[READ: September 24, 2001 & May 9, 2011] Talk of the Town
After 9/11, I read everything about the incident (like the multiple comics that came out). About a week after 9/11 my friend Al and I went down to Hoboken and absorbed the decay (and I can’t help but wonder if that’s why I’ve developed adult asthma). My 9/11 story is no more compelling than anyone else’s and may even be far less compelling (you can read a snippet at Al’s blog, should you care to). Anyhow, when this issue of The New Yorker came out (with the amazing cover that you can’t really see here–the towers are in a shiny black that reflects the light), I read all of these accounts and recollections.
I came upon them again recently when I was doing a New Yorker search for Jonathan Franzen. I recently read all of his New Yorker entries, but when I saw that he had one that was part of this 9/11 issue, I decided to put it off. It was reasonably close to the ten-year anniversary of 9/11, and I told myself I’d wait until then to reread and see what I thought.
And then President Obama gave the order to capture and kill Osama bin Laden (hooray!) and that seemed like a far more propitious reason to go back and re-read these articles. Now I can feel a bit lighter about the whole thing (just a bit, but a bit can be a lot). And so, here’s a somewhat facile reaction to these reactions.
I’ll preface by saying I can’t imagine what it must have been like to write something, anything at that time. Some people respond well to pressure and tragedy and perhaps that’s what happened here. I can’t help but wonder how paralyzing it must have been for other writers (as it was for most people). So that these writers had the wherewithal to write anything coherent is pretty amazing. And the fact that the could express the range of emotions that they do is extraordinary.
And I hate to tout David Foster Wallace (again) since he is not one of this group of writers, but none of these essays compares to his excellent “A View from Mrs Thompson’s” that he wrote for Rolling Stone (and which appears in Consider the Lobster–I’ll actually be talking about the essay & the rest of CtL in the not too distant future). True his piece is far longer and much more detailed, but it was also written soon after 9/11. Yet despite this: ”Caveat: Written very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock,” his article is thoughtful and very moving. True also, he was in Indiana and not New York as many of these writers were, but I wanted to give a nod to some well-considered thoughts about a horrifying subject.
Anyhow, these essays are mostly a half a page each. And reading them again now, I was amazed at the diversity of thoughts that these writers present and (again) at the coherence with which they say them. It’s also interesting to see some things that link the essays: people’s observations about how blue the sky was. Indeed, in this week’s New Yorker (May 16, 2011), the one that discusses bin Laden’s death, David Remnick’s first article opens with:
The weather on the morning of Sunday, May 1st, was a springtime glory: crisp, sunny, infinite blue skies––the sort of conditions that pilots call “severe clear.” Such a morning comes along so infrequently that, especially if you were walking along Vesey or Church Streets, past the startling emptiness of the construction site still known as Ground Zero, the perfection might have evoked memories of the worst day in the history of the city—the morning nearly ten years ago, equally bright, equally cool, when the suicidal fanatics of Osama bin Laden’s army steered jets into the Twin Towers, and left thousands to die under smoldering glass and steel.
Of course, I can recall thinking the exact same thing about the sky (as pretty much everyone does). It was a cloudless sky, a beautiful blue sky and, as Updike reminds us, by the time the towers fell there were no other planes in the air, so there weren’t even jet trails. Another theme is of America becoming part of the world, attacked like everyone else. And then of course, is the anger.
Updike was visiting relatives in Brooklyn Heights and watched as the first tower collapsed. The major impact of this essay: “We knew we had just witnessed thousands of deaths; we clung to each other as if we ourselves were falling.” The final thought, though was that on the next morning: “The fresh sun shone on the eastward facades, a few boats tentatively moved in the river, the ruins were still sending out smoke, but New York looked glorious.”
Franzen opens with a recurring (since before 9/11) nightmare in which he himself is flying a plane into a building (!). He also has the most human reaction as well: “you might have felt a childish disappointment over the disruption of your day, or a selfish worry about the impact of your finances, or admiration for an attack so brilliantly conceived and so flawlessly executed.” And then his imagination goes inside the plane, to the people on board and what they experienced before their lives ended in a fiery crash. His final thought: “The problem of the new world…will be to reassert the ordinary, the trivial…; to mourn the dead and then try to awaken to our small humanities and our pleasurable daily nothing-much.”
Johnson opens by discussing his reporting from war-torn countries. He talks about how wherever he went, the citizens were always nice to him because he was American. Even though, everyone knows that some people have always hated America, on a personal level that never seemed to be the case. Johnson was visiting New York on 9/11. But he tries to put the attacks in perspective (a daring thing given the country’s mood): “I have now seen two days of war in the biggest city in America. But imagine a succession of such days stretching into years…. Imagine the people who have already seen years like these turn into decades.”
Angell remembers back to another horrific tragedy he has experienced and compares 9/11 to the death of Bobby Kennedy. But his essay is tinged with”survivor’s spasm” “something is happening and I’m still here.” Then he mentions the divide that the death of Kennedy had opened–an age divide–between those who remember and those who don’t. But now, this new tragedy makes us all the same age, together.
Appelfeld writes in Hebrew from Jerusalem. Mostly he writes about events in Jerusalem, but he ends with the weary knowledge that America is like a father figure to Israelis. And now the loving father is united in grief over “the evil that refuses to disappear from the world.”
Mead takes a fascinating angle: that the saw horses that blocked off lower Manhattan are kind of like the velvet ropes that keep people out of clubs–unless you could present ID proving you belonged there, you were excluded. She also looks at different sections of Downtown and how they reacted (in part of the West Village rollerbladers and drag queens cheered rescue vehicles). And how although a part of her loved that lower Manhattan was no longer snarled with shoppers and the bridge and tunnel crowd, she wished to heaven they had never gone away. [In retrospect this one seems the most flippant of the essays, and I wonder if she regrets that].
Sontag’s is the most aggressive and angry letter. And her anger is directed not at bin Laden but at the Bush administration. She criticizes the administrations’ immediate post-9/11 campaign to infantilize the public: that our leaders were bent on convincing us that everything is OK.
She even says the line that got Bill Maher is so much trouble some time later:
And if the word cowardly is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.”
She complains that President Bush reiterates that our country is strong: “I don’t find this entirely consoling. Who doubts that America is strong. But that’s not all America has to be.”
This is the most personal and therefore the saddest of essays. Ghosh knows a woman who survived the collapse of the towers. She and her husband were in the first tower, likely the floor below where the plane hit. Her husband was instrumental in the safety check of the building and he was confident in the structure’s strength and ability to withstand a disaster. After the plane hit, (and Ghosh is able to recount in amazing detail what happened to her because she was actually there). he ensured that his wife got to safety. And then he went back to help others. As of this writing she hadn’t heard from him. It’s devastating even ten years later.
Antrim was in Salzburg when it happened. He turned on the TV and watched. And mostly he was amazed at how the people in Salzburg were worried for him, making sure that he was okay, even while he was thousands of miles away. He felt helpless and somewhat angry that he was so safe while others he knew were in danger.
He decided to go for a ride in Vienna, which was largely destroyed during the War and he now wonders, almost conversely of what European papers had written (that they were all Americans) if the United States was now “a part of the rest of the world.”