There’s been a glut of 9/11 books published on the eve of this year’s 10th anniversary. But all the new-ness takes away from the rich works that have been published over the past decade dealing with the attacks. Literary have been debating what effect, if any, Sept. 11 had on books in recent days, but one of the best I’ve read is by Adam Kirsch.
He focused on Jewish writers’ novel since 9/11 and found the range of responses illuminating. In all their variety–from Philip Roth’s "The Plot Against America" (2004), which can be read as a kind of alternative history of anti-semitism in America, goaded by the increased sense of anti-semitism today, to Amy Waldman’s "The Submission" (2011), which sets up an imaginary conflict between two well-established American Jews and a feisty Muslim architect–they say little about the American Jew comprehends the Sept. 11 attacks. But they all seem to suggest that if there is one thing that Jews today sense, no matter their temperament or political sympathies, it’s that anti-semitism is a reality that is far from dead.
Most troublesome is that the response of Jews might have seemed much simpler had not the threat been itself been laced with anti-semitism. Put simply, Jews would have been first to defend the rights of American Muslims to be treated fairly had not the terrorists themselves been so easily conflated with Muslims generally, and had not the anti-semitism of Muslim extremists been so bare.
Kirsch comments on Paul Berman’s post-9/11 analysis "Terror and Liberalism" to point out the real problem of anti-semitism in radical Islamic thought. Sayyib Qutb, the founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, whose anti-semitism was of the rankest, least sophisticated kind, wrote a half-century ago: "Indeed, most evil theories which try to destroy all values and all that is sacred to mankind are advocated by Jews." Berman’s argument was that the litmus test for challenges to liberalism–the sine qua non of Western societies, and the chief enemy of Islamic radicals–was how the Jews were fairing.
Of course, this obscures the more obvious test for liberalism today: how Muslims in liberal societies are fairing. And the answer is even clearer: not good. Kirsch wisely writes on Amy Waldman’s new novel "The Submission," which centers around a thoroughly assimilated American Muslim architect, who wins in a blind contest for a fictional Sept. 11 memorial. Once the architect’s identity is discovered, the entire country goes into a furor–liberals defending him, conservatives not, but both groups with notable exceptions.
What interests Kirsch is how Waldman portrays the reactions by two of the novel’s Jewish characters. There is the memorial contest chair, Paul Rubin, a retired Wall Street liberal, who sides with the architect, albeit uncomfortably. And then there is the governor, Geraldine Bitman, a presumably Jewish figure, who gives into the bigotry and suspicions of the Islam alarmists. Kirsch asks the critical question posed by Waldman’s novel: if the architect is sacked, "is that progress for Jews?" Adding, "Bitman says yes, and she is happy to make common cause with this lumpen-American; Rubin unable to deny his cultural and personal affinity with Khan. In this way, ‘The Submission’ can be read as another exercise, or exorcism, of post-Sept. 11 anxiety about the Jews’ place in America—its reliability and its price."
It’s worth noting how Kirsch’s essay on Jewish responses jibes with two other notable essays on post-9/11 culture. The New York Times’ chief book critic, Michiko Kakutani, argued a couple of weeks ago that, in fact, not much has changed in the way writers’ have responded to 9/11. There’s been a glut of books about or in some way reflecting the attacks, but no identifiable style, and certainly no definitive work of fiction, has emerged in the past decade.
That’s not to say a few wonderful books haven’t been written, but that, if you take away the planes crashing and substitute them with any other national tragedy, you could easily imagine a similar mood conveyed. In addition, all the hallmarks of our irony-obsessed post-modern temperament remain–as sharp and often shallow as it was before the attacks.
In contrast, Ruth Franklin, in the current New Republic, argues that all our post-9/11 novels do share something similar, and distinct. It’s the turn inward, by which she means that novels dealing with the post-9/11 world all focus in one way or another on America’s internal divisions, its fault lines–in a word, it’s own internal problems. There’s great irony in this: even as America’s image has loomed large in the all corners of the world, especially since the attacks, our writers seem most interested in assessing what the effects are to us at home. This is exactly the opposite of what so much writing before mid-century did–assess America’s place in the world. That was a theme that ran through works whether by Hemingway or Henry James.