By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Right. It’s hard to know what’s more disgusting about that statement, the disingenuousness (as if nearly six years of Bush’s presidency hasn’t already opened that debate) or its stench of self-deception. Me, I might be more inclined to believe in Range’s integrity if his last film had been about somebody gelding Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky affair — you know, to open up the debate on women’s rights and the misuse of tobacco.
PREDICTABLY, THE ANNIVERSARY BECAME a field day for killjoys eager to attack American culture for not being chastened enough by the age of terror — a Los Angeles Times headline shrieked about the “Culture of Denial.” Oh, that again. Everybody remembers how 9/11 became a pretext for attacking our national frivolity — as if people who watched Seinfeld were somehow begging to be blown up. In fact, there’s no connection between the pop culture that people enjoy and how they behave in a crisis. Just as the Greatest Generation fed their eyes on Betty Grable’s gams before fighting Hitler, those New York cops and firemen may have enjoyed ogling J.Lo’s ass, but unlike Ben Affleck (now reborn in Hollywoodland), that didn’t stop them from taking care of business.
Nor does the daunting weight of 9/11 in our national iconography mean that our artists should be constantly flogged for not grappling with it profoundly enough. Granted, most of the art about 9/11 will have the shelf life of a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Leaving aside the adolescent corniness that was V for Vendetta — gee, I wish I were a righteous master criminal — Hollywood has turned the day’s events into a taut but literal-minded action picture (United Flight 93) and a well-directed but bombastic tearjerker (World Trade Center).
Our novelists have fared little better, often exploiting September 11 rather than illuminating it. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close drenched it with tear-jerking cute. Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children used it as a diabolus ex machina to shatter (and underscore) the triviality of her literary characters. John Updike’s Terrorist treated it as the latest opportunity to show that everyone, even a teenage suicide bomber, has an eye for detail exactly like . . . John Updike. The only novel to confront the issues raised by 9/11 is Ward Just’s Forgetfulness, which helps us see what’s shallow in all those clichés about “never forgetting.” It’s the story of a man who, after his wife is killed by terrorists, must figure out whether to exact revenge or put the past behind him — whatever that might mean.
Forgetfulness is a good novel, but for all its virtues, nobody would say that it takes the measure of what happened on September 11. Then again, how could it? How could any work of art seem as vast, as spectacular, as symbolically potent as those planes hitting the buildings, the bodies leaping to their doom, the towers crumbling into a universe of dust?
Anyway, it’s normal for artists to be disappointing commentators on current events: They’re not journalists. The great literary testament to The Great War didn’t come in battlefield novels like All Quiet on the Western Front (which didn’t itself appear until a full decade after the end of WWI). It came in novels like Women in Love, Siddhartha, The Magic Mountain, Journey to the End of Night, The Man Without Qualities, Mrs. Dalloway and We — books that weren’t explicitly about the war but explored into an even darker truth: The abattoir that was World War I wasn’t the handiwork of outside barbarians but of a Europe that felt entitled to rule the whole world. The war called into question the values of a civilization that felt itself enlightened, then sent hundreds of thousands of men to be slaughtered for a few yards of land.
Nothing remotely similar has happened in our response to 9/11 — so far as we can tell. But it’s worth remembering that, in the rush to pontificate about that awful September morning, five years is no time at all. Events may be fast, but meaning is slow.