The Onslaught of the “Best Books About 9/11”

It’s inevitable.  Come September, we will be awash in a national project of stock-taking–a look back at the previous ten years on the anniversary of the September attacks of 9/11/2001.  It seems useful to think about what will be the value of these collective considerations.  I wonder whether the two camps that formed in the wake of the attacks have softened a bit.  There were those who believed 9/11 changed essentially everything, and those who believed 9/11 changed essentially nothing–is it time that we all agree that neither is the case, but that something happened?   If we can, I think we can move on to helpful questions about what art and literature is doing to help us think about the politics and culture of “The Post-9/11 Moment” as a historically bound phase in American identity.  Deborah Eisenberg’s wonderful collection Twilight of the Superheroes helps us understand what it means to move beyond a nationally post-traumatic stage and move to work 9/11 into something like a collectivized memory (even though you probably won’t see it on Top Ten Books About 9/11 lists that are guaranteed to materialize).

Passivityman weeps...it's okay Passivityman, we all wept too.

Ten years after “the events of 9/11,” I think two pertinent questions have evolved, both of which help us understand how cultural/national trauma gets absorbed at the level of individuals

What was the post-9/11 moment? What was special about American politics and culture during a period that followed 9/11/2001?  How were particular strategies and tactics mobilized to achieve certain cultural and political objectives?  How did these strategies and tactics wane over time?  Is the post-9/11 moment something that could ever end?

How did the Post-9/11 Moment structure our thinking about the “event” itself? This is related to the possibility of ever being anything other than Post-Traumatic in the wake of the attacks.  The “Post-9/11 Moment” might be thought of as a period that begins with standardized modes of national grief and moves to the recent past, where 9/11 is taken as a kind of given in the American consciousness.  Perhaps the Post-9/11 moment was the period during which this shift took place.  Eisenberg’s collection helps us work through this idea.  The title story of the collection–and the first in the book–depicts the attacks.  “Something changed,” we are told,” in the lives of Eisenberg’s twentysomething characters who view the attacks from a Manhattan balcony.  The trick is to figure out what.

But 9/11 recedes to the background of the collection.  When it appears in the ensuing stories, it is in echoes: changed airport security procedure; televised war protests;  references to a kind of Blackwater or Halliburton firm.  The explosions of planes recede into the past of the collection in the same way that they recede into the background noise of ordinary lives made complicated by family life.  The dramas of our interactions with one another are shaded by–not dominated by–a collectivized national trauma.  Eisenberg’s collection seems to portray the machinations by which this transition from nationalized grief toward everyday sub-awareness occurred.

 

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