In the heterogeneous melting pot of immigrants and ethnic diversity that was the United States in the twentieth century, it made a particular kind of sense to talk about the ‘Great American Novel’. Indeed, it filled a crucial need: the idea that a single work of genius could capture the soul of the nation came to be attractive to writers and critics at a time when Americans were particularly concerned about unity. After all, it says E Pluribus Unum on US money – ‘out of many, one’ – and as long as there has been a desire for a singular ‘American culture’, this has been the leitmotiv.
Immediately after America’s founding in 1776, poetry was identified as the appropriate vehicle for realising this dream, and there was a perennial call for a national epic that could encapsulate the great Columbian spirit (producing efforts like Joel Barlow’s The Vision of Columbus – an offering that we gratefully forget). In 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson lamented that ‘We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials’, but he hopefully anticipated that the shortfall would be corrected: ‘America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.’ In 1855, Walt Whitman all but formally applied for the position.
But after the Civil War – after the union was reformed and the nation began expanding westward with a new fury – it was fiction that caught the spirit of the age, and the novel that captured the novelty of the new world. The term Great American Novel was coined by John De Forest who hoped his own Civil War novel, Miss Ravenel’s Conversion from Secession to Loyalty, might mirror the aspirations and achievement of American unity. But even he didn’t claim that he had actually written the Great American Novel. From the very beginning, it was an object that was all the more present in American culture for the fact that it had not yet been written.
Perhaps inevitably, the Great American Novel was also almost immediately a cliché, even a joke. Henry James called it the ‘GAN’ with an ironic wink, and when Phillip Roth parodied the whole idea with his 1973 work The Great American Novel, he used a 1903 quote from Frank Norris as his epigraph: ‘The Great American Novel is not extinct like the dodo, but mythical like the hippogriff.’ But, of course, Norris still took his shot at the prize, just as Roth and James did. That seems to be the point: no-one particularly believes in the Great American Novel, but writers and critics do seem to spend a lot of time scanning the skies for non-existent flying horses. You might not admit you’d like to write the GAN, but you still feel like maybe you should.
Fiction is fiction, but this is ideology. The desire for a unifying fiction was irresistible for a United States that has never been as ‘united’ as its name proclaims. Moreover, the divisions that split the country during the Civil War were more or less the same lines that divided north from south a century later over the issue of civil rights, and that today bear a suspicious resemblance to the areas that predictably vote for Democrats or that predictably vote for Republicans. But we still have to say we’re Americans; we still have to find ways to express that unity in words, even if the thing to which it refers is hard to find in reality. Just like any other nation, we can’t help but long for a way to make sense of the dissensus, to bring the pluribus into unum, to bring the nation together. Thus, the GAN remains a mythological beast, but nice work if you could get it.
Today, critics still write articles about the GAN, but something important has changed: for most of its life, the GAN has been an object of hopeful anticipation, the novel that someone might still write (or the novel that has only just been penned). It was an expression of futurity and potential, the desire for unity for which many have hoped: it didn’t exist yet but one believed that it could still. But when critics write articles about the GAN today, they tend to look into the past: was it Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? The House of Mirth? The Invisible Man? Beloved? When Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom was most recently suggested as a contender, the critics who entertained the idea treated it like a nostalgic throwback to the past; if Franzen was, as Time proclaimed, the ‘Great American novelist’, it was because he proved that the era of the GAN was not (quite) over. The conventional wisdom has changed: today, instead of looking for mythical beasts in the sky, critics sift through the dirt searching for dinosaur fossils.
September 11 changed everything, in this sense at least. It wouldn’t mean anything to say that the ‘Great American Novel’ is dead. After all, how could it die when it was never born? But the desire for a supreme unifying fiction has been replaced by a different kind of desire: a longing for the fiction of disunity. Instead of looking for some as-yet-unknown writer to forge in the smithy of her soul the uncreated conscience of her nation, we ask a different question: where is the great literature of September 11? Who will create the fiction of America in the Age of Terror?
The great American novel, something we wanted without believing in, has been replaced by a sense of looming dread, something we don’t want but can’t avoid believing in. I don’t mean that there is a post-September 11 novel. The ‘Great American Novel’ gave a concrete materiality to the problem of American unity; it was in the nature of the GAN that it took a singular definite article and that it either existed or didn’t. It was a time that had come or hadn’t come – it was this novel, or perhaps that novel, or perhaps it was being written right now. By contrast, ‘post-September 11’ is a shadow that hangs over everything our culture produces; unavoidable, the idea saturates the environment but is nowhere in particular.
In a progressive and forward-looking era, the GAN was a confident assertion of an American unity that was always on the horizon, a greatness that loomed as certainly in the future as a man walking on the moon. It was an inevitable birthright. As ideology, in other words, it was an optimistic one: striving to find a unifying vision, confident that such a thing could not help but be found.
After September 11, the national future stopped signifying in those terms. Today, our favoured fictions are dystopic visions of collapse, disunity and hopelessness. Zombie movies express the Zeitgeist. And not the slow, creeping zombies of the past, but fast zombies, ones that are suited for a time when death can come crashing down from the sky at any moment. The future is not a looming promise to be fulfilled, nor is the arc of history bent so inexorably towards truth, justice and the American way. The absent Twin Towers – whose absence seemed to be
everywhere, omnipresent – came to stand for the impossibility of the thing that prior generations had taken for granted. After September 11, there would never come a time where there had not been September 11.
Of course, the only reason that September 11 ‘changed everything’, as people say, was because after September 11, you couldn’t get away from people telling you that September 11 had changed everything. And many of the people saying it were in a position to make it come true. For a while, it was everywhere. On billboards, newspapers, the radio and 24-hour news channels, the fact that September 11 had still happened, was still happening and would continue to still have been happening for the foreseeable future was documented, re-documented and hammered home again and again. In the entirely new lexicon we acquired for talking about security and suspicion and safety, ‘September 11’ saturated the space of being American. Not because you knew someone who died, or even because you knew someone who knew someone who knew someone, but because you probably didn’t. It was just by virtue of being called ‘American’, or living in space called American, that ‘everything changed’ on that day.
Moreover, it wasn’t that September 11 really changed everything; rather, the event brought us back to the familiar terror of the Cold War. September 11 meant that the end of the Cold War was finally over and things could now get back to normal; history had ‘returned from vacation’, as George Will wrote. The US could go back to fighting wars in Iraq, targeting failed states with cruise missiles and quietly working with authoritarian dictators to keep the global economy in its place. The mantra ‘September 11 changed everything’ signalled an end to the interregnum of the 1990s, a confusing time in which the United States was either the hegemonic world power or was at the mercy of ‘globalisation’, a time in which Francis Fukuyama’s apparently triumphant ‘End of History’ essay turned out to be a depressed lament for how boring life was going to be, forever. (‘The end of history will be a very sad time,’ he wrote. ‘In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’)
After all, you could not remake the movie Red Dawn after the Berlin Wall had fallen; you had to wait until after the fall of the Twin Towers and the rise of China and the ‘Axis of Evil’ made an attack on America thinkable again. Not plausible, of course, but Red Dawn was never actually plausible. However, September 11 made it conceptually possible – and pleasurable. In the boom years of the 1990s – a period when the world was changing, walls were falling and we seemed to have entered a permanent digital revolution – it didn’t make any sense to have a guerilla war fought on American soil; after September 11, it could all make sense again, and we could all sit back and enjoy the show.
Of course, the real problem with the literature of ‘post-September 11’ is that so little actually changed after September 11, other than our rhetoric. The United States is an undeniably different place – and ‘America’ signifies as something very different after launching two wars that have morphed into a kind of permanent, everywhere war – but it’s getting harder and harder to put your finger on why exactly this happened, or why it is still happening.
Colour-coded threat levels, the occupation of Iraq, George W Bush and the fact that Osama bin Laden was still ‘at large’ all kept the September 11 moment alive for a long time, but all of them are gone now. Nothing like the attack on the World Trade Center has happened since then. And yet ‘September 11’ is still with us, still defines us. Obama was supposed to close the door on things like Guantánamo Bay, but instead we have the new horror of drone warfare. And tomorrow will surely bring us something we haven’t yet learned to dread.
The literary twenty-first century began when American writers began to try to make sense of what exactly had changed – and it was a simultaneous change that hit all of us, whether we liked it or not – on September 11 2001. But along with the fervent belief that something unthinkable had happened and changed us, we were left with the realisation that nothing had changed except our insistence on thinking that it had.
This is why we have the idea ‘the September 11 novel’ but very few viable candidates for the hon-our. Most literary renderings feel dated almost immediately; the less said about a book like John Updike’s Terrorist, for example, the better. But even Don DeLillo’s Falling Man feels more like a moment in time, a window into a surreal and continuous instant, than any kind of extended meditation on what changed. And many of the most successful September 11 novels are really New York novels, in a very parochial sense – for example, Teju Cole’s Open City, Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City or Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland are unthinkable outside the space of Manhattan. And yet, if you leave that space, traveling with Lorraine Adams’ Harbor or Amy Waldman’s The Submission across borders and customs lines, you leave the space of September 11 itself. The disconnect between cause and effect becomes unavoidable; the thing itself, the Event, is suddenly pushed off screen. This disconnect, too, is the experience of September 11.
This is why film rather than literature is the medium that captures the experience of being after September 11 – just as the American Epic was replaced by the Great American Novel in 1868. Of course, for the vast majority of us, audiovisual media was the event. People ask where you were when you heard that JFK had been shot, but when the Twin Towers came down, you were watching it (even if you were watching it hours or days later). Chris Adrian captured this disconnect beautifully in the short story ‘The Vision of Peter Damian’, in which a rural nineteenth-century religious community – somewhere in America – begins to experience visions of an event that only his readers know is September 11. But the characters will never know, can never know. And while that burning vision in the sky is unthinkable and unknowable to Adrian’s rural Americans, we know precisely what the author has done. We can admire his artistry, or disdain his craft. We can put the book down.
I hated watching Zero Dark Thirty: it’s a hard, vicious film to watch and also a dull movie, slow and with a certain artful tediousness. But you can’t get up and leave, and I didn’t. I also can’t avoid what watching that movie did to me: it desensitises you to watch men being tortured, and you can’t avoid that. And then, when the scene is over, it’s gone, and you can’t summon it back. It’s out of your control. There’s an important affective difference here, between film and book: you can read every word on a page, every page in a book, and you can flip back and forth and re-read until you understand, or just stop reading when you lose interest. But film simply happens, until it doesn’t; you either saw it or you didn’t, and if it’s on the screen you saw it, and you have to respond.
I don’t call Zero Dark Thirty the great September 11 film because it gives us any particular insight into torture, terrorism or the hunt for Osama bin Laden; the film tells us nothing new except the many details it gets wrong. And I don’t call it the great September 11 film because I like it. I don’t. I think it’s a vile piece of propaganda, all the more damnable for being a superb piece of cinema. But it’s a movie that wants to mean as little as possible, to de-contextualise the events it shows us until they are nothing more than the experience of seeing them. And in this, we get closer to the real experience of September 11 – and what it has done to us – than any novel ever could.
Start with the title, a phrase that probably meant nothing to you before you associated it with this movie. Apparently ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ means 12:30 am in military parlance, but that’s not what it means to you, Hollywood’s consumer. To you, it means ‘the name of the movie about the CIA finding and killing Osama bin Laden’. It’s a cipher, a code, a set of words stripped of any context but the meaning that the movie has assigned. And in its very absence of meaning, it comes to stand for the movie’s own howling absence of meaning.
By contrast, imagine if the movie was titled ‘Geronimo’, which was Osama bin Laden’s code name. That title would pass judgment on the events it describes, would frame how the scenes depicted were to be received, would guide us into interpreting them. ‘Geronimo’ has a meaning all its own, a historical resonance and narrative: the great Native American chief who has represented native resistance in American popular culture for over a century. By passing that meaning onto the film, it would have contextualised the story of this CIA manhunt within a very specific story of ‘Cowboys and Indians’ and of the conquest of ‘the West’. Its ideology would crystallise at the surface, where we could reach down and pluck it up: no matter what we think of that story, we would understand its meaning.
This is what Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal have meant when they describe their movie as ‘journalistic’. They don’t mean it’s accurate or objective – and not only because it’s neither and clearly not trying to be. They mean that it’s something you can’t talk about, something that just is. This is what it was like, they say, to watch a guy get tortured. And then watch a terrorist attack. And then watch a guy get tortured. And then a terrorist attack. And so on. There is no meaning here, only testimonial. This movie is the experience of watching a movie about the events that it shows.
That September 11 was ‘unspeakable’ is one of the great clichés of twenty-first-century political discourse. But, of course, it is ‘speakable’; moreover, people speak about it all the time. When people say unspeakable, they mean that one cannot explain or contextualise the event, and that it is improper – even quasi-treasonous – to try. But at the level it affects you, the movie has a very decided politics: it teaches you to identify with the torturer, an intelligent and attractive CIA operative whose bearded certainty make ‘torture’ into a safe and reliable and controlled event, a thing that might be unpleasant to watch but that will not surprise or startle viewers. Everything is under control.
And then we cut from that controlled mayhem to some of the loudest gunshots I’ve ever heard in a movie, as a bunch of terrorists kill wildly and insensibly. Who are they? Why? When? What? We have no idea. We know exactly why the CIA interrogator does what he does, and we know it’s under control, and while our mind might revolt, our body does not shoot with adrenaline nor our pulse begin to race until we see a bus-bomb go off in London or a Marriott hotel explode in Pakistan. The movie quickly settles into a predictable and Pavlovian rhythm, alternating between gruelling torture scenes – which you endure, and harden yourselves towards – and sudden explosions of terrific violence that are not only exactly as predictable as a Pavlovian training must be, but raise the stakes a little more each time. You see it coming, you know what it is, and it still trains your body each time.
To put it simply, Zero Dark Thirty is a movie that teaches you how to fear terrorism and to reassure yourself with torture. But its brilliance as a piece of propaganda is that it leaves your mind alone and focuses on your body. While many people have pointed out that the movie inaccurately suggests that information from ‘enhanced interrogations’ of detainees was necessary and useful, the movie is also very careful to clarify that that information was not sufficient. It’s a bit like putting a single good guy Asian-American in Red Dawn and then using it as evidence that the movie isn’t racist: it’s completely transparent, but it also works. If Bigelow/Boal’s critics are right that the movie makes torture seem effective, the movie’s defenders are right that it makes torture seem ineffective. At the level of rational meaning, then, it means nothing at all: both sides of that debate can find support for their position, yet no resolution to the argument. The movie, therefore, means nothing.
This movie, on the other hand, succeeds because it never tries to glorify the protagonist’s obsession, never tries to rationalise it, defend it or even make it seem attractive. Maya is not a sympathetic character: her obsession makes her ugly, makes her frightening, and hers is an unpleasant subjectivity to be stuck with. But it’s still the one we’re stuck with for two and a half hours. And this is the film’s claustrophobic epistemology: we know what we feel, because we know only what we do not know. You have no choice but to identify with torturers whose motivations you understand, and with the victims of Muslim terrorists whose motives you are not allowed to be privy to. After all, why do they hate us?
To say that the movie doesn’t want to answer this question is obvious, but less obvious is the way the movie wants to make that question as unavoidable as it is unanswerable. Over and over and over again we see the spectacle of Muslims threatening violence we do not understand, interspersed with violence against Muslims which we do understand. And while we may not like who we are, and what we understand, it would never occur to us to doubt that we are what the movie makes us feel ourselves to be: frightened, scared, confused. Waiting, in dread and in ignorance, for it to happen again.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!