9/11 & Postmodernist American Writers: Insights into Problem of Radical Self-Centeredness

The Tribute in Light shines in downtown Manhattan to commemorate the 18th anniversary of 9/11 attacks in 2019. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

They’ve shown insight into the problem of radical self-centeredness and the failure to imagine strangers as human beings.

In the weeks after 9/11, when many people lived in fear of more terrorist attacks, the satirical newspaper The Onion milked the moment for all the sardonic humor it could. The paper published a list of precautions that frightened readers could take to protect themselves. One of the recommendations was “Wear a disguise — so the terrorists won’t know who you are.”

The dark humor acknowledges the truth that terrorists bent on killing as many people in as dramatic a fashion as possible aren’t terribly concerned about the individual identities of their targets. This is more than an incidental fact about terrorism. The dehumanization of men, women, and children, the indifference to who they really are in person, and the desire to use impersonal methods they are powerless to resist or oppose, are necessary for killing on a mass scale. It’s part of what makes terrorism so singularly cowardly, vile, and repulsive.

Conservatives and foreign-policy hawks who have long urged realism and sobriety about the nature of the radical jihadist mentality, and about the steps needed to remove this scourge from the world or at least render it dramatically less potent, may have thought of postmodernist writers as irrelevant to their cause, at best, and at worst as their enemy. Literary postmodernism burgeoned in the radical 1960s and 1970s, and in the work of writers like Thomas Pynchon, Kurt Vonnegut, William Gaddis, William Gass, and Don DeLillo. The latter’s influence on contemporary writers like Dave Eggers and the late David Foster Wallace has been particularly strong.

For those who have never delved into the curiosities of postmodernist literature — odd, quirky, sly, playful, experimental works that upend and parody novelistic convention — it may be easy to assume that such writers are de facto if not de jure agents of the cultural and political Left. Authors committed to overturning literary convention must be hostile to the notion of conserving anything, right?

In some cases, this is undoubtedly the case — Vonnegut, for one, was a leftist who liked to quote Eugene Debs and thought Communism, at least on a theoretical plane, deserved a fairer hearing in America. But when looking at postmodernist writers generally, we do well to reexamine such assumptions, and Don DeLillo’s 9/11 novel Falling Man, which appeared in 2007, is a good starting point.

As a lifelong admirer of DeLillo, this writer approached Falling Man with a bit of trepidation. I have followed the sad decline of Ian McEwan, the British author who did bold and visionary work in the 1970s and 1980s and published the wonderful novel Atonement, in 2001, before trying his hand at producing novels on big, timely, global themes. Works of McEwan’s in the latter category include Saturday (2005), a parable set during the West’s invasion of Iraq; Solar (2010), about climate change; The Children Act (2014), about contemporary medical and ethical dilemmas; Machines Like Me (2019), about artificial intelligence, and published the same year, the novella The Cockroach, a strained and unfunny attempt at a satirical inversion of Kafka, in which a cockroach wakes up as Britain’s pro-Brexit prime minister. While not badly written on a sentence-per-sentence level, none of these books really gel. Few things are as depressing as the spectacle of writers appointing themselves spokesmen on issues better left to cable news pundits, opinion columnists, and TED talks, and squandering their gifts on misbegotten works that are less novels than vehicles for a social and political argument. (The writer John Banville wrote in The New York Review of Books that Saturday “is a dismayingly bad book. If Tony Blair [the former British prime minister] appointed a committee to produce a ‘novel for our time,’ the result would be something like this.” That judgment is sadly true of McEwan’s later work in general.)

The good news is that Falling Man is a compelling novel about believably drawn characters: a New York couple, Keith and Lianne Neudecker, and their friends and acquaintances. When Keith is not working in an office in one of the World Trade Center’s upper floors, he tends to his extremely troubled relationship with the estranged Lianne and their son, Justin. After the planes hit the towers on that terrible morning, Keith miraculously escapes from his aerie on a top floor and makes it down to the street, snagging on his way a briefcase belonging to a woman named Florence, of whom he does not yet have any sense as a person, but whom he will get to know intimately.

The sections about the Neudeckers are interwoven with passages about the 9/11 terrorists and their lengthy preparations for the attack. The terrorists are driven, methodical, and utterly contemptuous of the values and lives of wealthy white Americans. One thinks of the work of another writer who understood something about evil, Graham Greene, and his novel The Third Man, in which the villain Harry Lime, who has been selling a lethal form of diluted penicillin on the black market, points down from the heights of Vienna’s famous Ferris wheel and asks the protagonist whether he’d care if one of the little dots way out there in the distance abruptly stopped moving. From such a distance, it’s hard to think of the tiny dots as people with names and personalities, fully engaged in the struggles of daily life. In this callous view, they are inconsequential little nothings, and whether they move or cease moving forever hardly matters.

In Falling Man, the indifference to those minuscule dots is replaced with an unquenchable hate harnessed to an extreme interpretation of passages from the Koran about infidels and the proper means of dealing with them. (To be clear, most Muslims really are not militant jihadists.) Lianne thinks repeatedly of a passage near the start of the Koran that states simply, “This book shall not be questioned.” The Koran is an unanswerable authority, and its verdict on infidels is to be carried out ruthlessly, without regard for the humanity of members of an enemy faith. DeLillo does far more than cause the reader to wonder about the influence of a work that moves certain of its devotees to the most extreme acts — he enlarges the little dots, makes them as real as people in the same room with the reader, and juxtaposes their humanity with the terrorists’ fanatical devotion to mass slaughter.

In aftermath of the disaster, the reading group for Alzheimer’s patients that Lianne has organized becomes a forum in which ordinary people in a decaying state of health voice, in the most honest and believable terms, their horror over the attacks. These are not academics ruminating on America’s role in the world and the supposed misdeeds that may have helped cause the attacks, but real people near the epicenter of a heretofore unimaginable horror that they did not themselves provoke or have any way of trying to prevent. In his frustration, Keith begins an extramarital affair and starts traveling widely and devoting a good part of his time to playing poker, partly to alleviate the ache that he feels over the loss of a colleague in the World Trade Center who enjoyed playing cards with him — a pastime we’d associate more with our friends and neighbors than with the “little Eichmanns” vilified so memorably by radical professor Ward Churchill and despised with such fervor by jihadists who never knew them in person. DeLillo enlarges our sense of the microcosmic contents of a world filled with sentient beings whose traits and personalities are known mostly to their family and friends. One thinks of a refrain from Libra, DeLillo’s brilliant 1988 novel about Lee Harvey Oswald, the CIA, Soviet Russia, and the JFK assassination: “There is a world inside the world.”

The conflicts among these sensitive men and women, and the building sense of despair in the aftermath of the attacks, are vivid, painful, and utterly believable. DeLillo forces the reader to do exactly what the jihadists who target Keith’s workplace as a center of American finance and power are incapable of doing — namely, coming to feel deeply the relatable qualities, the humanity, of a man belonging to a class of people once characterized as “little Eichmanns,” and the humanity of the other vividly drawn characters. It is a deeply poignant novel. The task of coming to know other people, to see their decency and treat them with the open-mindedness and fairness we expect others to show us, is one championed explicitly by the most famous and arguably the most brilliant of DeLillo’s disciples.

Consider the Lobster’
David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008 after a long battle with crippling depression, produced a staggering amount of fiction and journalism in his 46 years. His work stands out for its boldness, its originality, and an almost indefinable sense he arouses in the reader. In Wallace’s essays and fiction, the writer broaches profound and complex subjects, like the existence of free will and the nature of time itself, but speaks to the reader in a manner that is engaging and relatable, as if Wallace and the reader were conversing over a few beers.

Wallace’s essay collection Consider the Lobster includes a reprint of one of the most interesting works on 9/11 by any American writer. In its issue of October 25, 2001, Rolling Stone published “The View from Mrs. Thompson’s,” a lengthy work of reportage in which Wallace recounted how the ordinary men and women of Bloomington, Ill., learned about and reacted to the 9/11 attacks. The friendly but somewhat reserved Midwesterners of Wallace’s acquaintance gathered in living rooms to watch the same images played over and over on TV screens, and recoiled in horror as news anchors filled them in on the attacks and what later proved to be an erroneous report of a car bomb going off in Chicago.

The people of the close-knit community are supportive of each other. They invite each other over to watch the news. Mrs. Thompson tells those who keep asking her for permission to use her phone and call a spouse to quit asking and just do what they need to do. They rally around the flag. One of Wallace’s neighbors takes especial pride in having the biggest and most prominently displayed American flag on their street. The patriotic and religious sentiments are strong without being overbearing, let alone ever harmful in their consequences for others. Wallace writes, “No one in Mrs. Thompson’s crew would ever be so nauseous as to try to get everybody to pray aloud or form a prayer circle, but you can still tell what they’re all doing.”

Wallace’s piece helps the reader get to know ordinary Americans living in a flyover state as people, and makes their humanity as real and immediate as that of DeLillo’s New Yorkers. The reaction this essay provokes is one that Wallace more explicitly seeks to induce elsewhere in his oeuvre.

‘This Is Water’
Wallace’s commencement address to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005 appeared in book form under the title “This Is Water” and has been uploaded just short of 4 million times on YouTube. In the comments section there, things like “This speech changed my life forever” and “I listen to this once a month” are typical. Put simply, Wallace’s talk is a denunciation of the radical self-centeredness that is what Wallace terms the “default setting” for many people in the world today, whether they will admit it or not: “Thinking this way is my natural default setting. . . . the automatic, unconscious belief that I am at the center of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.”

We all know what he’s referring to. The inconveniences that we experience from day to day seem to us to be “so deeply, personally unfair,” Wallace says. When we’re driving on the street and other drivers are in our way, or when we’re trudging through a crowded supermarket after a long workday, wishing we could be elsewhere, and have to navigate aisles filled with carts pushed by equally tired shoppers, it’s often hard to avoid dehumanizing those others in our minds. Not only are they in our way, making a miserable day even more so, but they really aren’t people at all. To our subconscious or even in some cases our conscious mind, those ugly non-people come to represent everything we hate in politics, cultural life, and the world in general.

This radical self-centeredness is normal enough in babies, who aren’t aware of anything but their own needs, but as we mature and develop, it’s something that we can and should replace with a grownup view of the world as composed of other people whose inner lives and needs and perspectives are as fully real and valuable as our own. Maybe those other drivers on the road, with their bumper stickers emblazoned with patriotic and religious slogans, are fine people with views and perspectives as real and immediate and valid as our own. “There are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations,” Wallace says. Consider the possibility that that man in a Hummer whom I’m mad at for getting in my way might be urgently trying to get a sick or injured little kid to the hospital and “he’s in a way bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am,” Wallace proposes. “Maybe it actually I who am in his way.”

So much of what Wallace has to say here adumbrates Falling Man, in which radical jihadists fail to imagine as people the white Westerners they set out to kill. And, while never explicitly conservative, much of Wallace’s talk is also highly applicable to current debates over political correctness and left-wing bullying.

Those who have spent a bit of time in the online world know how easy it is to come under attack from the guardians and enforcers of correct opinion, who tend to brand as a “troll” anyone who so much as expresses a contrary view in a discussion thread. It is no accident that they use such a dehumanizing term. To disagree with a progressive is so deeply, personally unfair to him or her. It means denying the obvious validity and correctness of the left-wing viewpoint — how dare anyone do that? — and, worse, getting in the way of the realization of an agenda that surely no one has any right to oppose. We’re a bit like those strangers out on the road, who have no valid viewpoints or needs. We are not people with whom they have a difference of opinion; we are vile, repulsive, evil creatures: trolls.

Or, in another reading, we are not cultivated, sensitive, hard-working men and women but representatives of a civilization determined to be wicked and doomed and marked for death.

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