Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

A Kink in the System: Terrorism and the Comic Mystery Novel

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

A Kink in the System: Terrorism and the Comic Mystery Novel

Article excerpt

We live in fictitious times ... where we have fictitious election results that elects [sic] a fictitious president ... sending us to war for fictitious reasons.

--Michael Moore's Oscar acceptance speech

There is in our time an uncontainable rupture of the boundaries between the fictional and the real that, for many, has come to seem the dominant characteristic of public culture. While politics, as Michael Moore suggested to resounding boos at the 2003 Oscar ceremony, is one particularly visible location of that rupture, another--and one that increasingly licenses the open fictionalizing of the political--is terrorism. For both the politician and the terrorist, the goal is to recraft the collective experience of the world through the generation of a narrative that cannot be resisted. Public life has always been a network of fictions, of course; what may well be new is the nakedness with which the creation and manipulation of narrative are cheerfully displayed. Writing in the aftermath of September 11 (will it ever again be necessary to specify a year?), Don DeLillo, in his essay "In the Ruins of the Future," sees the men who destroyed the World Trade Center as reacting against "the power of American culture to penetrate every wall, home, life and mind. Terror's response is a narrative that has been developing over years, only now becoming inescapable." The polyvalent, continual babble of American narrativizing is answered, shockingly, by the singular plot of terror, which seeks to deaden and silence multiplicity: "Plots reduce the world." In this reading of the terrorist attacks DeLillo echoes Murray Jay Siskind, the eccentric intellectual of White Noise, who tells his friend Jack to deal with impending death by becoming a killer rather than a diet, by plotting a murder: "We start our lives in chaos ... To plot is to affirm life, to seek shape and control" (291-92).

While he follows Murray in interpreting the formation of narrative through violence as one means of affirming the coherent self, however, DeLillo does not go on to advocate that we ourselves become killers. Rather, his purposefully fragmented and digressive essay argues forcibly that we respond to plot with plots, that we continue to insist upon our own investment in a ceaseless variety of narrative. The very stories we tell of the disaster become the crucial basis of our survival and recovery: "There are 100,000 stories crisscrossing New York, Washington, and the world.... There are the doctors' appointments that saved lives, the cellphones that were used to report the hijackings." Tellingly, even the stories of those who invent their involvement in the attacks become significant: "This is also the counternarrative, a shadow history of false memories and imagined loss." The centerpiece of DeLillo's essay, occupying several paragraphs, is the story of how his nephew Marc and Marc's wife and children, who live a few blocks from the towers, react to the unfolding events of the day, at several points believing they are going to die but eventually reaching the safety of a shelter and resuming something like normalcy. Despite DeLillo's acknowledgement of his relationship to the characters, the story is valuable precisely because it is not remarkable, because it could be anyone's story or even an invention. What is valuable is the act of narrating itself, the refusal to be silenced in the face of the terror narrative that threatens to overwhelm all.

For DeLillo the job of the writer is thus not to create another all-encompassing narrative opposed to that of terror (as Moore implies, this is the function of the politician), but rather to insist upon a return to narrative as personal, partial, incomplete, to contribute to the limitless mosaic of plots that do not insist upon domination: "the event asserts its singularity.... The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space." This opposition to terror does not imply, however, that DeLillo simply endorses those penetrative, globalizing aspects of American culture that he has positioned the terrorists against; such a reading would place DeLillo the essayist in direct opposition to much of his own fiction. …

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