Thinking About The Role of Terrorism in Fiction

September 13th, 2005 · 1 Comment
by Booksquare

In the past weeks, an editor and an agent have suggested that they’re not looking for the terrorist novel, the classic “someone goes into a crowd and blows stuff up” sort of thing. While some took an expanded view of this idea, we, perversely, took it quite literally. We presumed that these publishing professionals were seeking subtlety and depth. Please understand that we’re not being flippant when we say that blowing up stuff is easy — it’s getting to the point where you’re willing to do so that is hard.

We’ve thought a lot about this idea since we first noted it. In a bit of convenient timing, another article exploring this very issue allows us to move forward in our thinking (not conclude, just forward). Benjamin Kunkel starts his exploration of terrorism and literature with the observation that novel time is far slower than real time:

Once it became possible to think about books again, there was no doubting that the American novel was bound to be altered as well. But we would have to wait to see how. The novel registers historical change profoundly but not swiftly, for the simple reason that it usually takes several years to conceive, write, revise and publish a book. In terms of literary history, it’s only now that the period before 9/11 is drawing to a close.

He suggests that our pre-9/11 worldview was less nuanced. The threat was not well-defined in our collective conscious and fictional representations of evil reflected our sense of security against the idea that something was out there:

The fact that even a jihadist in a pre-9/11 novel [Jennifer Egan’s “Look at Me,”] is fundamentally American tells us, first, that there isn’t much point in combing recent fiction for clues to the psychology of the young men behind the attacks on New York, Madrid and London. Yukio Mishima’s great “Runaway Horses” (1973) probably has more to say by implication about Al Qaeda than any novel an American has written — and even so, when we encounter its young assassins fanatically concerned with religious purity and choked with hatred for the Western modernity grafted onto their old Japanese culture, we can only tally resemblances to what we already know. In America, the terrorist novel has dealt mostly with imaginary political sects or with the gun-happy dregs of the domestic New Left, who for all their snarling communiques killed only a handful of people, and that 20 and 30 years ago.

To understand terrorism is to understand the human mind. Vaguery is not a luxury novelists can indulge — unless that vaguery is part of a larger satire about the American mindset — in today’s world, for that it has been a staple of mass market fiction this past decade or so. For novelists, this takes time. One doesn’t just sit down and write a book that brings the notions of terrorism and society into focus. This is a topic that must be attacked and explored from a variety of angles. This requires novelists to address their own politics from various angles as well:

For the problem of radical politics in America sends another stream of ambivalence through the recent terrorist novel. None of the relevant authors could be called anything like pro-terrorist. And yet in each case the author gave the impression of sharing John Brown’s hatred of slavery, or the Weather Underground’s opinion of the Vietnam War, or the Phantom of Liberty’s alienation from Reagan’s “moronic, chest-pounding Americanism,” or, for that matter, the Quebecois terrorist’s convinced opposition to ONAN’s Limbaugh-Kemp administration.

Which gets us back to the nuances of the subject:

The great difference is that Dostoyevsky and Conrad deplored the causes as well as the tactics of their assassins and vandals. Our terrorist novels have usually sympathized with the left-wing domestic terrorist’s complaint, however irretrievably mixed up with family romance and social maladaption. You can feel the identification and even admiration coursing alongside the disdain.

Kunkel concludes, quite rightly, that the exploration of terrorism won’t end. That isn’t what editors and agents are saying they want, either. What is gone is the sense that the action defines the ideology. That the reaction is more violence. That terrorism is a monolithic thing. Whether you understand it or not, are ready to hear it or not, there are voices trying to be heard. From a fictional perspective, their success or failure to communicate is in the skill of the author.

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1 response so far ↓

  • mapletree7 // Sep 13, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    I’d like to see an exploration of terrorism in the 20th century, PRE 9/11. After all, World War I was started by an anarchist with a bomb.