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Novel Terrors

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Photo by Rak’s passion boy.

As we put together the print and online editions of Ten Years Later, we’ve come across an almost overwhelming variety of perspectives on 9/11 and the decade that followed. At times it seemed to me that across all arts and literature on every continent, we’re grappling with what it means to live in a post-9/11 world. Yet during our launch events and in discussions surrounding the ten-year memorial, I kept hearing the opposite view: we’re still waiting for a significant literary work about that day.

The complaint has been repeated so often that it’s virtually becoming a genre in itself. On every anniversary, in reviews of any book that takes on the terrorist attacks, commentators rehash the ‘9/11 syllabus’ (as the Daily Beast calls it) and tell us that it’s lacking.

Much of this talk has been directed towards novels. In 2005, Meghan O’Rourke wrote a piece in Slate about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that remarked: ‘You don't have to be a philistine to wonder who would want to read something made up about a day whose murky real-life implications we’re still coming to grips with.’ In 2007, USA Today reported that the non-fiction about the attacks far upstaged and outnumbered theOn the one hand, we depend on the novel to be comprehensive; we entrust it to mirror the whole of reality. On the other hand, we dismiss it as frivolous – something made up. fiction (1,036 to 30). Even as the years passed and the novels piled up, journalists and reviewers were unconvinced. Well, yes, here was a serious work that successfully takes on 9/11, they admitted about Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist or Ian McEwan’s Saturday. But it wasn’t the 9/11 novel. Dwight Gardner, in his New York Times Book Review article on Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, wrote that he’s looking for a ‘bracing, wide-screen, many-angled novel that will leave a larger, more definitive intellectual and moral footprint on the new age of terror’.

All this grumbling, I think, points to a simultaneous belief and doubt about what a novel can achieve. On the one hand, we depend on the novel to be comprehensive; we entrust it to mirror the whole of reality. On the other hand, we dismiss it as frivolous – something made up. Ten years on, it’s hard to know exactly what we’re looking for in the 9/11 novel. It’s hard to believe that such a thing will ever exist.

Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated book – a three-volume, 1000-plus-page surrealistic thriller and love story set it an alternate version of Japan in the year 1984 – will soon see its much-hyped release in the US and the UK. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 takes place far from the Twin Towers and has nothing to do with al-Qaeda. But it does tell us something about the processing of national trauma.

1Q84 is composed of motifs that any devoted Murakami reader will recognize. As in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, Sputnik Sweetheart and many of his other books, it begins with willfully independent but alienated characters leading somewhat stunted lives: in this case, fitness instructor/part-time assassin Aomame and maths teacher/would-be novelist Tengo. As is the fate of most Murakami characters, both stumble across portals to a parallel world, into which they descend to confront darkness and unspeakable violence.

What makes the new novel different from his previous work is that the centre of this dark underworld is a religious cult called Sakigake. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 takes place far from the Twin Towers and has nothing to do with al-Qaeda. But it does tell us something about the processing of national trauma. The cult starts off a peaceful agrarian commune, whose members only seek an alternative to the capitalistic grind. Somewhere along the way, though, Aomame and Tengo find themselves in a parallel world, unleashing evil from within Sakigake. Aomame becomes involved in a life-threatening assignment involving the cult’s leader. Tengo lets an editor talk him into ghost-writing a story dreamed up by the leader’s runaway teenage daughter which exposes the group’s secrets and sends its members to silence him.

Murakami’s portrayal of Sakigake is far from realistic: among the strange phenomena he constructs around their world are tiny dwarf-like beings called Little People, cocoons made out of air, doppelgangers and an annoying, creepy ghost in the guise of a TV-subscription-fee collector. Still, it’s impossible to read any account of a dangerous cult in twentieth-century Japan without thinking of the real-life religious group Aum Shinrikyo.

In 1995, members of Aum Shinrikyo carried out a coordinated attack on the Tokyo subway system, releasing the poisonous gas sarin on five different train cars at the height of morning rush hour. They killed thirteen people and injured thousands of others. It was the deadliest incident aside from natural disaster that Japan had seen since the end of World War II, and – this should sound familiar – an act of terrorism that destroyed the country’s sense of itself as a safe and orderly society.

We know that the attacks loom large in Murakami’s mind, because he already wrote a book about it. Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche was one of his first works of non-fiction, a compilation of interviews he conducted with victims of the attacks. (It was published in Japan in 1997 In this book, as in most of Murakami’s fiction, violence and genius and terror and mysticism reside in equal parts in the so-called heroes and so-called villains. It wells up and pervades us. We swim in it. and in English in 2000.) In the preface to the volume, he explains that he wrote it to counteract the Japanese media’s ‘slick, seductive narrative’ that focused on the Aum cult perpetrators and relied on ‘. . . the classic dichotomy of “ugly (visible) villains” versus “healthy (faceless) populace”’. The book is Murakami’s attempt to give each victim a face by filling in details of his interviewees’ background, home and working life, commute and routine before turning to their whereabouts and actions on the day of the incident as well as their situation and world-view in its aftermath. Despite, or rather because of its lack of judgment or conclusion, it’s a devastating read.

It would be nice, at this point, for me to be able to declare 1Q84 an answer to Underground – that if Underground cracks open the media’s slick narrative, 1Q84 puts it back together, as a coherent ‘wide-screen, many-angled’ story. And it would be comforting to imagine something similar in store for us and our own terrorist nightmare: that after years of probing past headlines, gathering the evidence, thousands of books filled with facts and questions, a novel would come along that made sense of it all and that marked some step forward in our collective healing process.

The truth, of course, is messier. 1Q84 doesn’t heal anything or ‘make sense’ of a terrorist attack. In fact, it doesn’t even mention terrorism. The book made me think about Aum Shinrikyo, and my guess is that Murakami has been thinking about it, too. But his new novel hasn’t clarified my thinking; it’s only made me feel more unsettled. In this book, as in most of Murakami’s fiction, violence and genius and terror and mysticism reside in equal parts in the so-called heroes and so-called villains. It wells up and pervades us. We swim in it.

The only thing 1Q84 can really tell us about the processing of national trauma is that there is no model and no timeline for it, that no literary package will deliver it to us. While we line up to buy this latest hotly-tipped release, as we hang around longing for a 9/11 novel to save us, it’s good to be reminded that we don’t go to literature for something. It can be said of novels in particular that they only give us something insofar as they owe us nothing. ■

1Q84 will be published in the UK on 18 October by Harvill Secker, and in the US on 25 October by Knopf.

Comments (65)

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  1. Ollie

    Fri Oct 14 16:56:02 BST 2011

    Nice piece, and you're dead right about novels not owing us anything - sometimes they're talked about as though they're a politician who owes us an explanation/apology/key to understanding.

    I haven't read this, but it sounds very interesting: http://www.newspanishbooks.com/read-report/el-mapa-de-la-vida - the story about a relationship that arises out of the Madrid attacks in 2004. A man and woman, both injured in the bombings, leave previous relationships that have come under strain to pursue a life together.

    It's presumably too early for any fiction based on the Mumbai attacks (?), but perhaps that represents the next challenge to writers.

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    I wonder might the problem be that the efforts of public, press and politicians to interpret the events of 9/11 and its consequences into some world-shakingly important event has been almost excessively successful, and now no right-minded writer could hope to tackle the subject; it's too big to write it up to the level that people expect of it and write it well, and it would seem callously satirical to try to cut it down to size. Perhaps the situation defies the subtlety necessary for great writing? Just a thought.

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