Post-9/11 Literature: Darkness and Light

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Because we in the United States have never been encouraged to have sustained discussion about the War on Terror and the methods employed to fight it—the Bush administration carried out many things by fiat, under cover of darkness or misdirection, while the Obama administration has encouraged us to move on and not involve the nation in partisan conflict—our culture has had this discussion for us. In novels, movies, music, and other forms of literary and popular culture over the past decade, writers, artists, and musicians have asked questions, suggested answers, argued with each other, and helped us create some provisional meanings, whether we realize that or not.

Cultural critics know that works of literature and culture reflect their times, and clearly, works of literature—along with music, movies, and television—have wrestled with issues related to 9/11, including violence in the name of God, America's chosen nature, and the desire for revenge. One of the best-known books of the past decade, Marilynne Robinson's Pulitzer-Prize winning novel Gilead (2004), tells the family saga of three generations of clergy in a small Midwest American town, including a grandfather who killed and spread terror during the Civil War in the name of God, a father who became a pacifist as a result of his father's example, and a son, struggling to make his own peace with these issues during the Cold War. For readers wrestling with where they themselves fall on the spectrum of violence of military action—holy war, pacifism, Christian realism—Gilead offers its readers the opportunity to follow the lives of characters who give their lives to one way of being or another, and to observe where those paths lead them.

Renowned American novelist Don DeLillo took on the even-more-challenging task of writing about the terrifying present. Falling Man (2007) is explicitly about the fall of the Twin Towers and their aftermath, and about the free-floating anger, fear, and dread New Yorkers felt. As Frank Rich noted in the New York Times, DeLillo "resurrects that world as it was, bottling the mortal dread, high anxiety and mass confusion that seem so distant now." It is an authentic and powerful recreation of the 9/11 experience that some of us had forgotten with the passing of years.

In addition to sections of the book seen through the eyes of New Yorkers and 9/11 survivors, DeLillo also includes some realistic acknowledgment of the terrorists' worldview—the same sort of realism or empathy that got writers and artists like Susan Sontag, Steve Earle, and Barbara Kingsolver in cultural hot water earlier in the decade. Falling Man includes vignettes of the group's journey toward their date with death from the perspective of one of the 9/11 terrorists, and describes what the character sees when he looks at typical Americans: "These people jogging in the park, world domination. These old men who sit in beach chairs, veined white bodies and baseball caps, they control our world. He wonders if they think of this, ever." (173)

Most Americans don't, of course—or if they recognize that they control the world, they think it only our due. We are Americans, after all.

Popular literature has also held a mirror up to the past dark decade. The best-selling detective novelist Michael Connelly, for example, centered his 2003 novel Lost Light around a murder investigation that runs afoul of the new world of anti-terrorism law enforcement. During the course of his investigation, iconic detective Harry Bosch is introduced to the "By Any Means Necessary" (or "BAM") L.A. police squad put together after 9/11, winds up in federal custody, and is roughed up by federal agents (a scene as jarring for readers as, say, seeing Sherlock Holmes mugged). Readers may have had less concern for a Muslim suspect who, like Harry, has been taken into custody and detained for an unknown length of time, but early in the decade Lost Light suggested how easily even an exemplary American citizen (Bosch is a decorated police detective) could fall afoul of the Patriot Act and Homeland Security and disappear, all his civil rights vanished. It was one of the earliest works critical of the War on Terror, and remains a powerful read.