Saturday, June 23, 2007

Writing off the disaster

What surprised me about Falling Man was how unperturbed it is; so sure and quiet about the form it takes to deal with its shattering subject matter. There are sentences like "He heard the sound of the second fall, or felt it in the trembling air", "There were flames in elevator shafts", "She knew what this sounded like" and "On these nights it seemed to her that they were falling out of the world". The author somehow manages to deal with what shatters everything except, it seems, his own omnipotence. The experience of reading Falling Man reminded me of another book I read over 15 years ago and forgot immediately: Mao II. It's as if the careers of our career novelists depend on a ritual. A ritual not of artistic advancement - in which moving forward is as much a destruction, an abandonment as it is progress - but of maintaining an illusion. The novel itself remains untouched.

I suppose one can't blame writers for churning these books out when they are rewarded so well for such maintenance. Still, I couldn't believe it when I heard Orange Prize winner Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel Half of a Yellow Sun being favourably compared to a 19th Century novel. Long ago VS Naipaul said it would be absurd for, say, a Papua New Guinean writer to produce novels like Middlemarch, and recently Jeanette Winterson said "We should read Victorian novels, but we shouldn't write them". Will the reasons for these statements ever trickle down or is nostalgia for a brief aberration in the history of the novel going to dominate English fiction for yet another generation?

But going back to Falling Man. With the market apparently hungry for post-9/11 novels, I wonder if anyone has considered writing a novel based on an attempt to understand what polite literary society has up until now managed not to fictionalise: the crimes of our governments, media and corporations? Rather than yet another earnest, self-pitying depiction of middle-class angst in London and New York with, perhaps, a nose-holding inhabitation of an Islamic suicide bomber thrown in, there might be a gap for a "major" novel about our relation to hidden lives, the lives of people for whom 9/11 is not an event about which to fetishise and to conspiratorialise, but part of a disastrous historical continuum. If that writer needs help, here's an archive of material to provide some inspiration.

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