Thursday, June 21, 2007

When the Literary Fails

Having long been interested in the necessary role that fiction plays in how we make sense out of the world in which we are embedded, I was most interested in reading Andrew O'Hagan's review of Falling Man, the new "9/11 novel" (scare quotes intentional) by Don DeLillo. O'Hagan's assessment of the book hinges on his arguing that DeLillo had failed "to imagine September 11." This argument presumes that just about anyone reading this very post has experienced 9/11, if not directly then through media (particularly television) saturation. As O'Hagan puts it, this poses a major problem to any novelist:

Those authors who published journalistic accounts immediately after the event failed to see how their metaphors fell dead from their mouths before the astonishing live pictures. It did not help us to be told by imaginative writers that the second plane was like someone posting a letter. No, it wasn't. It was like a passenger jet crashing into an office building. It gave us nothing to be told that the South Tower came down like an elevator at full speed. No, it didn't. It collapsed like a building that could no longer hold itself up.

Metaphor failed to do anything but make one feel that those keen to deploy it had not been watching enough television. After the "nonfiction novel," after the New Journalism, after several decades in which some of America's most vivid writing about real events was seen to be in thrall to the techniques of novelists, September 11 offered a few hours when American novelists could only sit at home while journalism taught them fierce lessons in multivocality, point of view, the structure of plot, interior monologue, the pressure of history, the force of silence, and the uncanny. Actuality showed its own naked art that day.

In 1936 Walter Benjamin (as translated into English by Harry Zohn) argued "that the art of storytelling is coming to an end," primarily because "experience has fallen in value." Even with his direct experiences of Nazi Germany, Benjamin probably could not have anticipated an experience like 9/11; and, whether we subscribe to his argument or not, there is no question that 9/11 has changed that "art of storytelling" in ways that could never have been anticipated. Not only was it an experience felt around the world; but I doubt that anyone, regardless of cultural context, would have called it an experience of decreased value (even if the task of actually valuing the experience is so problematic that it is as challenging today as it was half a decade ago). As to that "art of storytelling," if it has not come to and end, it has certainly suffered a loss, possibly one as great as the loss of the Towers and all the lives that perished on their site.

Before 9/11, if we wanted to argue for Benjamin, we could point to television and the ways in which its raw commercialism had reduced storytelling to an endless recycling of the trivial and the banal. After 9/11 those who still valued the art of storytelling discovered that they were the ones who had been impoverished by not "watching enough television." The commercial bean-counters on the business side of the television industry recognized this very quickly and concluded that the experiences that pumped the creative juices of their hired storytellers had "fallen in value," to the extent that those storytellers were becoming superfluous. Invoking an evolutionary metaphor, their species had become endangered by "reality itself;" and so "reality itself" became the new bread-and-butter of commercial television, assuming that task of recycling the trivial and the banal far more effectively than the fictions of storytellers could ever do.

Ultimately, O'Hagan's review says less about DiLillo's weaknesses (or strengths) as a storyteller and more about what 9/11 has done to our capacity for reading (or listening to or viewing) such stories. How ironic, then, that, as "reality itself" has undermined that capacity for fiction, we divide our leisure time between reality television and virtual worlds that allow us to escape from a reality that is "too much with us." Well, maybe it is not so much ironic as it is downright bipolar! Perhaps these are symptoms of a pathology that we are just beginning to conceptualize and will demand far more examination before we can pretend to understand it. Whatever the case may be, 9/11 exposed the triviality of futuristic proclamations that "the Internet changes everything" by immersing us way over our heads in the full implications of "changes everything." O'Hagan's essay demonstrates that it has taken us well over half a decade to come face-to-face with this raw truth; and, if, as he argues, the very life has been sucked out of our talents for imagination, have we even the foggiest idea of how to react to that confrontation?

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