Sunday, March 21, 2010


1 September 2001 has to be the defining moment for my generation (with the Great Recession a close second). I was being interviewed for a job at the London Review of Books when the first plane struck. I was perched on a wobbly stool with the rather intimidating Mary-Kay Wilmers and her team seated in a semi-circle around me, when I first became aware of mobile phones being checked (I didn’t have one in those days). Nothing was said at the time, and I left the LRB offices and went to a nearby pub. People were staring up at a TV screen, watching what I thought was a disaster movie. It took a while for me to realise it was the news. I lived in a studio flat on the Blackstock Road, not far from the Finsbury Park mosque, and I have to say the feeling in the kebab shop I stopped off at on the way home was very much that America had it coming (a line the LRB also followed). I didn’t have a TV, so I spent the evening in the Arsenal Tavern watching the same footage of the World Trade Center collapsing over and over again, on a big screen usually reserved for football matches.

So, here are ten items from my old Critical Eye column that are connected to 9/11 in one way or another . . .

And no, I didn’t get that job at the LRB.


In Orientalism (1978) Edward Said wrote that “Nobody is likely to imagine a field symmetrical to [Orientalism] called Occidentalism,” but Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit have done just that in Occidentalism: A Short History of Anti-Westernism. “The climacteric of 9/11 has produced a great deal of mediocre analysis and bathetic reflection,” noted Niall Ferguson in the Telegraph, “this essay is one of the best things yet to be published on what . . . has become known as the ‘Clash of Civilisations’.” Johann Hari in the Independent on Sunday thought it “thrillingly bold . . . Buruma and Margalit brilliantly identify a pernicious, infectious mindset. Some soft-headed types who want to imagine that victims are always morally pristine will find it as enraging as itching powder.”


In Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America Roosevelt loses the 1940 election to Charles A. Lindbergh, celebrity aviator, isolationist, anti-Semite and Hitler fan. Christopher Tayler in the Sunday Telegraph was prompted “to scour the novel for hidden commentary on recent events”, but concluded that “it’s not that kind of book”, although “Roth dwells sardonically on Lindbergh’s flight suit and laconic public style”, which might remind some readers of a certain president. “Roth has said quite explicitly that this is not a ‘9/11 novel’,” observed Erica Wagner in the Times, but it “casts light on the present through the window of the past”. David Flusfeder in the Telegraph thought it “a minor addition to the Roth canon”, although “Roth’s lesser works are better than many others’ masterpieces.”


In Specimen Days Michael Cunningham “uses the tripartite technique he employed, to great effect, in his previous novel The Hours,” explained Philip Hoare in the Sunday Telegraph. “But does the trick work second time around?” Yes: it is “an ultimately satisfying, richly rewarding and deeply enjoyable book”. “This is less a novel than a linked trio of moving, bizarrely lyrical novellas,” announced Jane Stevenson in the Observer, “meditating on Descartes’s argument for the essential separation of mind and body, which makes of the perceiving individual a ‘ghost in a machine’.” “Specimen Days is also concerned with the greatest perceived threat to the American dream,” observed Peter Parker in the Sunday Times. “Women jumping from a flaming building in the first section are clearly meant to invoke 9/11, as are the suicide bombers in the second story and the ‘post-meltdown’ landscape of the third . . . Intricately conceived, stylishly written and admirably ambitious, this absorbing novel lingers in the mind, but never quite coalesces there.”


“Siri Hustvedt is refreshing when it comes to the excesses of political correctness and hard-line feminism,” wrote Lorna Bradbury in the Telegraph, reviewing Plea for Eros, an essay collection by Mrs Paul Auster. “In her view, feminist discourse fails to take account of the erotic, and much of what is erotic is so precisely because of fantasies of transgression and submission. The eroticism in her relationship with Auster, she argues, is sustained not through intimacy but through distance. The attraction remains because there’s something about him she can’t reach.” “The essays are an odd bunch,” noted Serena Davies in the Observer. “They veer from literary criticism to the connotations of corsetry, from gender confusion to the desolation of 9/11.” Hustvedt herself “strides across these pages: a 6ft-tall Amazonian New Yorker by whom we are at once riveted and faintly disconcerted.”


“The first few chapters of Jay McInerney’s The Good Life brim with ambition, promising a bold, panoramic view of the effects of the 9/11 attack on the American psyche,” wrote Stephen Amidon in the Sunday Times, but “once the towers come down, McInerney’s vision contracts radically, until it focuses on the mid-life crises of two privileged New Yorkers who appear to view 9/11 as little more than an opportunity to rearrange their elective affinities . . . catastrophe is never more than a backdrop for their affair.” “The Class A witticisms for which McInerney was celebrated have been replaced with stodgier tastes,” noted Daniel Swift in the Telegraph. “This book – a hit list of chic commodities and pricey daydreams – is single where it hopes to be plural, specific in the face of the general, static where it longs to be fluid.” “There’s no whiff of international politics,” objected Adam Mars-Jones in the Observer, and “with its obeisance to the glamour of money, The Good Life is much less of a break from his earlier work than Jay McInerney might like to think.”


Terrorist aims high. This is John Updike’s post 9/11 book, tackling big, relevant topics . . . But it does not work,” said Caroline Moore in the Sunday Telegraph. “Indeed, for all its pretensions to bang-up-to-date, state-of-the-nation contemporaneity, Terrorist seems, like its hero, oddly dated and out of touch. When did you last meet an 18-year-old without either a mobile phone or access to the Internet? These are the staples of communication for teenagers – and, of course, for terrorists . . . This is a last-minute Rabbit pulled from a very shoddy hat.” Updike’s teenage protagonist Ahmad “feels no more real a person than his unscrupulous imam, who is reduced to the contrasting status of movie-villain Muslim”, noted Stephen Abell in the Times Literary Supplement. But Lionel Shriver in the Telegraph declared that “Ahmad is an impressive achievement, a truly fictional creation and no authorial proxy . . . This may be Updike’s finest novel for some years.”


“From the moment the book opens, one senses a writer of confidence and maturity, expansive, sure of her ground and savouring her own sonorous prose,” said Katie Owen in the Sunday Telegraph of Claire Messud’s Booker-longlisted The Emperor’s Children. “If on philosophical and political levels the novel fails to resonate as one suspects is intended, with 9/11 functioning as little more than a dramatic plot device, The Emperor’s Children is still worth reading.” “This novel carries a lot of weight,” noted Lucy Hughes-Hallett in the Sunday Times, “five fully developed, emotionally complex characters; a glittering city, described from the perspective of blasé insiders and from the viewpoint of those newly arrived and lonely; a historic calamity; an audaciously acknowledged pantheon of literary models that includes not only the Russians but also William Empson, the James brothers, Musil, the Book of Genesis and Napoleon’s journal. It is a heavy load, but Messud’s book is so broadly based, so resiliently humorous that it easily sustains it.”


“Five years on, and the 9/11 books begin to mount up,” wrote Ian Sansom in the Spectator, citing Roth’s The Plot Against America, Updike’s Terrorist, Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, McEwan’s Saturday, “and now, Jonathan Raban’s Surveillance. You can already hear the sound of university critics drawing up the reading lists for their ‘Post-9/11 Fiction’ courses.” However, “Of all the 9/11 books so far, Surveillance is perhaps the most disturbing because it offers scant comfort and no certainties.” William Skidelsky in the New Statesman described it as “one of the best attempts so far to engage with the post-9/11 world . . . Having devoted his career mainly to non-fiction, Raban is becoming one of our most insightful novelists. Surveillance is a work that confirms him as one of the most original commentators on the times in which we live.”


“Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World is brutally wise, viciously funny and at times unflinchingly cruel,” declared Lisa Hilton in the Sunday Telegraph. “The sense of connection between Shriver’s characters never flags, and this long novel is strengthened both by her capacity to evoke the plenteous smallness of everyday life and to absorb reactions to major outside events: Princess Diana’s death or 9/11.” “Shriver is a remarkably skilled explorer of a character’s interior life,” agreed Siddhartha Deb in the Telegraph, but she detected a “mismatch in the novel between its internal events, which are rendered with nuance, and its awkward signposting of larger events such as the death of Diana and the attacks of September 11, 2001 . . . Yet this is not so much a weakness in this novel as it is a symptom of how difficult it is for contemporary Western fiction to accommodate larger events.”


The New Granta Book of the American Short Story illustrates just how brightly the form is flourishing in the US,” wrote Tobias Hill in the Times. “Edited by Richard Ford, it is the latest in a distinguished sequence of similar anthologies published in the last 15 years . . . . It is striking that there has been no comparable anthology of British short stories during the same period.” Tim Martin in the Independent on Sunday called it “a laudable collection”, but noticed that the newest stories were “unmediated state-of-the-nation stuff, the badge and blazon of creative writing courses that tell you to write what you know. They’re stories with Issues – Aids, alcoholism, integration, 9/11 – and despite the multiplicity of voices, there’s a certain family resemblance between some of these machine-tooled first lines and the artful fade-outs.” “Richard Ford knows a good story when he reads one,” said Thomas Jones in the Sunday Telegraph. “But he has his prejudices. All the stories here belong to the same genre, each of them conforming more or less to the constraints of literary realism; there is nothing, for example, by one of the greatest short story writers of the second half of the 20th century, Philip K Dick.”

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