On Post 9/11 Literature and Film

Hello Dear Readers:

***Attention: The following blog contains information that could spoil books and/or films if you have not seen or read them yet. If you have not read Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann or Falling Man by Don DeLillo then please do not proceed! If you have not seen Remember Me then again: Please do not proceed.***

Now with the disclaimer out-of-the-way… The topic that I’d like for us to explore today, dearest friends, is the post-9/11 culture that is developing and manifesting itself in literature and film. When our teachers and such told us that 9/11 was a watershed moment in our lives, much as how JFK was a watershed moment in theirs, I’m not sure that we believed them, really.

It’s evident to me as I read more and more literature and see films that seek to explore the idea of the watershed moment that what the teachers and others told us is undoubtedly true.

Post-9/11 literature and film seems to be hallmarked by a despairing sense that there is no point in living our day-to-day lives. That we as individuals are small and inconsequential and it is only when you take into account our membership in all of society that we begin to become something greater. There is also a sense that to be “normal” is to have, somehow, failed.

I think that my first encounter with post-9/11 literature (I say this as if I know what it means, but trust me dear readers, it’s all very hazy. I wouldn’t say that anything published post-9/11 falls into the category), was Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. The boiled-down version of the novel is that it seeks to explore one of the survivors lives and how his experience changed his life forever. As DeLillo does in many of his novels, he’s concerned not necessary with the events that are happening so much as he is concerned with the psychological effects the events have on his characters. The main character, Keith Neudecker, walks away from the twin towers as they are collapsing. The ordeal sends him back to the apartment he once shared with his estranged wife and their son, and he seeks to get back together with her.

Through it all, I, at least, could not but wonder at how meaningless Neudecker’s life seemed directly following 9/11. It was only near the end of the novel when he stopped trying to be “normal” and resume the life that he had before the attacks, that I got any sense that his life meant anything.

I’m not sure what other people will write of Falling Man, it was published in 2007 and seems to have received very mixed reviews. Perhaps it was published too soon, perhaps it hit just a little too close to home with the title, as nearly everyone I know witnessed the falling man the title alludes to. I tend to think, however, that Falling Man explains very clearly what we all went through following 9/11, as we were, for a time, all free-falling. We could not comprehend then the way that one terrorist attack would indelibly alter our culture and reality the way it has.

Probably the next novel that I read that I would unequivocally place in the post 9/11 category is Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin. This book has many characteristics that I tend to love and seek out in novels, the biggest being it starts off with a cast of characters that seem wholly unrelated and then throughout the novel weaves a web that ends in all of the characters having crossed each others’ paths at a pivotal moment in their lives. Much like Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey or David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. This novel is based on a true event, a tightrope walker who strung a cable between the twin towers when they were still being built and walked across the cable numerous times, much to the amazement of the stopped crowd below.

From there, the novel captures each character’s lives and how they have been changed by various other watershed moments in American history. Several of the characters have lost their sons in the Vietnam War and are struggling to deal with everything that losing one’s children entails. Another of the protagonists is a religious monk who ministers to prostitutes, letting them freely come into his apartment to his the bathroom, get a drink of water, to have a moment of peace.

The author sets up two central events in the novel and the act as watershed moments for the characters. The first is the tightrope walker the second is the courtroom scene where the judge is sentencing the prostitutes. Each of these events impact the lives of all of the other characters in a fundamental way, and the novel seeks to explore, I think, the tensions that arise out of various watershed moments. Using these personal watershed moments, McCann does, accurately I think, portray the same things we all go through with a watershed moment on the national level.

My most recent encounter with post-9/11 culture was the movie Remember Me. Now readers, I must confess that I went to this movie only to partake of the handsome Robert Pattinson, and was fully under the impression that it was a simple chick-flick. What I encountered at the movie theater was one of the saddest movies I have ever seen. We follow the main character through his struggle with his father, his struggle with authority, and of course his struggles with a new-found love. The main character lost his older brother to suicide on his twenty-second birthday, so the main character is still dealing with that as well (personal watershed moment). It is the older brother’s suicide that seems to propel the main character away from following his Dad’s line of work and instead pushes him to find happiness working in a bookstore and going to college. When Tyler, the main character, says to the girl when he first meets her that is undecided “about pretty much everything,” we believe him. Tyler says it in an offhand way, but I think as we watch more and more of the movie we realize that he really is undecided about everything, unsure of his course in life.

Tyler finally stands up to his father and his father seems to change in such a way that we feel a lot of hope, I think, that things are going to start looking up. Just when we are settling into the content that comes with a happy ending, Tyler goes to meet his father at his office. His father calls to tell Tyler he will be late because he is taking Tyler’s little sister to school (something that is not in the norm and marks a change in character for the father). Tyler, already on his way to the office, tells his father that he will wait for him. Upon sitting in his father’s office, Tyler learns that his father really is tore up from the suicide of his oldest son, and does, I think, begin to understand his father.

It’s at this point that it is revealed that Tyler’s father’s office is located high up in the twin towers, and that the date is September 11, 2001. What happens next is the complete destruction of hope. We, as an audience, sit dumbfounded, lulled into this false sense of security, we can only watch as the towers fall and the funeral for Tyler is held.

The way in which the movie ends says, I think, as much for any of us getting lulled into a sense of security (as perhaps we had pre-9/11?) as it does for the commentary that it portrays on post-9/11 life. The ending further calls into question the actions that any of us can make as individuals that could hope to impact life on a grander scale, and it leaves us with a sense that things are impossibly hopeless. The movie is a lot less subtle in its post-9/11 commentary, and perhaps it’s just as well, the nuances that can be portrayed in novels isn’t easily portrayed on screen and far less dramatic.

One thing that I’m certain people will point out is that all three of these examples could be experienced in such a way as to assume that they are sad simply for sadness’ sake. I think this would be a mistake, and each one of them seems to have more to them than that, despite the individuals power to have any change on society, it is important to note that in all of the above examples the individual has power to change other individuals; the monk who finds solace in helping prostitutes, the bigger brother seeking to help his little sister, etc.

While I’m fully aware that there are more post-9/11 works out there, these are the three that I’ve read that have had the greatest impact on me, and are the three that I feel most able to write and explore with. This is most assuredly an area of culture that I will watch and explore further (indeed it may be unavoidable) and so you, dear readers, will likely see more blogs on this in the future.

On another side note, I apologize for the length, this has been, I’m quite certain, a daunting task for those of you who are still reading this far, and I commend you for it. It seems about this topic I am uncharacteristically long-winded.

As always, dearest readers, your comments and feedback are quite welcome. I would dearly love to be involved in an actual discussion over any of these works.

Until next time,

Jim

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