Sunday, September 11, 2011

Literary Vacuum: 9/11 and Art

This article is part of an on-going series intended to clarify and expand upon elements of the dystopian novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism and its sequel Hemegohm’s Tendril.

The novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism was published on March 24th, 2001. Here's a small excerpt (from page 370):
Another cloud of fire erupted and seconds later the explosive sound reached them, thundering past. The ground trembled slightly and a secondary blast shook the city. Jakren’s mouth was hanging wide and Horim, crossing his arms, smiled thinly. Lorick became frantic, urging the Children to pray—to kneel and pray, kneel and pray.
The tallest spire, at the center of the City, collapsed spectacularly.
Wern, wiping his face, had moved next to Horim.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Fucking great,” said Horim, disgusted, his head shaking. “Just fucking great.”
Jakren heard Horim’s words but he couldn’t react. His eyes were drawn to another fiery blast. The City’s center was in flames and smaller explosions were erupting outwards. He tried to rationalize why his faith would be tested in such a way; why the City of a Thousand Faiths—his goal, his mission, his object of faith—would be taken away the moment it was won. His thoughts brought him little and he recalled his vision—an angry Didrio, a disgusted Chearkin. He thought of consulting the Analecta, to dig his failure out of it, but his eyes now watched the destruction with a morbid fascination; he found he could not move.
The City was splintered by another blast, rife with finality; Jakren’s hopes—the few that remained—dissipated in unison with its cloud of fire.
I remember thinking that the Too Soon rule would apply to 9/11 for a long time. We wouldn't be able to crack jokes about it for years, if not decades. Not that anyone would want to. But jokes are inherently creative, aren't they? They're filters. Jokes generate new perspectives on ideas or events that otherwise wouldn't naturally arise in the populace, so they do have value.
Speaking of jokes, on 9/11/01, I was out of work. In April of that year, I'd been laid off during the crash, which had hit Austin, TX pretty hard. I had only just arrived there when less than a year later I was heading back to Phoenix. That was fine, however. A stroke of luck, in a way. Before my unceremonious removal, I had discovered that the CEO of the company I worked for was a truly delusional religious fanatic, who often diverted company funds to smuggle Bibles into China. He was very concerned when news of my novel's publication came to his attention. I was brought to his office for a one-on-one, which was odd to say the least, considering I was just the graphics/Web design guy. It became pretty obvious to me that he was nuts, so I let him have it (and by that I mean I was honest and pulled no punches when it came to my views on religion). The crash was likely the perfect cover for him to press the eject button on my cube (disclosure: no 9/11 post would be complete without a conspiracy theory).
So I parachuted back to Phoenix. I found a decent apartment and got on with my life. Each morning, throughout the summer, I'd wake up, listen to some NPR, and then scour the internet for a job. On 9/11, however, NPR had changed. The tone was new, chilling—quite unlike anything I'd ever heard on the radio in my lifetime.
I couldn't afford television. Not even basic cable. So all I had was the radio. I sat in my dim apartment and listened. And I noticed something strange going on in the corner, by the door. My novel had been published in March, 2001. The initial batch was over there, stacked against the wall, but in two piles of equal height. Two small towers of books, focused on religious fanaticism in the year 2167.
The passage at the top of this post—and so many others throughout the novel—haunted me. They made it difficult to market the work, since at its heart, the novel was a satire. It was just one big long joke. A monumental reductio ad absurdum. I had broken the Too Soon rule by way of a literary causality violation.
I've always been personally opposed to religion in all its forms, but I wondered where the idea of attacking the financial center of a city had come from in my novel. Had it been the WTC bombing in 1993 that had planted the seed? That was my first interpretation. Had an unconscious thought process deconstructed that event? Secretly wondered why it had failed, thus generating the aerial attack scenario? Or was such a scenario simply a natural outgrowth of an imagined future where military hardware was freely available to protagonists and antagonists alike?
The narrative in the novel had been impacted by real-world events before. In 1993, ironically, the original ending of the novel had to be thrown out—not because of the WTC attack—but because of what happened in Waco, TX with David Koresh and his followers. Reality had run away with that ending, more or less, and I had to jettison the last third of the book (Simon Shadow and his few remaining followers had barricaded themselves within the Shimmerite Temple, surrounded by UGMC forces; a sudden attack by the Unholy Mass complicated and confused the situation, resulting in a massive firestorm). So perhaps it was fitting that I beat 9/11's religious fanatics to the punch. More or less, again. And though it may seem like less, the build-up to that moment on page 370 had been in play since the first page of the novel.
The end result, however, was that the book just wasn't good enough to find its way in a post-9/11 world. It generated no new insights. Or if it did, they remained mostly invisible. The satire was diluted and destroyed by the true reality of our world, yet I'm not sure this kind of victimization has any right to be displayed. It's Too Soon, after all. But 9/11 affected Art, and I'm not sure we even know how deeply. Regardless, the only way to truly process 9/11 is through art, and it is happening all around us. The 9/11 Memorial is such an expression. But the processing has been happening all along, since the morning of 9/12/01, in fact.
Religious fanatics attacked the twin towers of the World Trade Center, but they hit us in so many other smaller ways, too. Those two stacks of books against my wall, for instance. That evening I slowly dismantled that scene and created a small wide square of books in the corner. My little cat Inchworm jumped within the space immediately, and she played in and around the structure for months to come, chasing toy mice, as I slowly gave away copies of the work; it had become an impossible sell: "A novel about religious fanatics? Already? As if I'm in the mood for that!"
Is there a point to all of this? Probably not. The trials and tribulations of a novel lost in a literary vacuum aren't very interesting. But 9/11 was an attack on human expression on multiple levels, so rather than let these memories fade and die, I figured I'd leave them here, probably Too Soon.
One decade down.
Many more to go.