TWO WEEKS AFTER September 11, while the whole world was still checking in with itself, the New York Times called up a bunch of novelists. The paper of record wanted to see if their jobs still had any meaning. "While many temporarily questioned their work," the reporter wrote, "they ended up affirming to themselves the value and purpose of what they do." Indeed, any agony was shortened and sweetened by their sense that the events of September 11 had, mirabile dictu, validated the importance of the novelist.
Writing books, John Updike said, was "his contribution to the civil order." Joyce Carol Oates said that the terrorists attacks "probably confirm my sense that what I am writing is of some value." Of the group, only Stephen King seemed to surrender to feelings of worthlessness. "Writers, football players, actors, singers, we get paid to play for other people . . . I wasn't ever going to--quote--make the world a better place. . . . What I do has absolutely no significance." But this moment of clarity was quickly replaced by the happy thought that he should continue to write anyway. Said King: It's "not because I want to contribute, but if everybody continues working, they [the terrorists] don't win."
Not to be too hard on our novelists: Actors and singers did about as well at giving voice to grief and outrage. And one novelist, at least, turns out to have flashes of eloquence on the subject of September 11: Don DeLillo in the most recent issue of Harper's. Perhaps this should come as no surprise. DeLillo has long been interested in terrorism, politics, the way a calamity ripples through an entire society, American postmodern mores, our media-drenched consciousness, and much else that would be helpful in telling a story about that day.
At seizing important details among the speeding blur of modern life, DeLillo has few competitors. "There are configurations that chill and awe us both. Two women on two planes, best of friends, who die together and apart, Tower 1 and Tower 2. What desolate epic tragedy might bear the weight of such a juxtaposition? But we can also ask what symmetry, bleak and touching both, takes one friend, spares the other's grief? . . .
"In Union Square Park . . . the improvised memorials are another part of our response. The flags, flower beds, and votive candles, the lamppost hung with paper airplanes, the passages from the Koran and the Bible, the letters and poems, the cardboard John Wayne, the children's drawings of the Twin Towers, the hand-painted signs for Free Hugs, Free Back Rubs, the graffiti of love and peace on the tall equestrian statue."
In an evocative play-by-play of life amidst disaster, DeLillo tells of some relatives living two blocks from Ground Zero. The rest of his essay, "In the Ruins of the Future: Reflections on Terror and Loss in the Shadow of the Future," is unfortunately the kind of windy political talk one nowadays expects from the higher altitudes of the literary world. DeLillo's reflections are not as silly as, say, Toni Morrison's when she called Bill Clinton "our first black president," but they aren't at all impressive.
"In the past decade the surge of capital markets has dominated discourse and shaped global consciousness," remarks DeLillo, sounding like he's been reading a few too many back issues of Wired magazine. Shaping the global consciousness have been the always-scary-sounding "multinational corporations," the zoom of the Dow, the speed of the Internet, and a limitless future. The whole world's one big, American designed, frenetically spinning top. And now here come the terrorists.
Actually, first came the WTO protestors who "want to decelerate the global momentum that seemed to be driving unmindfully toward a landscape of consumer-robots and social instability, with the chance of self-determination probably diminishing for most people in most countries." Driving unmindfully? Does DeLillo imagine that what the WTO protestors were bothered by was an insufficiently Hegelian self-consciousness about our global momentum? And where are these consumer-robots? Are these the same ones artsy types have always acted superior towards? And where is this social instability? Hey, this may not be the end of history, but things have improved a lot in the last decade or so.
"Whatever acts of violence marked the [WTO] protests," DeLillo continues, "most of the men and women involved tend to be a moderating influence, trying to slow things down, even things out, hold off the white-hot future. The terrorists of September 11 want to bring back the past." So, we Americans are the future and they the terrorists--indeed, the ones who ride airplanes, recycle contemporary anti-American propaganda, and send their messages via videotape--are the past.
The overall effect is the opposite of DeLillo's best work. The first glance is the best glance. Close inspection shows the essay to be rather ordinary Internet-wowed commentary-by-numbers. William Greider lite (if such a thing is possible). Which has to be depressing for partisans of the novel, given that DeLillo is perhaps the most serious of our socially engaged novelists. Indeed, he is a leading example for the argument that novels should share in explaining the great events that exhaust the powers of journalists.
DeLillo has written that novels--much like his recent "Underworld"--need to tell stories about crowds, society, the public. Novels should be more than homes to a scattering of private characters laboring away anonymously, far from the big events of their times. The question has now become widely debated in literary circles: Is it possible for novels to communicate the power of great social events? With novelists like these, it doesn't seem likely.
David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.