How should popular culture deal with a tragedy in which nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in a space of time equivalent to an average-length feature film?
Judging by the evidence of how our culture has processed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks over the last decade, one way is to deal with it indirectly and elliptically rather than steering head-first into the maelstrom of thoughts and feelings that continue to swirl around that terrible day.
Looking back at some prominent Sept. 11-inspired cultural works — from TV’s “Rescue Me” and the films “Man on Wire” and “United 93” to novels by Joseph O’Neill, Jonathan Safran Foer and others — those who kept a certain distance from the attacks generally have proven to be more resonant than those who sought to channel the day’s raw agonies in more direct and literal-minded ways. Art, like terrorism, often works by stealth and subterfuge, sneaking up on our intellects and emotions and overwhelming them before we fully realize what’s happening.
That’s the strategy employed by James Marsh’s sublime 2008 Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire,” a movie that has nothing, and everything, to do with the aftermath of Sept. 11. “Man on Wire” conjures the newly minted World Trade Center towers by recounting the real-life story of an elfin, charismatic French tightrope artist, Philippe Petit, who walked a high wire between them for about 45 minutes on Aug. 7, 1974, while crowds gazed in wonder from the streets below.
Skillfully mixing archival film footage with staged reenactments, the movie opens with a subtle teaser that makes us think we could be watching foreign agents on their way to wreaking havoc on Manhattan’s twin totems of American capitalism. Instead, we’re witnessing how Petit, an artist-provocateur, unknowingly used many of the same methods that the Sept. 11 hijackers would 27 years later (surveillance, self-disguise) but to create rather than destroy.
Compare the nuanced indirection of “Man on Wire” with the full-frontal assault of “United 93,” Paul Greengrass’ sober, respectful but ultimately one-dimensional feature film about the passengers who wrested control of one of the hijacked planes that ended up crashing in rural Pennsylvania. Although admirably accurate and even-handed in its documentary-like marshaling of facts, “United 93” fails to elevate its subject beyond the level of a historical reenactment. It monumentalizes the heroic passengers and depicts the hijackers without judgment — but also without illuminating them as people.
Although the Sept. 11 attacks are never once mentioned in Marsh’s work, they’re present in spirit. Both abstract and yet deeply humanistic, “Man on Wire” finds in Petit an open-ended symbol rather than a closed system of meaning.
Small wonder that Petit’s performance also helped inspire a play, a children’s book, and Colum McCann’s novel “Let the Great World Spin” (2009), which invokes New York as a city whose vibrant, disparate humanity allows it to rise above the endless adversities of the human condition.
Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland” (2008) paints a similar picture of New York’s post-Sept. 11 resilience. In this highly praised novel, a Dutch immigrant struggling with a shaky marriage finds solace and rejuvenation through his passionate love for cricket, which he plays with the city’s other new arrivals — Pakistanis, West Indians — on scruffy outer Borough ball fields.
O’Neill’s book, a partial homage to “The Great Gatsby,” suggests that America’s sometimes chaotic freedom is the source of its age-old attraction to the world’s huddled masses. The energy of Manhattan’s teeming streets is a more apt metaphor for that enduring appeal than a 1,776-foot skyscraper with a heavy-handed name.
The impact of the Sept. 11 attacks also registers with an artful combination of power and subtlety in the FX television series “Rescue Me.” In this year’s final season, Denis Leary’s firefighter character, Tommy Gavin, still battles marital and spiritual demons unleashed by the loss of his buddies when the towers fell. He and the other first responders of the fictitious firehouse remain stranded, psychologically, almost right where they started 10 years ago, at ground zero. For them, the only salvageable emotions from Sept. 11’s wreckage are like twisted metal shards, hard and dangerous to touch.
The stalwarts of Ladder 62 / Engine 99 aren’t the only fictional New Yorkers caught between painful looking backward and awkward moving ahead. In her new novel, “This Beautiful Life,” Helen Schulman depicts a very different slice of Manhattan society, a prosperous white-collar family, that also finds itself emotionally imprisoned in events of the not-too-distant past.
In Schulman’s previous novel “A Day at the Beach” (2008), it was explicitly the Sept. 11 attacks that set a family’s crackup in motion. In the parallel plotting of “This Beautiful Life,” a 13-year-old girl’s pornographic video goes viral over the Internet, threatening to shatter the charmed existence of the upscale Bergamot clan.
“This Beautiful Life” reads like a post-Sept. 11 novel because, as in “A Day at the Beach,” a single, irrevocable act that occurs in a flash causes unforeseen consequences that linger for generations. “Nothing goes away now,” one character observes in “This Beautiful Life.” “Forgetting is over.”
If amnesia has been ruled out as a culturally responsible response to Sept. 11, what about resetting the clock to the pre-Sept. 11 world, if only in imagination?
Oskar Schell, the precocious 9-year-old protagonist of Foer’s 2005 novel “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” tries to spool-back time to understand the ambiguous “clues” left by his father, who died in the terrorist attacks. Haunted by the phone messages left by his dad, Oskar embarks on a scavenger hunt to try to make his own separate, unique peace with an event witnessed and felt by billions of people.
Oskar tames his all-but-unbearable grief through the power of empathy. Foer’s book concludes with a series of pages that can be flipped forward to depict a man leaping backward into a skyscraper, like a film unwinding in reverse, as if the tragedy had never happened.
One still largely unmet challenge for our culture is probing deeper into the identities of the attacks’ perpetrators and the forces that gave rise to them. Hollywood has shown little interest in going there, so the task has fallen to serious fiction writers like British author Martin Amis and the novelist Mohsin Hamid, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated Pakistan native.
Amis’ chilling short story, “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta,” published in a 2006 issue of the New Yorker, reconstructs Atta’s lifelong litany of serial humiliations and failures as the lead hijacker aims his human cargo at the north tower.
Hamid’s novel “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2007) is one of the few works of post-9/11 fiction that dares to engage the enemy on his own terms. But whose enemy? Is it the first-person narrator, a Western-trained Pakistani who has grown deeply disillusioned with American values? Or is the novel’s phantom menace, the quiet American who’s listening to the narrator’s tale — and perhaps biding his time before unleashing a different type of mayhem on the world?
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