The unsettling arrival of speculative 9/11 fiction
When I was in high school, my English class read a famous short story called "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," written in 1890 by Ambrose Bierce. Its central character, Peyton Farquhar, is a slave-owning Southern planter. As the story opens, Peyton is about to be hanged by the Union Army for attempted sabotage. Soldiers tie a noose around his neck and throw him into a river. But the rope snaps, and Peyton swims to shore, ducks into the woods, and goes home to his wife. When he sees her, he feels joy but also a stabbing pain. It turns out that he's only been imagining his escape-actually, his body has been falling from the bridge the whole time. At the end of the story, his neck breaks and he dies.
Probably because I was taught, incorrectly, that Bierce's story was a humanist tale about the sadness of war, it never occurred to me that the story might be, in some sense, tasteless. Then I read a creepy short story called "Beyond the Flags," by Kris Saknussemm, which appears in a new collection called "In the Shadow of the Towers: Speculative Fiction in a Post-9/11 World." "Beyond the Flags" is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" set during 9/11. Instead of a Southern plantation owner, the protagonist is a Patrick Bateman-esque banker named Peter Connors, who works in the Twin Towers. When the planes hit, he's having sex with his mistress in Connecticut. His wife calls to find out if he's O.K., and his ignorance of the events in Lower Manhattan reveals his deception. He jumps into his Maserati and speeds home to patch things up. When he gets there, his whole life, "from cheating at Yale to defrauding his clients," flashes before his eyes, and he feels a sudden terror. The morning tryst with his mistress was just a fantasy. In fact, he died during in the attacks.
"In the Shadow of the Towers" marks the beginning of a transition in the legacy of 9/11. At first, a protective aura surrounds recent tragedies, preserving them from the injudicious meddling of pop culture. But it can't be "too soon" forever; no event is permanently beyond the reach of the imagination. Typically, to start, only respectful, realistic stories make inroads. Then some border is crossed, and it becomes possible to make revenge Westerns about slavery ("Django Unchained"), tragicomedies about the Holocaust ("Life Is Beautiful"), and horror movies about Vietnam ("Jacob's Ladder"). When it comes to the Iraq War and the War on Terror, we're already crossing that border: "The Hurt Locker," "Homeland," and the completed but unreleased video game Six Days in Fallujah turn real life into entertainment. Eventually, we'll get there with September 11th, too: there will be 9/11 video games and 9/11 romance novels. For now, we have the stories collected in this volume, which give us a preview of how September 11th might look through a 'speculative' lens.
Most of the stories in the volume are not as comforting. Instead, they are intellectual sci-fi satire-the sort of thing you'd see on a 9/11 episode of "Black Mirror." In "Beautiful Stuff," by Susan Palwick, a George W. Bush-like President reanimates people who died on September 11th; he then stages a press conference during which the dead are supposed to endorse his wars in the Middle East (they refuse). K. Tempest Bradford's "Until Forgiveness Comes" is written in the style of an NPR news report, and takes place in an alternate world that combines Ancient Egypt with Imperial Japan; it describes an annual religious ceremony in which crowds witness a reënactment of a terrorist attack similar to 9/11. (Douglas Lain, the collection's editor, writes that the story "exposes the power and problems of repetition" after a collective trauma.) "The Goat Variations," by Jeff VanderMeer, is told from the perspective of Bush but takes place in an alternate reality and envisions a different version of 9/11: in it, the American "heartland" has seceded from the rest of the country and declared a Christian-fundamentalist "jihad" on the coasts.
Reading "In the Shadow of the Towers," you wonder what this kind of speculative storytelling is for. What's the point of remixing history? Why do we enjoy "Inglourious Basterds," which imagines an alternative ending to the Second World War, or "JFK," which Oliver Stone described as a "countermyth" to the Warren Commission's story? In part-as Adam Gopnik has argued-these stories draw us in because history really is full of unknowable realities, strange connections, and unbelievable coincidences. And they're also a way of responding to the weighty weightlessness of history. Momentous events shape our lives and yet could so easily have been otherwise; if there are a thousand ways in which 9/11 could have happened differently, why not imagine them?
But speculative stories aren't just about the rearrangement of historical possibilities. Often, they draw their power from combining emotions and thoughts that we'd prefer not to combine. A story like "Beyond the Flags" unsettles, and even offends, because it identifies two common and incompatible thoughts: on the one hand, we are appalled by the horror and randomness of 9/11; on the other, we enjoy thinking of wealthy bankers as callow, narcissistic jerks. These two streams of thought are never supposed to cross.
We all know that, factually and morally, Matt Taibbi's famous description of Goldman Sachs in Rolling Stone-"a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity"-has nothing to do with the murder of thousands of innocent people on 9/11. We watch "Margin Call" and "The Wolf of Wall Street" with one part of the mind, and "World Trade Center" and "United 93" with another. All the same, even as the possibility of that connection is denied, it's there, hovering in the mental atmosphere. Fiction, like a thunderstorm, precipitates it.
From that perspective, speculative histories are really about us-our desires, our ideas, our intuitions, however marginal, wrong, or unrealized they may be. In the nineties cult comedy "The House of Yes," Parker Posey plays a woman named Jacqueline who's obsessed with the Kennedy assassination; in an unforgettable scene, she dresses up like Jackie O. and initiates a sexy assassination role play. ("She covered him with her body. ... You be him ... and I'll be her.") "The House of Yes" isn't confused about history.
It's proposing not that the Kennedy assassination is weirdly sexual but that we are. It's capitalizing on the presence, in our minds, of two incompatible and attractive ideas-that the assassination was a tragedy that marked the end of our collective innocence, and that the Kennedys were sexy. We don't want to think those thoughts simultaneously, but we can. For decades after John F. Kennedy was killed, it would have been "too soon" to watch that scene. It may still be. But when we say it's "too soon," what we really mean is that we're not yet ready to confront these ideas and feelings in ourselves. We already have the thoughts-they're in there. But we'd still prefer moral clarity. We're not ready to play.
Bierce has a basic human sympathy for his protagonist in "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." But he also holds him in moral contempt, especially for his supposed Southern gentility. ("Being a slave owner and like other slave owners a politician," Bierce writes, "he was naturally an original secessionist and ardently devoted to the Southern cause.") Written at a moment when the country seemed to have moved past the Civil War, the story imagines a Southerner realizing he hasn't escaped, and in that sense it's a revenge fantasy, not unlike a Civil War version of "Inglourious Basterds." At the time, readers found this off-putting.
"When he wrote about the war he knew so well, he was too explicit, too ironic, too truthful, and-some might say-too pornographic to be popular among his contemporaries," Duncan and Klooster write. But the passage of time, and the erosion of context, has smoothed the edges of Bierce's storytelling. "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" can now be read as fanciful, empathetic, and elegiac. Today, it's one of the most widely anthologized stories in America, and is often understood to be about mortality in general. With the "Norton Anthology of American Literature," the following study questions are provided for students: "Do you read this story as being about an 'occurrence' in the Civil War, as being essentially about life and death in the midst of that war?" Or, alternatively, "Is the Civil War being used as a setting for a narrative about something else?"
I read most of "In the Shadow of the Towers" while in the shadow of an actual tower-One World Trade Center, where The New Yorker's offices are located. For a few days last week, I had lunch on a little pedestrian street called North End Way, and brought the book with me. North End Way runs behind the Goldman Sachs building; it's about a block away from the September 11th Memorial and Museum. In that spot, it was impossible for me to see any of these stories as about anything other than what they're about.
The book sometimes made me so upset that I couldn't eat. Even so, there is probably no worse place or time to read speculative fiction about 9/11 than North End Way during the week before 9/11. Thinking about these stories with some remove, I wonder how time and distance will change them. It seems likely that, eventually, the reality of September 11th will become harder to grasp, and they'll float free of it. As a result, they'll become less unsettling and troubling. They'll end up being about "something else." (excerpt)
The writer is a journalist. The write-up has also appeared on www.newyorker.com