Saturday, September 13, 2008

Imagining it otherwise

This was the NASA Image of the Day yesterday - the one I see on my google page. Usually it's universes colliding, stars exploding, black holes hoovering, or rockets poised to launch against a sunrise. See the thin plume of smoke? The photograph was taken on Sept 11, 2001.

NASA said:

'This image is one of a series taken that day of metropolitan New York City by the International Space Station's Expedition 3 crew that shows a plume of smoke rising from the Manhattan skyline .... Commander Culbertson said, "It's horrible to see smoke pouring from wounds in your own country from such a fantastic advantage point. The dichotomy of being on a spacecraft dedicated to improving life on the earth and watching life being destroyed by such willful, terrible acts is jolting to the psyche, no matter who you are.'

Not sure about that 'improving life on earth' concept, but the simple plume of smoke couldn't be more eloquent and disturbing. On the literature front, I notice that Paul Auster's new novel Man in the Dark has stepped into the 'genre' of 9/11 fiction. It will hopefully be a better read than De Lillo's intriguing but ultimately opaque and heartless Falling Man. A review of Falling Man in the Quarterly Conversation says it is a post-modern novel struggling 'to present the unpresentable', enabling us 'to see only by making it impossible to see.' (my emphasis) So it's not opaque for the sake of it, then, but paradoxically to illuminate the, well, man in the dark. I certainly found the passages set in and around the twin towers stood out starkly and chaotically against the controlled and distant world De Lillo had created. It was hard to breathe there.

'It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.' FALLING MAN

Jonathan Safran Foer’s 9/11 novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close takes another step away from that. I enjoyed it for its playfulness and cleverness, even though, after some thought, I decided the conceit of the wise, knowing, other-worldly child was a cop out. The erudite QC reviewer regards it as 'facile'.

What else is there? I heard Patrick McGrath read - brilliantly - from Ghost Town: Tales of Manhattan Then and Now a story about a psychiatrist infatuated with a patient who began visiting a prostitute after the events of 9/11. He didn't finish the story, but the Wellington writers' festival crowd were rivetted by the telling. Was it offering us more on the darkened and collapsed interiors of Manhattan's inhabitants?

Of Man in the Dark the Guardian writes:

'Paul Auster's latest is replete with his trademark tricksiness, but is no less germane. In Man in the Dark, a widower fantasises an escape from the pain of his loss by imagining an America where 9/11 never happened. But the civil war he conjures up in its place teaches him to treasure the tender hope his equally bereaved granddaughter represents.'
So yet again fiction elects to glance away from the event itself. Which is not a bad thing for fiction to do. The mass media has laid it on with a trowel, and space is needed for the imagination to construct 'the unpresentable' in the appalled air around that nonchalant thread of smoke.

1 comment:

Gondal-girl said...

Funny thing is when I first looked at the image before reading the post, I thought it was an ancient clay pot with a skull on the side...

I still loved Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ( even with the 'cop out' child' - better crafted than Everything is Illuminated