In the late 1960s, Irving Layton, a Montreal Jewish poet who had risen to international fame a decade earlier, began to write poetry about the Holocaust. Like other Jewish artists of the period, his avoidance of the subject before then was almost conspicuous. Perhaps he was finally spurred to address the elephant in the room when he saw a new generation of poets do so, including his protégé Leonard Cohen, whose first collection, Flowers for Hitler, was published in 1964.
The Holocaust is so massive a subject that it can easily overshadow everything else in an artist’s work. When Layton began to acknowledge it more openly in his writing, he soon found it difficult not to write about the holocaust. Massacres and dead animals began to crop up with frightening regularity in his work; the loud, intractable violence choked every other topic and made them seem banal in comparison.
The poster for the Art Spiegelman exhibit currently showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery, “CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps,” illustrates a related sentiment. The image is taken from a Spiegelman drawing from 1989 entitled “Self Portrait with Maus Mask.” In the foreground there’s the human Spiegelman with his usual shirt, vest, and cigarette, seated at his drawing table. An expressive mask of a mouse covers his face. His hands are pressed against his cheeks in a gesture of despair as he stares despondently at whatever he is trying to draw. In the background there hangs the covers of Maus I and an issue of RAW, the magazine thought up by Spiegelman’s wife Françoise Mouly, in which Maus was originally serialized. More ominously, a Nazi cat sharpshooter from the pages of Maus stands on a guard tower outside the window with stripes of barbed wire and a brick chimney belching black smoke.
In this image, we see the artist struggling to write and draw the subject he feels compelled to turn into art. We see Spiegelman dreading the inescapably difficult path he has set himself on.
The mouse mask echoes not only the mouse and cat metaphor Spiegelman uses illustrate Jews and Nazis in his book, but also the animal masks that characters wear when trying to pass off as members of groups there are not (so that Vladek Spiegelman is shown as a mouse wearing a pig’s mask when he is trying to pass as a non-Jewish Pole). By wearing the mask, Spiegelamn may also be showing us that he sees himself as a fraud when telling this story, because it isn’t really his to tell.
The self-portrait also represents Spiegelman’s very real struggle to finish writing Maus after the publication of the first volume in 1986, which garnered great acclaim. Spiegelman deals with this dilemma in the second chapter of Maus II, “Time Flies,” when he pulls a Cervantes and steps back from the narrative to address the reader and discuss the publication of the first volume. In the images, Spiegelman shrinks to the size of a child under the aggressive questions of journalists and businessmen who try to turn his book into a commercial product. The writer finally retreats to the home of his wise but eccentric shrink, who happens to keep framed photos of his dogs and cats.
Finally, “Self Portrait with Maus Mask” is an artistic manifestation of the struggle that was to come after the publication of Maus II in 1991, when Spiegelman found himself unable to take off his mouse mask and write a narrative about anything else. The black stain of the holocaust had spilled onto his drawing table.
The Art Spiegelman exhibit, which collects decades of material from the artist’s personal collection, makes the artist’s struggle visible on the curated walls of a museum. One of the most enlightening aspects of the exhibit for me was its ability to portray Spiegelman’s chronology. There’s the explosive, variform comix of his youth, some of which was eventually collected in Breakdowns, in parallel with his hilarious work as art director of Topps, including the infamous Garbage Pail Kids, which gave him the income necessary to work on his personal projects. There’s the decade of scandalous New Yorker covers (not all of which were accepted) which followed Maus in the ’90s: a Hassidic Jew kissing a black woman, a presidential press conference with all microphones turned towards Clinton’s crotch, a haggard-looking concentration camp prisoner holding an Oscar to mark the success of Roberto Benigni’s film Life is Beautiful. And then came the recovery of Spiegelman’s voice as a narrative comic artist in the wake of 9/11 with In the Shadow of No Towers, his intensely political, satirical, personal account of the attack on the World Trade Center and its aftermath, printed as a board book to avoid the image-splicing seams of usual bindings.
The room devoted to Maus in the exhibit hushes visitors when they walk in. It is darker than the other rooms, and the walls are more cluttered: the finished pages of a few chapters are spread out horizontally at eye level and preliminary sketches extend above and below them. Historical documents, mementos, and source material are displayed in a handful of glass cases in the center of the room, while overhead the frank voice of Spiegelman’s father Vladek can be heard recounting his experience during World War II in one of the recordings which were the basis for the book.
The depth of Spiegelman’s talent and craft is immediately obvious from a glance at any page from Maus. He employs a dark, heavily striated style that replicates something drawn quickly, furiously. Yet the draft pages for Maus demonstrate that, in fact, Spiegelman slaved over each image to find just the right framing, the correct length of eyebrow to create the desired expression on his characters’ anthropomorphic faces. The highly energetic technique displayed in Maus only serves to make individual drawings more compelling — clear enough to be immediately recognizable, cramped enough to demand careful attention. At the same time, there is a fluidity in the drawings that helps each panel meld into the others and create a powerful impression that goes far beyond the punch of its constituent pieces.
I was also amazed, looking at the variety of pictures hanging in the other rooms of this exhibit, to discover the breadth of Spiegelman’s work. His drawing and narrative style is surprisingly flexible, adapting to the requirements of the story he is telling. He was once commissioned to design covers for the German editions of Boris Vian’s books. He drew lurid, sexy collage images with sharp lines and bold blocks of color, inspired by 1950s comics and cubism; he also took advantage of the book’s spine for mirroring effects between the front and back covers and the placement of elongated objects. In The Prisoner on the Hell Planet, Spiegelman uses stark contrasts and an expressionist style in both his text and drawings to express the deeply personal impact of his mother’s suicide.
In the exhibit, I also discovered with a great pleasure a short graphic piece Spiegelman made to commemorate the retirement of Charles Schulz. Spiegelman draws himself as a simplified mouse ruminating on the roof of a doghouse in honor of his subject’s work; even the font he uses for his characters’ speech is borrowed from Peanuts. “At its best, which was often,” Spiegelman writes, “the strip had the simplicity and depth charge of a haiku…only easier to understand.” In the next panel, Snoopy has appeared and is surprised to find another animal sitting on top of his doghouse. Spiegelman adds: “…and cuter.” Spiegelman’s work, in spite of the animals, is rarely cute — and yet here, to honor his subject, he too has made his own style as light and pleasant as a Peanuts strip.
It is through pieces like this that Spiegelman has continued to help nudge comics into rich new territory. After showing that it was possible to write a graphic memoir that couldn’t work in any other form (unless as a kind of doomed hybrid between Elie Wiesel’s Night and Brian Jacques’s Redwall), he began to experiment with essays in graphic form, like the piece on childhood he made for the McSweeney’s special “San Francisco Panorama” issue. On display at the exhibit is the original of another non-fiction piece on the same subject called “In the Dump,” co-written and drawn with Maurice Sendak for in the The New Yorker in 1993. In the piece, Spiegelman goes to visit the reclusive Sendak to discuss the realities of childhood and the nature of imagination. This piece is also impressive because it’s a full-on collaboration: Sendak and Spiegelman worked on the panels at the same time, each drawing himself and then working together on the background.
Born from universal ideas, crafted by the hands of artists, written with passion, the comic strip has become the medium for narratives that can be read again and again and images that can be stared at pensively in the hushed space of a museum.
Discussing his famous graphic novel V for Vendetta, Alan Moore once stated that he always preferred the original, serialized version of the book because it wasn’t in color. “The images were entirely in black and white,” he explains, “but the whole story, in moral terms, had only shades of grey.”
Something similar occurs in Maus, where the drawings often fall into a thick chiaroscuro and hard hatching turns page space into almost solid black. Arguably, no other story has been made to express absolute black and absolute white as clearly as World War II. So how can an artist integrate the textures of grey that make a story truly poignant?
Spiegelman allows his book to transcend its own purpose as a holocaust survival tale by crafting it as a metafiction. This was something I did not expect before I began to learn more about Maus and its writer. At first, I thought the book was just (although that’s not quite the right word) a story about holocaust survivors in which the Nazis are cats and the Jews are mice. But that story is only the core around which the other elements gravitate.
Maus is also very much about a son trying to come to terms with his father — it is an exploration of their relationship, in which the father’s story creates a bridge between them, a reason for them to get together and talk. Spiegelman was very clever in framing his father’s story in the war years with material from the present day: visiting his father, giving us a portrait of his life in old age, mulling over ethical questions, asking his father about specific details. The back and forth between past and present makes the story he tells all the more real.
But there’s still more. On a foundational level, Maus, like every work of literature that admits to being one, is a book about the process of writing a book. It explores not only the meaning of surviving the holocaust and managing a difficult father, but also the difficulties of drawing and writing about this father and telling his story. The fact that the reader is privy to Spiegelman’s questions, comments, and process within Maus, especially in the second volume, is essential to the book’s agenda.
One of Spiegelman’s most admirable qualities, expressed by both the man and his art, is an honest form of moral rectitude. He experienced the success of Maus with considerable discomfort, a discomfort he folded into the book itself: Is this his story to tell? Is he disrespecting the memory of the millions of people who died in the concentration camps by telling it? To this day, Spiegelman believes one of his greatest achievements is to have resisted attempts to make a film version of the book.
I believe his peculiar strength lies in his resolve not to go down the path of artists like Layton who, once they started, were unable to leave behind the subject of the holocaust. Spiegelman refuses to become a figure of authority on the holocaust, another Elie Wiesel. (The closest he has come, admittedly, is in his Life is Beautiful cover for The New Yorker.) Despite his struggle to find another narrative thrust for his graphic art after Maus, his decade of so-called silence was in fact one of his richest — most of his truly arresting shorter work and many pieces I used in this essay to illustrate his genius, were produced in this period. Besides, as Françoise Mouly has said, a decade is not really so long to find your voice again as a storyteller. And Spiegelman has proven that he has many more stories to tell.
“CO-MIX: A Retrospective of Comics, Graphics and Scraps” is open at the Vancouver Art Gallery until June 9, 2013. It was originally shown at Angoulême and Paris, France, and then at the Ludwig Museum in Cologne, Germany. It will move to the Jewish Museum in New York later this year.
The following interview with Joe Sacco, the comics journalist best-known for his accounts of the war in Bosnia and life in the Palestinian territories, could be called “How to Draw an Atrocity.” His work is layered in well-earned details. Safe Area: Goražde depicts a besieged town sealed off from the world by the Balkan conflict. In the midst of a civil war, one young woman asks Sacco to get her some nice jeans from Sarajevo. In what is so far his magnum opus, Footnotes in Gaza, Sacco researched a forgotten massacre of Palestinian civilians during the Suez War in 1956. There is no photographic evidence of the massacre, and so Sacco was left illustrating the testimonies of older Palestinians, filling in the physical details based on his frequent trips to the Middle East’s Soweto. It’s not clear if he broke any unwritten rules concerning the way an atrocity should be depicted. He may be inventing rules of his own.
In his new collection of short pieces, Journalism, he chronicles poverty in rural India, the training of Iraqi security forces, and the recent wave of African immigration to Sacco’s native Malta. (Sacco was born in Malta and remains a citizen of the island nation, but he spent his childhood in Australia and the U.S. and has mostly lived here for about 40 years.) I met Sacco on an August afternoon in his studio in his house in Portland. We began by discussing one of the stories in Journalism, “Trauma on Loan,” about two ordinary Iraqis who were tortured by American soldiers during the early days of the Iraq War. I pointed to one moment in the piece in which Sacco illustrates the story of one of the Iraqis with a point-of-view shot from the perspective of an American soldier.
The Millions: This is something that’s very hard to do in prose journalism. If a victim is telling a story it’s very hard to see it from the point of view of the victimizer. But you, as a comics journalist, can create something like this image.
Joe Sacco: The whole point is to be able to recreate things from different perspectives. I have to give myself that freedom. I’ve always said drawing is a subjective act. Does that absolve me from an accusation of manipulation? Perhaps not in some people’s eyes. You could tone it down, I guess. I could have drawn it in a different way. That’s true. But I chose to draw it this way.
The words themselves are accurate quotes. It says, “One of the detainees was in front. His actions were like a dog’s.” I’m not going to draw a guy who’s just surly, holding back…I have a dog. And the way a dog acts, it begs and is excited. I’m just trying to visualize that.
TM: In your last Comics Journal interview you said that there has always been a grotesque quality in your work. There is some sense of the grotesque, of the strange, of the uncanny in your figures, even though you have this very journalistic desire to show something that’s real. How does this problem manifest itself when you are drawing sympathetic people like these two [Iraqi] gentlemen and this less-than-sympathetic American soldier?
JS: When I’ve said that I’ve tended toward the grotesque…what [I’m] saying is that I can never draw as beautifully as Craig Thompson (Habibi, Blankets). It’s just not in my hand. Even people who look good in real life never look good the way I draw them, not through any desire to make them grotesque but through a certain inability. I just don’t draw beautiful people beautifully. I would rather draw a good-looking woman as a good-looking woman, but I don’t have quite that ability to get it right. So my stuff tends in that direction anyway.
If I’m going to draw some American soldiers taunting an Iraqi prisoner, I’m not going to make their expressions neutral. If you’re taunting someone, you’re taunting someone. And if you’re getting a kick out of it, you’re getting a kick out of it. The action itself is grotesque. The action of doing that is grotesque. And so that’s reflected in the drawing.
TM: There’s a claim that a good novelist has sympathy for all of his characters. [Do you have any such sympathy] when you draw these bullies?
JS: No. Not always. When you’re drawing you have a lot of characters who don’t have speaking parts. A novelist generally deals with a set amount of characters. And you can flesh those characters out. But [when] a novelist is describing getting on a train with a hundred people…[he or she’s] not fleshing out all of those characters. I have to draw them. So it presents a problem.
I have a difficult time drawing the eyes of people when they’re committing atrocious acts. It’s not like I don’t do it if I’m sure they’re sadistic. In this case I probably could have done it. Because in this case, [with] a soldier taunting someone, I can imagine their sadism and I can understand a sadist’s face, or I have the pretense of thinking I can understand a sadist’s face…
Think of it as acting. Think of it as [being] a film director, because, ultimately, that’s what you’re doing. You’re saying to yourself, “How is this person going to be looking if you’re an actor?” And every time you draw something, much like acting, you have to get into the role on some level of what that person is thinking or feeling. It’s easier to draw a sadist. The more difficult thing is to draw ordinary people doing atrocious things. Someone throwing a cigarette to taunt someone is a sadist. Or anyway that’s a sadistic act. And maybe that person isn’t always a sadist. [But] I’m going to draw a sadistic expression.
I had more trouble in the book Footnotes in Gaza with this sort of thing because I didn’t think all those people [Israeli soldiers] were sadists. I think there were sadists among them. But to me, this is a case, generally speaking, of ordinary human beings killing other human beings and perhaps not even out of a sense of hatred.
I couldn’t understand the psychology of doing what they were doing. As I was drawing I didn’t draw their faces exactly because I didn’t want to presuppose their intentions or their psychological state, which is why I very seldom [draw] their eyes.
Doing [Footnotes in Gaza] in particular is when I realized I didn’t understand how to draw certain things because I didn’t understand the psychology of the moment. It’s easier to understand fear. I can draw fear. I can draw sadism. But an ordinary person doing something like this is a very difficult thing to understand. I’m not going to pretend I understand it. It was easier to hide the face.
TM: But when you are giving this level of individuality to these Israeli soldiers, these Serbian genocidal killers, these American soldiers, does that allow you to imagine a kind of individual intelligence behind them that you just described to me?
JS: I think about it all the time. I think, “This one’s gesture is going to be more aggressive. This one’s going to be aggressive but not as aggressive.” …There’s a range. Not all of them are the same. They’re not all going to behave the same way. But then you think, “Well their officers are there and they’re being told to do this. Are they going to do it?” There might be a moment too when you’re doing it and these people [victims] might be sniveling and crawling in front of you and it helps you, because they’re humiliating themselves which makes you despise them. These are things I think about. But they’re not necessarily things I understand. I’m going off in a different direction with my new work because of these very questions.
TM: What’s this new direction?
JS: I’m interested in psychology and neuroscience and understanding human nature. It [came from] the problems I had doing this [Footnotes in Gaza]…With journalism I can explain [events]. I can even explain the history behind [them]. What I couldn’t explain to myself is the individual relationship to those events. That’s why I’m telling you I had a hard time drawing this stuff.
TM: What are you working on now that is dealing with this new direction? I don’t know if you’re comfortable announcing a new project.
JS: It’s hard to describe what I’m trying to do. I want to grapple with the concept of human nature, how we develop societies, our relationship to authority, starting from the primate level on. [It] sounds like a huge huge undertaking and it is and I don’t know if I’ll be able to figure it out. I don’t know if it will make for good comics necessarily. I just want to concentrate on this story about Mesopotamia and the development of the first cities — even before the first cities — of how hierarchy developed, how central authority developed, how our role as people under central authority, this relationship, developed. It all interests me. That is enough. And that could go on for years. And I’ve been interviewing archaeologists in different places…
TM: Your books are very easy to read. And many of your contemporaries have moved to making comics difficult. Art Spiegelman, when he made his book about 9/11, In the Shadow of No Towers, designed the format so you don’t know where your eye is supposed to go at any given point. Chris Ware does that a lot as well. You have a linear method. When I read your books I usually feel I know where my eye is supposed to go.
JS: Well if you don’t it’s very intentional. There are cases where you are supposed to be a little confused about how to read things.
TM: Did your journalism training make you think you had to make your work as clear as possible?
JS: I think so. I think that’s it. Journalism is a constraint, on some level. I don’t even like drawing representational-y very much. I don’t think I’m particularly good at it to be honest. It never feels completely comfortable. And I’m not even sure if I drew in a cartoon-y fashion if that would be comfortable.
This is not your New York Times kind of journalism which is often really boring. The difference between reading the standard New York Times writer — there are some exceptions — and someone like Robert Fisk of The Independent is like night and day. I feel like I’m there with Fisk, you know. That’s the tradition I’m more interested in journalistically speaking. Yes, I want the situation to be [as] clear as much as possible because I also think often the subject matter itself is difficult for people. It’s not pleasant. I don’t need tricks. I don’t want tricks. It’s mostly pretty standard. You’ll see in my first journalistic work Palestine that there were a lot of different angles and all that. That was fun to draw, [but] it didn’t necessarily help the story along.
TM: I was thinking about the power of the short form versus the long form. I found Footnotes in Gaza impossible to read in one sitting. I felt reading it that there was a circularity to the narrative in which we kept returning to the same problem and that [this circularity] is reflective of the subject matter. So when you see the atrocities in Footnotes in Gaza they stop having the same shock after awhile. But with something like this, “The War Crimes Trials,” which is a total of six pages, there are just these few panels that have, for me at least, far greater shock.
JS: To me that’s very subjective because I’ve heard many people say very different things about Footnotes in Gaza from what you just said as far as its power to shock them. But I’m not even sure that I’m going for shock. I’m just trying to represent things in a way, even in a dull way somehow. I’m not Joe Kubert, may he rest in peace. I’m not going to draw everything spectacularly with explosions and people flying though they look like they’re in a ballet somehow. That’s not how I think of things.
If you look at the scene that you’re pointing to, maybe some of its power comes from the fact that you’re not seeing anyone getting his testicle bitten off. You have to imagine what it’s like. Would it have been more shocking if I had shown it? Maybe on some level. But it would have been cheaper and not as effective. You can be shocking and also not be effective.
TM: When you have to draw these horrors, does it affect other elements of your life?
I was miserable. And I don’t want to do it again, really. There are reasons for going off and doing other projects that aren’t journalistic in the way I’ve done them before. Partly I want to learn something new. I feel like I’ve gone about as far as I can go looking at these sorts of incidents. Which aren’t the same incidents. They’re very different kinds of things. But when you’re involved in [them] they begin to look the same. That’s one of the reasons in that Journalism book I tried to do something different than massacres. I wanted to do [things] about human migration or poverty. And even those are tough things to do. But they’re physically not as hard as drawing dead bodies over and over.
TM: I don’t know if you’ve been told this but you don’t have an identifiable accent. I would have no idea where you’re from unless I was told you were from Malta. It’s not clearly American. It’s not clearly Australian. It’s not clearly anything. Now you mention that you feel some responsibility as a Maltese citizen when you write about the plight of African immigrants in Malta. And that you feel some responsibility if not as an American citizen than as an American taxpayer for the American government’s support of Israel’s actions in the Palestinian territories. But in some ways — I don’t know if this is insulting — you are a man without a country.
JS: Why is that insulting?
TM: I don’t know. I’m telling you that in some way you have no fixed background. I don’t know if that helps you when you travel.
JS: Culturally, I feel more American than [anything else]. This is where I spent a lot of my time. I also have a cultural upbringing that is Maltese. So I’m not going to shake either of those things. Nor do I want to. You are who you are. I’m relatively comfortable with who I am. I don’t feel vested in any particular nationality or in any national project. I live here because I live here and I’m comfortable here. I like being here and there are things I like about living in the United States. But I don’t feel I owe anything to the United States, or to Malta or to Europe or Australia. I might feel more responsibility based on where I am for what the United States does or what happens in Malta on some level.
[As for] Bosnia…I don’t think I have a dog in any fight, in a certain way. But I certainly don’t have a dog in that fight. It’s just humans and other humans.
This transcript represents selections from a 90-minute interview. Special thanks to Eric Reynolds of Fantagraphics for assisting in this interview’s preparation.
Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.
–Zadie Smith, “This is how it feels to me,” in The Guardian, October 13, 2001.
If you want to read the Greatest Work of 9/11 Literature, the consensus is: keep waiting. It will be a long time before someone writes it.
We don’t know what it will look like. It could be the Moby Dick of the Twenty-First Century, or maybe a new Gatsby, but more likely it will be neither. Maybe it won’t be a novel at all. It could be a sweeping history (maybe) of New York at the turn of the Millennium and of America on the precipice of total economic implosion (or not). We will read it on our iPad34 (or maybe by then Amazon will beam narratives directly into our brain for $1.99). One thing that seems certain is that no one has yet written that book. Not DeLillo (too sterile), Safran Foer (too cloying), Hamid (too severe), Messud (too prissy), O’Neill (too realist), Spiegelman (too panicked), Eisenberg (too cryptic) or the 9/11 Commission (too thorough).
The idea is that it will take time to determine what — if any — single piece of literature best captures the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. We can name any number of reasons why authors seem to have underwhelmed us during the past decade. Perhaps they suffered from an extended period of crippling fear of the kind Zadie Smith described just weeks after the attacks. Literary production can tend to feel superfluous in the aftermath of large loss of life. Or perhaps it’s our persistent closeness to the events. We’re still only a decade out, despite the sense that we’ve been waiting in airport security lines for an eternity. (By comparison, Heller wrote Catch-22 almost 20 years after Pearl Harbor; War and Peace wasn’t finished until 50 years after France’s invasion of Russia; and I think the jury may still be out on who wrote the definitive work on Vietnam). We can’t blame earnest authors for trying. It just wasn’t long enough ago yet.
None of this stops critics from trying to figure out the best 9/11 book so far.
We gather books about 9/11 (and some would go as far as to make the hyperbolic-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek claim “they’re all post-9/11 books now”) into a single pile and determine who has best distilled the essence of terrorism’s various traumatic effects on our national psyche and our ordinary life. On one hand, it seems plausible to blame this tic on our collective reduced attention spans and expectations for rapid literary responses to cultural and historical events. Or more simply: we want our book and we want it now. On the other hand, the imperative to produce a 9/11 book became a kind of authorly compulsion — a new way to justify the craft of writing to an audience whose numbers always seem to be inexorably marching toward zero. Amid conversations about “the death of the novel” (and we often fail to remember that these discussions were robust and ominous-sounding back in 2001 too), 9/11 provided a renewed opportunity for books to become culturally relevant. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction — the whole lot. Any literary rendering of the post-9/11 world would be preferable to the unmediated reality of it. Or more simply: writers could come to the rescue of a traumatized public. Or even more simply: why shouldn’t it have been writing that could have soothed us and given us some kind of answers?
Whether these considerations will eventually vindicate the authors who tried to translate 9/11 into literature just a few raw years after the fact, we can’t say. My contention is simply that, for now, they shouldn’t be so universally panned for trying. In the meantime, perhaps this decade anniversary isn’t an opportunity to determine who’s written the best book so far, but rather to reconsider accepted notions about what constitutes the Literature of 9/11 in the first place. The books we have written and read since 2001 tell us more about ourselves than about the capacity of literature to encompass the consequences of an event like these terrorist attacks. Rather than rank these books, we should fit them into categories that allow us to consider why we turn to literature in the aftermath of a traumatic event. We can more usefully ask ourselves “Why read?” and think about why this particular historical moment produced such a rapid and rapidly evolving body of literature.
Here are some ideas to help get this conversation started. I don’t intend these bullet point-style assertions to be a decisive argument. Rather, I guess I’m just trying to figure out a way to group and regroup the books that have been on our collective radar for the past ten years.
1. To understand the post-9/11 world, we should look to the literature of the last moments before September 11, 2001.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001. Concerned with biotech, the dot-com crash, and the erosion of middle class family life in millennial America, Franzen’s novel captures a vague sense of menace in the days immediately before 9/11. And, though she has become better known for A Visit from the Goon Squad (which mentions the World Trade Center, only briefly) Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me proves that fiction can often seem to predict the world just ahead of us. The events of the novel so uncannily represent the shadow presence of terrorism in the unseen spaces of American everyday life that Egan, who wrote the book entirely before 9/11, included an afterward to the novel in 2002. She writes: “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress last fall, I would have had to receive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.” This last line has always been problematic for me. Were we really that innocent before 9/11? Authors seemed totally capable of exposing the dread underlying the exuberance (rational or otherwise) at the close of the Millennium. I wonder to whether we’ll remember the pre-9/11 years as one of innocence or willful ignorance.
2. There is no single body of 9/11 Literature.
As I have mentioned, the tendency in the past decade has been to lump together all works of fiction about 9/11. As the number of works that deal directly and indirectly with the terrorist attacks has ballooned, the moniker “9/11 Literature” has become a dull catchall term used to describe too many types of books. Instead, we can try to make some distinctions to figure out more precisely what different kinds of books have done, and stop trying to judge them all by the same criteria. It can be helpful, for example, to distinguish between 9/11 Literature and Post-9/11 Literature. Whereas Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man pivot around the events of September 11, books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children suggest how the events and their effects can be pushed to the margins. Works of 9/11 Literature obsess about the intricate and far-reaching effects of 9/11 on the lives of characters, whereas Post-9/11 Literature emphasizes how individuals can move beyond the trauma of the attacks and allow ordinary life to resume its flow.
3. The literary response to 9/11 better helps us understand the longer-term psychological effects of terrorism on families, communities, and nations.
Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close help us understand how the effects of cultural trauma reach into future generations. They explore how we are all implicated into broader narratives of belonging to national and cultural heritages. Spiegelman had to publish the serial version of his comics in Germany because squeamish newspapers in America believed that his critiques of the Bush Administration would be poorly received at home. Likewise, Safran Foer’s novel was frequently criticized as playing on themes of grief and loss that seemed too fresh. As time passes, these criticisms fall away, and what we’re left with is a more subtle understanding of how — in the immediate aftermath of a cultural trauma — we must try to recover as individuals.
4. The relationship between The 9/11 Commission Report and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation stands as one of the most compelling pairs of books to emerge in the past ten years — and neither one of these is a novel.
While I’d argue that no single works stands out as the definitive representation of the terrorist attacks, a reader could do no better to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001 than to devour the 9/11 Commission’s official report. To 9/11 truthers, it probably makes sense that the government would produce an eloquent and sophisticated rendering of the attacks, and the complicated histories of terrorism and American intelligence failures that led to them. But to the rest of us, it comes as a fascinating surprise — one that reveals the government’s investment in the production of a literary artifact of some serious depth and skilled sentence-making. The 9/11 Commission Report defies the expectation that a government document should be stodgy and defensive. Instead, it reveals — often in a tone that breaks its own rigid impartiality and becomes downright moving — the grating human oversights of regulators and the humanity of the terrorists themselves as they bumblingly tried to find a hiding place in America.
When read alongside Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the report, the two works become a breathtaking and genre-bending account of 9/11. Together, they are proof that an event like 9/11 can actually produce new artistic forms. The effort to describe and understand — to probe and render aesthetically — gives rise to new ways of thinking about the world. These are not novels, but they certainly rise to the level of literature, no matter how one decides to define it.
5. It’s time to start re-thinking the place of 9/11 in the landscape of American literary production.
It has become more apparent that 9/11 is moving to the background of our cultural consciousness. Its influence remains, but its effects have faded when compared to what seem like more pressing economic and political concerns. Books like Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes help us understand what this process of fading looks like. But to return to Franzen and Egan, no two books seem better suited to the moment after the post-9/11 moment than Freedom and A Visit from the Goon Squad. To understand how authors have begun to fill their blank screens with something other than images of the World Trade Center on fire, it’s hard to do better. Franzen tackles the Bush Administration while Egan projects into a future New York, in which the 9/11 memorial has become an old landmark in Lower Manhattan. Literature looks forward at the next moment — toward a space and time during which we will no longer use the term Post-9/11 to describe ourselves, if only because newer and more troubling problems will take its place.
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I have left out many works and many ideas. Where are Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan? Where are Colum McCann and John Updike? I have left out (in the very last minute) Lorraine Adams, whose book Harbor absolutely changed the way I thought about post-9/11 America when I read it, even though it had little if anything to do with 9/11. All of this is just to say: the conversation should continue, and I think it will only get more interesting throughout the next decade.
Image credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr
CSPAN’s Book TV is an odd entity. It seems like it’s just used to fill the time, although there are occasionally interesting guests. Though CSPAN has never struck me as particularly publicity-hungry, the nonetheless have the Book Bus, “a mobile television production studio that travels the country promoting Book TV’s unique non-fiction book programming.” Recently, the Book Bus came through Laurie’s town, and she sent in her report:CSPAN’s “Book Bus” stopped by the Athens, GA public library for a couple hours on a very wet Wednesday afternoon in February. The two twenty-something female staffers, Ann and MaryAnn, gave tours and explained their traveling broadcast facility. It has a small kitchen and bathroom in the back, but the bulk of the bus is set up with broadcast equipment and a mini-studio for taping interviews. They were just finishing interviewing a local author when we arrived (I think, but am not certain, it was Mary Padgelek talking about her book In the Hand of the Holy Spirit: The Visionary Art of J.B. Murray, a biography of a self-taught Georgia artist). We toured the bus and I asked so many questions you could say they got interviewed for a change, though most of the answers were disappointing. What follows is my best recollection of the conversation:Q: We know BookTV is dedicated to nonfiction, but why so much on politics, American history and American biographies? Why not more on world history, world figures, nature, technology, explorers, science….?A: We do some of that. We’re primarily focused on what is of interest to our audience.Q: In that case, when you get to Atlanta in April, will you be interviewing Neal Boortz and Congressman John Linder, authors of The Fairtax Book which came out in 2005 and made the New York Times bestseller list?A: We hadn’t planned to, but that’s a good idea.Q: Atlanta seems to have trouble attracting good authors for visits. Most of them seem to stick to the Northeast and West Coast. Do you think BookTV could come to Atlanta more often and maybe raise publishers’ awareness of our existence?A: We come as often as we can. We recently covered an author talk for the Center for the Book at the Decatur public library, and have covered events at the Jimmy Carter Library.Q: You visit a lot of book festivals. Some great nonfiction has also been written in graphic format yet you’ve never been to a comics convention. Why not go to one and interview some of the nonfiction authors/illustrators there?A: We do nonfiction.Q: But some good nonfiction has been done in graphic format — most recently In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegleman, La Perdida by Jessica Abel, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, Epileptic by David B. and Pyongyang by Guy Delisle, among others. There are even a couple annual conventions near Washington, D.C., your headquarters, that would be easy for you to get to and cover.A: It would be up to the comic book convention organizers then, to contact us about coming.(One of the staff gives out her business card as a contact point. I have no connection to these conventions but may forward the info to the organizers.)Q: Why are you staying in Atlanta for 12 days in early April?A: We’re attending a cable producers’ convention, but that’s not open to the public. We’ll basically be reporting to the industry that provides our production budget.Q: Earlier this year you stopped in Katrina-ravaged Mobile, Alabama. What was it like there? How did people with no homes or public facilities respond to a “Book Bus?”A: Another crew handled that, so we can’t say, but some interviews were taped that may be broadcast.They in turn asked if I would think up something to ask political theorist Francis Fukuyama for an upcoming 3-hour interview to air on March 5th, and then filmed me asking the question. Who on earth wants to listen to a political theorist for 3-hours?!! Is that their big audience — cable tv producers closely following political trends? Marjane Satrapi could easily fill one of those Fukuyama hours with the story of her life in Iran before and after the revolution and be a lot more interesting. (Postscript: we taped the show and saw that they aired my question, but I look awful. A friend called and said, “You look better in real life.” Thanks.) They rewarded us with free BookTV t-shirts, which come squeeze-packed in the shape of a 2″ x 1.5″ x 6.25″ bus, round wheels and all. My husband opened his and it was less interesting than the way it was packaged. My package is now displayed on a shelf at work, t-shirt still squeezed inside.The BookTV Bus folks wanted to try local food and planned to have dinner at Athens vegetarian institution The Grit. Maybe they got another interview out of it. Too bad Weaver D’s only serves lunch; that’s truly Deep South soul food – and Weaver’s definitely worth an interview by the BookTV bus folk.
T.C. Boyle’s new book, The Inner Circle is out and the reviews are starting to appear. Here’s one from Newsday. There’s also an excerpt available at Boyle’s newly redesigned website.Michiko Kakutani likes the Gish Jen novel The Love Wife. Here’s an excerpt so you can see what all the fuss is about.And to continue from my last post about Art Spiegelman, The Village Voice also published a review of his new book. Also mentioned in that review is New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger’s new book, Up from Zero, about deciding the fate of Ground Zero. Here’s an excerpt from the book.
Art Spiegelman has a new book out about 9/11, and it appears to be generating some controversy. USA Today and most other papers are praising the new book, which is short on pages but big on production value. Others, like the customer reviews at Amazon, are very disappointed. Meanwhile, controversial cartoonist Ted Rall has written a scathing indictment of Spiegelman in the Village Voice.