I have to admit that I’m not an avid fan of the novel written, in part or in whole, about 9/11. The issue with me is partially that it’s still too soon, not from a grief and mourning perspective, but from an objective historical perspective, to get a real handle on it. Even though what I’m about to relate happened almost five years ago, I think it’s still relevant to a degree today.
When the film United 93 came out in 2006, I was in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, Canada, with my then girlfriend on a tour of the region’s wine country. We woke up one morning at a Bed and Breakfast we were staying at to American talk radio, presumably from Buffalo, New York, and the American announcers were imploring people to go out and see that film on its opening weekend. Why? So that they could remember what it was like on that September morning, and, in their words that I remember to this day, “stay angry”.
That really ground my gears. Is that the whole point of books and films about 9/11 – for some Americans to remain embroiled in their collective outrage? Are books and films about the event just ammunition for particular Americans to justify the wars, as necessary as they may or may not be, in Afghanistan and Iraq? Are such books and films, no matter what their author’s intentions were, used by some as mere propaganda? I have to wonder.
Plus, I would argue that there are some precedents in works of art about history that arrived perhaps too soon. While it’s a great film entertainment-wise and I would implore people to see it, Charlie Chaplin went on record to say that if he had known the true extent of the Nazi’s atrocities, he never would have made 1940’s The Great Dictator. Maybe he had a point, because poking fun at the concentration camps and making its Hitler-like figurehead somewhat sympathetic and likeable, as he does in that film, can make the modern viewer a little queasy.
As well, being that it was an American event, there’s a sense of 9/11 being somehow larger than life itself – to Americans. It happened to America directly on its shores, as opposed to events such as the World Wars (discounting, perhaps, Pearl Harbour, and I don’t think there was a noteworthy novel written about that pounding in the decade after it happened), which gives the act of writing about 9/11 a whiff of the feeling that this story is somehow more important than any other historical events because America is pretty much the lone global superpower left.
I went to a lot of poetry readings in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and there was a lot of overbearing work about the topic. (I’ll be honest, though: I did try and largely flail at writing a 9/11 poem, as well.) To me, in retrospect, it seemed that this was an American tragedy, North Americans had to somehow own it in their writing, making them feel, maybe, that sharing grief and rage with the world made it an Important Event – perhaps more so than even greater massacres in human history. It makes me wonder how the Kulaks felt in Stalinist Russia, because even though 20 million of them died under Stalin’s reign, I haven’t read the Great Kulak Novel.
I bring this up because Bernhard Schlink’s latest novel, The Weekend, is about terrorism and its after-effects. Being a novel written in the post-9/11 aftermath it does, to a greater or lesser extent, deal with that very subject. I was hoping that this would be a book that would touch on a lesser known and written about group of terrorists – that being the Baader-Meinhof sympathizers of leftist anarchists that plagued Germany throughout the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s – but, alas, Schlink, who splits his time between Berlin and New York, felt at least somewhat compelled to write about September 11 in that one of the characters of this novel, who actually writes a novel within the confines of this novel, is obsessed with the people who jumped from the World Trade Centre after the jets collided with the buildings. (And in a wholly fantastical and unnecessary move, that same character imagines a German terrorist actually being trapped in the Windows on the World restaurant when the planes hit.)
Now, one could argue that it is apt and perhaps a much-needed thing to talk about 9/11 in the context of terrorism in the year 2011. However, you can add The Weekend to a pile of books, which includes the recent World and Town written by Gish Jen, that doesn’t adequately address the topic, aside from a blush at trying to come to grips with a world where some people feel the need to use violence to get their political or fundamentally religious points across. The Gish book, arguably, just barely touched on the subject of 9/11, making this reader wonder why it was even inserted, and if it just seemed to be the hip and cool thing to write about in order to make the novel appear more topical.
The Weekend is another disappointment, for both treating the subject matter on a very surface level, and for the lesser reason that it’s obvious that Schlink is a talented writer. He is best known for a novel dealing with the trauma of the Holocaust on Germany called The Reader, which was not only an Oprah’s Book Club selection, but was fairly recently turned into a movie that happened to net Kate Winslet a Best Actress Oscar. However, it pains me to say that The Weekend is a light and superficial novel that side-steps the core issues of his subject matter, leaving readers feeling still hungry after eating a full-course meal. In a nutshell, the most apt description I’ve read about the book is a blurb from Kirkus Reviews that calls it “The Big Chill transplanted to the German countryside in the wake of 9/11 terrorism.”