences that could be awesome. Of course, that is by no means inevitable. An aroused public within the more free and democratic societies can direct policies towards a much more humane and honorable course.”

“The horrendous terrorist attacks on Tuesday [9/11] are something quite new in world affairs, not in their scale and character, but in the target. For the US, this is the first time since the War of 1812 that its national territory has been under attack, even threat. It’s colonies have been attacked, but not the national territory itself. During these years the US virtually exterminated the indigenous population, conquered half of Mexico, intervened violently in the surrounding region, conquered Hawaii and the Philippines (killing hundreds of thousands of Filipinos), and in the past half century particularly, extended its resort to force throughout much of the world. The number of victims is colossal. For the first time, the guns have been directed the other way. The same is true, even more dramatically, of Europe. Europe has suffered murderous destruction, but from internal wars, meanwhile conquering much of the world with extreme brutality. It has not been under attack by its victims outside, with rare exceptions (the IRA in England, for example). It is therefore natural that NATO should rally to the support of the US; hundreds of years of imperial violence have an enormous impact on the intellectual and moral culture.”

As it turned out, the horrific events of 9/11 were quickly overshadowed by far more calamitous events of the conquests of Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond. The post-9/11 era quickly became the Conquest of Oila era, the conquest of vast swaths of western Asia. Meanwhile the literature establishment remains fixated on the notion of the 9/11 novel or the post-9/11 novel – an emphasis, again, that recalls our suffering rather than the orders-of-magnitude greater devastation wreaked by us. To where has the “post-9/11″ novel taken us? To the prize winning Netherland, for one.

In the current American Literary History issue, in his essay on the literature of ”9/11 and its aftermath” – ”Open Doors, Closed Minds: American Prose Writing at a Time of Crisis” – Richard Gray points out that:

“many of the texts that try to bear witness to contemporary events vacillate . . . between large rhetorical gestures acknowledging trauma and retreat into domestic detail. The link between the two is tenuous, reducing a turning point in national and international history to little more than a stage in a sentimental education.”

Responding to Gray’s essay in the same issue, Michael Rothberg notes in “A Failure of the Imagination: Diagnosing the Post-9/11 Novel”:

“The failure Gray diagnoses is not simply a formal one, but also ultimately a political one. In place of the necessary imaginative reworking Gray calls for, he finds that in novels treating 9/11 by US-based writers, “The crisis is, in every sense of the word, domesticated.” Post-9/11 fiction frequently claims to be grappling with public and collective history: “Private life shrank to nothing,” reflects a character in Deborah Eisenberg’s collection Twilight of the Superheroes (2006); “all life had become public,” echoes another in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man (2007) (qtd in Gray). Despite such sentiments, however, Gray points out that in most of those works “all life . . . is personal; cataclysmic public events are measured purely and simply in terms of their impact on the emotional entanglements of their protagonists.”

After examining O’Neill’s Netherland, which Rothberg finds valuable but limited, and “without dispensing with the immigrant model Gray proposes,” Rothberg suggests:

“What 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. Such an imagination will necessarily be double and will be forced to balance two countervailing demands: to provincialize the claims of “‘the first universal nation’” and to mark its asymmetrical power to influence world events. While it is true that the great extraterritorial literature of our new age of war and terror has not yet been written, the novel remains a necessary form for such a political and aesthetic project.

These are two thoughtful and valuable essays by Gray and Rothberg. However, the severe limitations of both Gray’s essay and Rothberg’s response is that they both fail to look beyond the novels produced by the literature establishment, an establishment deeply embedded in the larger corporate-state establishment that has every incentive not to produce fiction that takes too seriously or looks too keenly at the “political…failure” of contemporary fiction, whether it be labeled post-9/11 fiction, Iraq conquest fiction, global fiction, or otherwise. Any reference in these two essays to significant post-9/11 fiction from established academic journals or presses – or are such operations so negligent or trivial in this regard that scholars wouldn’t think to consult them or wouldn’t find much of note?

My own experience and observation is that establishment ideology serves as a real block in both academia and commerce, in regard to progressive or liberatory fiction publishing and much else. I’ve been in and out of the academic programs, I’ve experienced first hand the mindsets, and done plenty of research along these lines. Ideology supports the status quo to severe degree – and in particular ways, on particular topics still virtually total – especially unconsciously but consciously as well. I’ve blanketed academic journals and commercial magazines and publishing houses with progressive or revolutionary literary fiction of certain types, my own and others, and have met basically a complete stone wall. This is not the case with some of my work that is less ideologically challenging. Nor is this the case with progressive venues such as Counterpunch, ZNet, Pemmican, and the Texas Observer. My own experience is not at all unique along these lines. “Left” artists or artists who take up too acutely too progressive explorations and portraits often face these blocks throughout US history – today is not particularly special, though some progress has been made, especially in multicultural realms.

The situation is somewhat similar in critical realms. Gordon Hutner (who is the Editor of American Literary History) in his excellent collection of criticism American Literature, American Culture unfortunately elides a vital and especially liberatory tendency of criticism in the early 1900s – crucial, central work that goes missing too in Vincent Leitch’s Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, and is near totally written out of history.

 

Plenty of work along these lines remains to be done. Should be done now, and could be, indefinitely. One single explicit investigative antiwar novel from the academy or anywhere – or even a short story let alone a fiction feature film – about the great crime of the US conquest of Iraq and beyond could be a significant step forward. There exist a ton of journals, including many that are well respected, employing plenty of time, effort, and expense to publish in fiction a lot of redundant work or fluff – not to mention some work that isn’t even much competent. I think many people sort of sense the kind of living death of many journals, which may account for why so many people care so little for being published, apart from reasons of career utility or a sort of narrow brand name prestige. Many of these fiction journals or fiction sections would be far more valuable if they were far more distinctly and crucially mission driven, rather than calling for virtually any work, “the best,” a thousand times over.[1]

 

In the meantime, the notion of the post-9/11 novel shows itself to be all but as severely limited in discussion as are the fictions said to embody it, and is greatly skewed from the start.

 

_________________

 

[1] Though very, very far from ideal, the prospects and reality are currently some degree better on the nonfiction side of things – for a number of reasons, I think, one being simply that the academy produces far more original nonfiction than fiction. Other reasons somewhat related are probably more relevant, having to do with the lightning-in-a-bottle tendencies and oft inherent popular potential of art. Possibly, fiction or the novel in particular can be felt as threatening or inappropriate, for it can be so articulate and so emotional or fully engaging, sometimes seemingly in whole.

 

 

 

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