By: Hillel Italie
Ten years later, and our imaginations are still catching up to Sept. 11, 2001.
“I don’t think art can ‘compete’ with something like 9/11,” says Jess Walter, whose post 9/11 novel “The Zero” was a National Book Award finalist in 2006. “What could be sharper than our images of that day, whether we saw it in person or witnessed it on TV? Who could make a movie as vivid as the picture we get when we close our eyes — the smoking tower, the clear sky, the second jet banking toward the other tower?”
Scores of books, films and plays have narrated and analyzed the terrorist attacks, the causes, and the emotional, cultural and political effects. The responses have evolved from the quiet grief of Anne Nelson’s play “The Guys” to such international thrillers as the film “Babel” to Joseph O’Neill’s reflective novel “Netherland.” But no fictional character or invented story has forced itself into our minds like the events themselves. No movie has matched the power, and the horror, of the snufflike footage of the plane hitting the World Trade Center’s south tower, or the iconic Associated Press photograph of a man falling from the north tower.
Sept. 11 was a new way to fear. Since the days of Puritan sermons, the American mind has summoned a wrathful god, ghosts of sins past, nuclear Armageddon, Cold War spies, lone assassins and invasions from outer space. The attacks were a different kind of nightmare: plotted from thousands of miles away; masterminded not by a head of state but by an exiled fanatic and carried out not by a professional army but by a disparate band of suicidal volunteers.
Our terrors are now global, as in Salman Rushdie’s “Shalimar the Clown,” a novel about a tightrope walker-turned-killer set everywhere from California to Kashmir. In “Syriana,” starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, parallel story lines include an energy consultant in Geneva, a CIA officer in Iran and unemployed migrant workers in Pakistan. “Babel,” with a cast featuring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, joins the fates of a goat herder in the Moroccan desert to an American woman from San Diego.
“Since 9/11, there’s been this free-floating paranoia about danger coming from anywhere, anyplace,” says performance artist Karen Finley, who is reviving “Make Love,” a riff on post 9/11 New York featuring Finley as Liza Minnelli. “It brings the mind back to that stage of childhood where you’re afraid of the dark, of the monsters under your bed.”