Preserving and defending what the West has built requires a sense of purpose and shared public morality. Sadly, of the literary fictions inspired by and following the 9/11 attacks, none goes beyond an agnostic predilection to equivocate
After 2001, the Library of Congress introduced a new category. “September 11 Terrorist Attacks 2001—Fiction” identified a genre of political novels that now includes inter alia: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), John Updike’s Terrorist (2006), Jay McInerney’s The Good Life (2006), Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006), Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007), Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008) and Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days (2009). The category also includes European and Australian novels like Michel Houellebecq’s Platform (2003) and Submission (2015), Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2007), Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist (2006) and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007). By 2011 newspapers and journals published lists of the best post-9/11 novels, and US universities, such as Berkeley, offered undergraduate courses in post-9/11 fiction. What does the new genre tell us about the modern liberal character adrift in an interconnected world confronted by the apocalyptic certainties of the Islamic zealot?
That the contemporary novelist would derive inspiration from terrorism is unsurprising. As it evolved, modern terrorism cultivated the drama of the violent act. Consequently, the great early twentieth-century novelists found it a suitable fictional case for treatment. In The Princess Casamassima (1886) Henry James perceived in the anarchists of the time an emerging European revolutionary character that was a “strange mixture of anguish and aestheticism”. Joseph Conrad also dissected the revolutionary fanatic’s addiction to violence. Through characters like “the incorruptible Professor” in The Secret Agent (1907), Conrad depicted the morally challenged inhabitants of a bohemian underworld preoccupied with revolution, betrayal and conspiracy.
After 1945, Graham Greene, John Le Carré, Arthur Koestler, Vladimir Nabokov and George Orwell explored the corrupt demi-monde of Cold War totalitarian terror. Novelists like Orwell and Conrad clarify the moral and political dilemmas that confront the liberal political conscience. Given that the political novel, at its best, offers insight into the motive for violence, what political and moral possibilities do the novels of September 11 Terrorist Attacks 2001—Fiction evoke?
A disenchanted modern cityscape inhabited by a cast of middle-class characters forms the setting for most 9/11 fiction. It is a cosmopolitan, secular city of commercial transactions, sexual infidelity and status anxiety. The denizens struggle with anomie, financial and emotional need, and a city which sustains only a minimal sense of civil association. Before any terror attack occurs this is a world that lacks moral purpose.
The characters who inhabit it are not so much dead souls as lost ones. Thus, in John Updike’s Terrorist, Jack Levy is a sixty-three-year-old school guidance counsellor trapped in a stale marriage with his avoirdupois-challenged, part-time librarian wife, Beth. Jack is a Jew, “but not a proud one”. “Uxorious sadism protects his gloom”, until his interest in Central High student and homegrown terrorist Ahmed Molloy ignites him in a brief, guilt-ridden affair with Ahmed’s ageing hippy mother, Teresa.
Guilt also consumes the putative “good life” that Jay McInerney’s characters Corinne and Russell Calloway endure. Corinne had “become a connoisseur of guilt”. Her lover, investment banker Luke McGavock, also savours “the unfamiliar taste of marital guilt”. Inhabiting a more desirable zip code than the Levys, the Calloways cling to a precarious existence in a Tribeca loft. Corinne’s “anxiety was a permanent condition”. Russell, hardened by “two decades in the city”, conducts a seedy affair with Trisha, his former assistant. Russell’s betrayal justifies Corinne’s decision to embark on a doomed love affair with Luke. Meanwhile, Luke, who narrowly missed immolation in the disintegrating World Trade Center, is alienated from his style-icon wife, Sasha, and the world of finance capital in which he once flourished.
In Claire Messud’s Emperor’s Children three thirty-something Brown University English majors also inhabit an Upper West Side world of angst and deceit. Danielle Minkoff produces documentaries, and finds herself attracted to Ludo Seeley, an Australian journalist, whilst researching a program about “the appalling history of race relations in Australia”. Ludo, about to launch a satire magazine in New York, however, falls for Danielle’s best friend Marina, the beautiful daughter of Murray Thwaite, a sixty-year-old award-winning journalist and “the country’s liberal conscience”. Ensconced in a “manifestly grand” apartment on Central Park West and married to children’s rights lawyer Annabel, Thwaite finds “allure” in the transient affair. He seduces his daughter’s best friend who “savours” its “horrible deliciousness”. Meanwhile Danielle’s gay friend, Julius, writes reviews for Village Voice, but finds perverse security in an abusive relationship with a “preppy” patent lawyer, David Cohen. The events of 9/11 expose the fragility of these relationships. They disintegrate along with the tumbling “towers of Babel”. Danielle goes into therapy, David scars Julius for life, and Ludo moves to the UK.
In Netherland Hans Van Den Broek, a Dutch equities analyst, and his English human-rights lawyer wife, Rachel, abandon their Tribeca loft after 9/11 for an increasingly dislocated existence in Greenwich Village’s Chelsea Hotel. “Life itself had become disembodied.” This relationship also parallels the disintegration of the World Trade Center. An upmarket gasterbeiter, Rachel abandons New York and her husband to return to her parents’ house in the London suburb of Barnes, where she embarks on an affair with a celebrity chef. Hans meanwhile is left in the city leading a futile life of business, booze and casual sex, before playing cricket with a team of Trinidadian expatriates offers him a sense of belonging.
Emptiness, loss and a dysfunctional family life, analogously, permeate DeLillo’s Falling Man. Here, the performance artist David Janiak, who mimics those falling from the North Tower on September 11, forms the mise-en-scène against which Keith and Lianne Neudecker play out their alienated uptown existence. The novel begins with property lawyer Keith emerging from the falling towers and finding his shell-shocked way to the apartment he once shared with his estranged wife, Lianne, a freelance editor, and their son Justin. Like the couples in The Good Life and Netherland, angst defines Keith and Lianne’s relationship. Lianne observes: “I know that most lives make no sense. I mean in this country what makes sense?”
Lianne, like Rachel Van Den Broek, contemplates abandoning the city after 9/11. Her more resilient mother Nora dismisses the idea:
“Nobody’s leaving,” her mother said. “The ones who leave were never here.”
“I must admit I’ve thought of it. Take the kid and go.”
“Don’t make me sick,” her mother said.
Ironically, Nora, the most resilient character in the 9/11 novels, subsequently dies from a degenerative disease.
Nora’s occasional German lover, Martin Ridnour, also finds all this navel-gazing self-indulgent. Martin declares America post-9/11 irrelevant. “We’re all sick of America and Americans. The subject nauseates us,” he somewhat insensitively remarks at Nora’s wake.
Rachel’s British friend Matt in Netherland shares Ridnour’s contempt for American solipsism. Matt thinks September 11 “not such a big deal”. Rachel meanwhile considers Bush’s War on Terror “part of a right-wing plan to destroy international law … and replace it with the global rule of American force”.
Ian McEwan also evinces a distinctly European ambivalence about the American response to 9/11. Unlike the characters in the New York novels, McEwan’s protagonist Henry Perowne in Saturday is a happily married neurosurgeon. He nevertheless worries, from his elegant Bloomsbury terrace, about the unbearable lightness of being British. Observing the mass demonstration against the war in Iraq on Saturday, February 15, 2003, he oscillates between fear of the urban jungle and enjoyment of his professional success. His sense of wellbeing resides exclusively in the narrow circumference of the family.
Yet, beyond “domestic grandeur”, doubt about the city and its ability to sustain the good life pervades Saturday. Ambivalence is the postmodern response to 9/11. As hope, freedom and equality diminish, the bourgeois lifestyle becomes “smaller and meaner”. Queasily agnostic, Perowne sees the “purity of nihilism” in the Islamist assault on the West, but questions the War on Terror:
The world probably has changed fundamentally and the matter is being clumsily handled, particularly by the Americans. There are people around the planet, well-connected and organised, who would like to kill him and his family and friends to make a point.
Perowne’s solution is to go shopping. “It isn’t rationalism that will overcome the religious zealots,” he opines optimistically, “but ordinary shopping and all that it entails … Rather shop than pray.”
Ultimately, moral uncertainty, doubt, indecision, domesticity and an absence of moral purpose characterise the bourgeois protagonists of the post-9/11 novels. What might this mean for the future of the cosmopolitan city?
Even before the attack on the World Trade Center, the city of the 9/11 novels has lost all sense of a shared public morality. Yet the city had once offered the space for self-discovery and self-enactment that all the characters once craved.
The modern Western city—New York, London, Paris, Sydney—functions as a character in these novels. In the New York novels the attack on the World Trade Center exposes the fragility of established relationships and shatters illusions. For Claire Messud, 9/11 reveals that “the emperor’s children … have no clothes”. In McEwan’s London and Richard Flanagan’s Sydney, the prospect of a terror attack throws the world off balance.
Elsewhere, for Michel Houellebecq, the city of Celine has finished its journey to the end of the night. Paris merely facilitates anonymous transactions, whether this involves sado-masochistic sex, finance, academe or global tourism. Everything has a price but nothing has value, and any notion of a common citizenship vanished long ago. In Atomised bourgeois professionals like Jean-Yves are “caught up in a social system like insects in a block of amber”. Like Keith Neudecker, Jean-Yves finds life meaningless, but with more panache.
Reflecting on the corrosive consequences of the amoral city, Jean-Yves has “doubts about the kind of world we are creating”. By the time Submission appears, Houellebecq’s characters find that “Europe, which was the summit of human civilisation, committed suicide in a matter of decades” and stands on the brink of “civil war between Muslims and everybody else”. The city that once offered the prospect of freedom from conformity, and the opportunity “to invent ourselves from scratch”, has turned pathological.
Messud’s “emperor’s children” somewhat narcissistically discover “that nothing is funny anymore”. In uptown Tribeca, the Calloways and their peers contemplate moving to the “’burbs”. Russell feels left behind “relatively impoverished and marginalised in the new boomtown … stranding them like paupers in a city of zillionaires”. They feel they are witnessing “the beginning of the end of the whole idea of the city”.
All that was solid has melted into acrid dust. Even Luke McGavock, “a zillionaire” facilitating “the movement of capital around the globe like a bee mindlessly carrying pollen”, thinks that “Markets, if they work correctly, supersede the will and whim of individuals”, rendering his life “irrelevant”.
DeLillo’s New York is equally protean. “Wilful trivia” is the only basis of civic identity and easily dissolves. In a similar vein of metropolitan angst, Henry Perowne considers London wide open, “waiting for its bomb, like a hundred other cities. Rush hour will be a convenient time.” Perowne concludes that we should “beware the utopianists, zealous men certain of the path to the ideal social order. Here they are again totalitarians in different form, still scattered and weak, but growing and angry and thirsty for another mass killing.” Ultimately, Londoners, like New Yorkers and Parisians, are stranded on Matthew Arnold’s “darkling plain, swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, where ignorant armies clash by night”.
Anxiety about the fate of the city, however, fails to generate a coherent picture of those whose disgust with it finds release in terrorist attacks on the “kufar” love of the good life. Instead, those novels that move beyond the relativist political agnosticism of most 9/11 fiction, like Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist, conveniently blame jihad on the West.
Changez, the narrator and reluctant fundamentalist of Hamid’s story, is impeccably haute bourgeois. Like Hans Van Den Broek and Ludo Seeley, Changez operates in a mobile, professional, global diaspora. Born into middle-class Lahore, he personifies the American dream. He qualifies, like the novel’s author, for a Princeton scholarship and graduates to a New York boutique valuation company. Complete with unstable Wasp girlfriend (inevitably from the Upper West Side), Changez seems perfectly adapted to the interconnected world of international capital. Indeed, in that flat, fast world, he “felt like a New Yorker”.
His identification with the city, however, is conditional. He empathises with the attack on the World Trade Center and is “scandalously pleased” by the “symbolism of it all”. He luxuriates in the “fact that someone had so visibly brought America to her knees”.
“Finance,” he pontificates, “was a primary means by which the American Empire exercised its power.” Despite his success as a broker, Changez considers himself a victim of global finance. He subsequently refuses “to participate any longer in facilitating the project of domination” and returns to Pakistan to facilitate the end, if not the means, of Al Qaeda.
Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist also assumes that the West has constructed the alien Muslim “other” in order to conduct a war on terror abroad and curtail civil liberties at home. While Hamid explores the fundamentalist’s reaction to American imperialism, Flanagan damns the Western response to 9/11. His novel is “a parable”, that reveals the Australian dimension of the “Stalinist” assault on liberty. When the New South Wales police discover three unexploded bombs in Sydney, it unleashes a frenetic search for the unknown terrorist. The search focuses on Tariq al-Hakim, a computer operator and occasional drug dealer, and his pole dancing, one-night stand, the Doll, who gyrates nightly in the red-light district of Kings Cross.
Tariq is quickly disposed of and the media in the form of cynical Channel Six reporter Richard “shitcart” Cody, and radio shock-jock Joe Cossuck conduct a three-day “wild pig hunt” for the unfortunate Doll. ASIO “spook” Siv Harmsen orchestrates the pursuit. Using Australia’s post-2001 anti-terror legislation to suppress any doubt about the Doll’s motives the conservative government of John Howard, in collusion with a compliant media, transform her into a home-grown jihadi.
The Doll is innocent. But for an apparatchik like Harmsen the security state, “everywhere apparent and nowhere visible”, must prevail over minor details like evidence and the rule of law. ASIO manipulates a “loser” like the Doll to serve the purposes of the security state. Flanagan, significantly, dedicates his novel to former Guantanamo internee David Hicks, and identifies Jesus Christ as “history’s first … suicide bomber”. The parable is obvious; the government’s manipulation of a non-existent threat has placed Australian democracy on the road to totalitarianism.
For critics of the War on Terror, like Flanagan or Hamid, the jihadist is either a fiction of the security state or the reluctant response of those who resist its creeping authoritarianism. By contrast, the politically agnostic novels either avoid the jihadist persona altogether, or like DeLillo, Dubus and Updike, offer an unconvincing stereotype.
In Falling Man, Hammad, a fictional participant in the attack on the World Trade Center, blindly follows the injunctions of his mentor, Mohamed Atta. Hammad believes that “Islam is the struggle against the enemy near and far”. Driven by the belief that “the world changes first in the mind of the man who wants to change it”, he considers that those he murders “exist only to the degree that they fill the role we have designed for them”. Given their predestined fate, Hammad’s only observation about his victims is that they ought to be “ashamed of their attachment to life”.
Bassam al Jizani, another fictional World Trade Center terrorist, in Andre Dubus III’s The Garden of Last Days, shares this contempt for the “dirty kufar”. He nevertheless succumbs to the temptation of spending his last days boozing and paying for private dances in the Puma Club in south Florida. Bassam describes his experience with the “mushrikoon whores” in an idiosyncratic demotic: “A dancing woman upon the stage wears nothing but the hat of the cowboys,” he observes. Prurience and disgust compete within him. He soon realises, however, that this is merely the deception of “Shaytan” trying to “pull him down from the highest rooms of Jannah” before he fulfils his preordained date with destiny.
Hammad and Bassam’s Islamically-inspired assault on the North Tower crystallises the contrast between the zealot’s religious certitude and the paralysing uncertainty that shapes the lives of Lianne Neudecker and Danielle Minkoff. Significantly, Lianne finds the Koran’s claim that “this book is not to be doubted” in conflict with the fact that she was “stuck with her doubts”.
A similar contrast between the doubts that beset Jack Levy, and the certainty of his terrorist protagonist, Ahmed Ashwamy Molloy, and Ahmed’s mentor, Sheikh Rashid, drives the plot of Updike’s Terrorist. Rashid, like Hammad and Bassam, is a one-dimensional stereotype who grooms the impressionable Ahmed for martyrdom.
Ahmed, by contrast, represents Updike’s attempt to explain the radicalisation of a vulnerable high school student. Adrift in a world that is slave to false images of happiness and affluence, Ahmed becomes the sheikh’s tool and a willing recruit to martyrdom. Thus, in a scene worthy of Monty Python, the sheikh informs Ahmed:
“There is a way … in which a mighty blow can be delivered against His enemies.”
“A plot?” Ahmed asks.
“A way,” Sheikh Rashid replies fastidiously. “It would involve a shahid whose love of God is unqualified and who impatiently thirsts for Paradise.”
Ahmed indeed thirsts for paradise and the houris that await him. The novel proceeds to an unlikely finale where Jack Levy persuades Ahmed not to detonate the truck bomb he has driven into the Lincoln Tunnel. Jack and Ahmed drive off, if not into the sunset, then at least to the relative safety of the Port Authority Bus Terminal.
By contrast, the other politically agnostic 9/11 novels resist explaining jihadist motivation. Instead, terror functions as a deus ex machina, against which the novelist’s bourgeois characters eke out a precarious existence. For McEwan, O’Neill, Messud and McInerney the terror threat amplifies the moral doubt that already corrodes the possibility of the good, secular, life. Meanwhile, for Houellebecq an Islamist terror attack on a Thai resort where Michel and Yvette cater for the European market in sexual fantasy tourism constitutes the apocalyptic finale to Atomised.
The category of 9/11 fiction leaves us with a range of responses to the new jihadism that threatens to unravel the open, political societies of the West. Ambivalence, anxiety, regret, guilt and anomie by turns dominate the mood of the urbane liberals that inhabit these novels. The West has exhausted its moral strength. By contrast, only the committed jihadist intent on destroying this urban secular order possesses the will for decisive action.
The 9/11 novels, then, seem only dimly aware that it was in the lived experience of the bourgeois city that modern political life and a shared public morality, as a contingent response to the problem of rule, evolved. Instead, the protagonists in the 9/11 novels are politically agnostic, obsessed with the pursuit of wealth and status for their own sake. Permissive narcissism promotes an urban regime conducive neither to excellence nor to political freedom. Indeed, the luxurious city of the 9/11 novels, which Plato termed the city of pigs, has in many ways ceased to be political.
In this context, Mohsin Hamid and Richard Flanagan’s novels, which view jihad as a “symbolic” response to American hubris, merely reinforce a fashionable academic and media shibboleth that dismisses terrorism as a modern Western myth and perversely misreads the Islamist threat to democratic freedom. By contrast, the politically agnostic writers recognise jihad’s existential threat, yet their characters confront it with a mixture of solipsism, flight, equivocation and despair. Houellebecq has already abandoned himself to the apocalypse. In Submission “atheist humanism—the basis of any pluralist society—is doomed”. Western democracy amounts “to little more than a power sharing arrangement between two rival gangs” as Paris descends into internecine war between the forces of EuroIslam and the far Right.
By contrast, Murray Thwaite, Claire Messud’s voice of the Olympian liberal conscience, proposes a “measured response” to terrorism that looks increasingly like appeasement. The only possibility of sustaining the political order resides in the belief that the sensory charms of capitalism will erode the fanatical will of the terrorist. McEwan hopes that the civilising pleasures of consumption will tame the passion for jihad. Updike’s novel concludes with a vision of Eighth Avenue, its denizens busily pursuing their selfish interests, but, as if by an invisible hand, creating a vibrant, spontaneous civil order. Updike’s image of the city’s awakening evokes Conrad’s conclusion to The Secret Agent where “the incorruptible Professor” walks the commercial streets of London “averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind”.
Unlike the 9/11 novelists, Conrad was sufficiently familiar with the revolutionary-terrorist character to know that sensory incorruptibility constituted its enduring strength. The Professor, like the current-day shahadist, was “a force”. “He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable and terrible in the simplicity of his idea, calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world.”
Conrad, of course, was no queasy political agnostic. By contrast the post-9/11 novels offer little insight into the jihadist persona, and even less by way of recuperating a sense of moral or political purpose. Maintaining political life ultimately requires the recovery of a Western sense of purpose and shared public morality. This demands something more substantive than admiration for domestic grandeur and an agnostic predilection to equivocate the crucial moral and philosophical questions of the age.
Associate Professor David Martin Jones is Reader in Political Science at the University of Queensland. His latest books are Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age (2014, with M.L.R. Smith) and The Political Impossibility of Modern Counterinsurgency: Strategic Problems, Puzzles, and Paradoxes (2015, also with M.L.R. Smith).