Sunday, August 20, 2006

Fictional Terror Often Terrible

Last night at a party, a friend of mine mentioned that she was reading John Updike's new novel The Terrorist and that she was having a hard time getting through it. I read the book back in the spring and found the first 100 pages or so almost unbearable. We are both Updike fans, and as we discussed this book we tried to identify some of its problems. The biggest offenses were that the characters are stilted, the plot is painfully contrived, and it feels like it's set in 1974 even though the action takes place today. Finally, she said to me, "I feel like I'm reading a Dead White Male author trying to stay relevant."

Is Updike dead? I'd like to think he's still got some life left in him. I believe he picked an almost impossible topic and for some reason muddled through it. Perhaps he was determined to speak to the times. In the end, Updike delivers an engaging thriller that asks some difficult questions, but it has a plodding set-up where every character seems like a gritty suburban stereotype and a coincidence-laden plot. This is too much of a handicap for even a craftsman like Updike to overcome.

I don't think an author or a filmmaker can tackle 9/11 head on and produce something that seems authentic at this point. It's too soon. The images are too fresh and the politics are still being played out every day. Jonathan Saffron Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was an entertaining but highly flawed attempt to look at the human suffering of the family of a World Trade Center victim. I felt it descended into the maudlin, and the flip-pages of the man jumping off the building were gratitutious.

Perhaps the best novel I've read about living in our terror-filled post-9/11 world is Ian McEwan's Saturday. McEwan doesn't tackle the subject directly, but the threat of a dangerous world is in the fabric of the novel. From the opening pages, when the narrator Henry Perowne watches a plane descend in flames in the middle of the night from the window of his London home, until Perowne's explosive confrontation with a thug threatening his family, the tension of unexpected violence looms. McEwan isn't trying to write a novel about terrorists or victims, rather he is looking at how ordinary people are affected by the world that's been created.

Later at the same party, I ran into a University of Colorado film professor that I've known for years. We started to talk about movies, and we both espoused our admiration for the movie V for Vendetta. That was a film that really took on some issues, such as the danger of trading civil liberties for security, but seemed sadly ignored by many and not taken very seriously by most critics. He also he told me he saw The World Trade Center. I was surprised. The film looks like a hackneyed attempt to exploit the tragedy. He didn't disagree, but he was more guarded in his assessment and said he needed to see it for academic reasons. "I've got to stay current." He did tell me he thought it was too early for Hollywood to deal with 9/11 and that he couldn't bring himself to see United 93 earlier this year.

Is it too early? When will it be the right time? It is interesting to note that the most successful book about 9/11, The 9/11 Commission Report was the least artistic. In fact, it was the opposite of art. It was a transcript of government hearings and findings. Now, we have Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission. The real precedent is we might have a bestseller about the making of a government report.

Every day, artists are finding ways to incorporate what happened on 9/11 into their work. They do it by invoking the sense of loss, the sense of fear and the bewilderment we all felt on that day. Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, was perhaps the most notable artistic acheivement to tap into those sentiments. But beware to the artist or writer who tries to come at this issue too directly. We read the government report, we are all experts, and we aren't interested in cliches and stereotypes. We want authenticity.

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