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On the Post-9/11 American Novel
Charles Vandersee

Dear Editor:

Two days before Christmas, on December 23, he was shot with a rifle, twice in the lower back, and paralyzed for life. Bud Ripplemeyer is a small-town banker, fifty-three years old, lately divorced and now living with his new woman, originally from the Indian state of Punjab, on the Pakistan border.

She, Jane, age twenty-four, should have saved him. She realizes in retrospect that Bud’s former wife, Karin, “would have read the signals.” When Harlan, a local farmer, came to the front door, speaking “very quietly,” with “flat affect,” Jane did see the rifle under his coat. Harlan commands Bud to go with him for a drive, and Bud manages to whisper to Jane (who’s putting presents under the tree) to phone the sheriff: “He’s going to shoot me.” But she didn’t catch it, and later wonders: “Is it the wife’s job to sort out possible assassins?”

This takes place in Iowa, in the late 1980s, when times are hard. Bud is a “good Lutheran,” who ironically has been introduced to Jane by his own do-good mother, wanting him to give Jane a job. Harlan, in debt like many Iowa farmers, is a seriously “disturbed” man, “who saw himself betrayed by his banker.”

The story would seem to say that even in the US anything now can happen, even to mild Protestants. A pious parent can inadvertently collapse her son’s marriage, and a desperate man can become dangerous, even to a lifelong friend. Predictably, Harlan after firing two shots “blew his own head off.”

Because of certain other elements in the story, what we seem to have here is one of the first American post-9/11 novels, Jasmine, by Bharati Mukherjee, published in 1989. Certain of its aspects indicate that this novel would have been conceived only after 9/11—after the September 11 catastrophe, 2001—incorporating the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and rural Pennsylvania into certain desolating Asian and Middle Eastern intransigences. A novel depicting Americans now feeling differently about themselves, vulnerable.

Jane (a.k.a. Jyoti and Jasmine) has briefly had one previous husband, before the one she takes away from Karin Ripplemeyer in Iowa. This first husband in Punjab, Prakash, was “a modern man, a city man,” not a religious or political fundamentalist. But the region harbors dangerously premodern people. “What I liked was hearing the men talk,” Jane recalls. “Their talk was always about vengeful, catastrophic politics.” Before she and Prakash can leave for their planned new life in the US, they go shopping one day, and he is killed by a bomb thrown through the shop door, meant for her.

Here are examples of the talk that she liked. Sukhwinder, who has lately visited “Sant Bhindranwale in the Golden Temple,” is a man Jane characterizes as “the leader of all the fanatics.” Sukhwinder argues that “[t]he Khalsa, the Pure-Bodied and the Pure-Hearted, must have their sovereign state, Khalistan, the land of the Pure. The Impure must be eliminated.” “Hindus,” he goes on, “are bent on genocide of the Sikh nation. Only Pakistan protects us.”

Prakash rejects this, and historicizes, but all these intricate local details won’t register with us, American readers: “Sukkhi, there’s no Hindu state! There’s no Sikh state! India is for everyone. Have you forgotten what the Muslims did to Sikhs in Partition? What the Moghuls did to your own Ten Gurus? Have you forgotten what Emperor Aurangzeb did, what Emperor Jehangir did?” Only Aureng-Zebe might be vaguely familiar here, once recognized by English literature graduate students as title and subject of a play (1675) by John Dryden. The curriculum then was perhaps more multicultural than now.

Sukkhi responds with “peevishness,” and rabidly attempts to define these Moghuls. More Asian arcana, not to be understood by Americans but to display what a “fanatic” sounds like:

They were Afghan slaves, not true Pakistanis. True Pakistanis are Punjabis, like us. If they were cruel to Sikhs, it’s because of Hindu influence on them. Many of them had Hindu mothers and Hindu concubines who taught them to kill Sikhs. Pakistanis were Hindus who saw the light of the true God and converted. So were Sikhs. Only bloodsucker banyas and untouchable monkeys remained Hindu.

This is an American novel, set mostly in Iowa but also in Florida and New York City. Mukherjee, one of our most prominent living novelists, is a naturalized US citizen. Arcane Asian contestations are not supposed to be grasped by American readers, any more than readers have to figure out the papal wars of the 1860s, in Henry James’s novel The American. There a young Frenchman has received an “apostolic flesh-wound” and spent three years on guard duty at the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. Nor, in Henry Roth’s novel Call It Sleep, do you agonize over the passages from Hebrew scriptures and sacred rituals.

The point is that a post-9/11 American novel will likely be opaque in places, since it feels compelled to notice more of the globe, but passions around the globe are too numerous and mysterious for Americans. Memoirs and documentary films, autobiographies and histories—these genres will focus squarely on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon and explore what an acquaintance here in Dogwood has been calling “Muslimism.” They will admirably offer new analyses and insights. Novels, by contrast, often work with indirection. The post-9/11 novel will probably provide enigmatic information about strife in and among other cultures, but only enough to induce a mood of curiosity: What actions follow the talk of fanatics?

Why, for example, was the bomb intended for Jyoti? Because she and her husband are out shopping, to get her a new and elegant sari. It will be an emblem of their recent marriage, which itself is emblematic of the “real life we wanted, needed, to live,” exempt from pre-modern restrictions. But the combative voice of Sukkhi, a religious/cultural fundamentalist, has announced his own emblem system, calling “all Hindu women whores, all Hindu men rapists.” The sari “is the sign of the prostitute,” and of course foulness must be extirpated. Hence it is, Sukkhi, who throws the fatal bomb, ideology annihilating friendship.

There will surely be post-9/11 thrillers and suspense novels, with chapter after researched chapter set in the training-and-discipline camps run or franchised by Osama bin Laden. But with Jasmine we consider the serious and ambitious life-as-we-live-it novel—the enduring writing sought by Emerson in his famous “American Scholar” address of 1837, soon called the US Declaration of Intellectual Independence: “What would we really know the meaning of? The meal in the firkin; the milk in the pan; the ballad in the street; the news of the boat; the glance of the eye; the form and gait of the body.” Here’s gait: Jyoti on arriving illegally in the US is rescued by a shrewd Quaker woman in Florida and taught how to walk without being conspicuous. “Walk American, she exhorted me, and she showed me how.... Within a week she said I’d lost my shy sidle.”

In this post-9/11 “life-as-we-live-it” novel, the underlying question, possibly unvoiced in the text but absorbing both novelist and reader, will be something like this: How much normal life—walking, eating, watching, loving—can still be lived in the US, now under the sign of vulnerability, some weird new astrology, threatening daily danger in multiple forms? That is, assault technological, biological, nuclear, spiritual, and rhetorical.

It can be suggested, of course, though not argued conclusively, that life-as-we-live-it has been different in the US and worldwide since an earlier date, 1945. Then, a more primitive aircraft, the Enola Gay, but again two conspicuous targets, that time Japanese cities. Since that time a new fact gradually discerned: A bomb of the nuclear type can land anywhere, pulverizing thousands of bodies.

So, as plausible consequence, why should humans not yield to this new pressure? That is, there may be, since 1945, a new psychological implant in the human creature, sending a persistent message. This message says that the world may not long survive. Or, you in it may be suddenly shredded, so don’t resist temptation. If you feel like coveting, overeating, ideologizing, or finding a better “relationship” than the one you committed to, maybe you should go ahead: Shop, glut, harangue, hook up. Or is this just age-old carpe diem rationalizing, having little to do with 1945, or with the mistakenly demonized 1960s, which was when that implant probably started taking massive effect?

A particular strength and complication of the novel Jasmine is a protagonist bearing up under un-American misery. Will such extremity now become normal, marking the American post-9/11 cast of characters? Compared to much of the rest of the world, America’s quota of misery has been minimal, since recovery from the Civil War. But Jyoti, besides seeing her young husband assassinated, has been brutally and cynically raped in Florida as she struggles ashore, an alien especially vulnerable because undocumented. Soon she narrowly escapes assassination again, in New York, from a “dark-skinned hotdog vendor” near 96th Street and Riverside Drive, who is none other than the still-vengeful Sukkhi.

Since these instances seem to place Jasmine under the sign of vulnerability, is it any wonder she’s a carpist for every good diem? Instead of resisting the smitten Bud Ripplemeyer, she encourages him, despite awareness of the pain inflicted on his wife. Yet once she takes him (or vice versa), she refuses his pleas to marry. Bud’s former wife tells Jane to her face that she’s a “tornado”—that distinctive American phenomenon—“leaving a path of destruction behind you.” Maybe this me-first Jane is the quintessential American of the post-9/11 novel: not only ever-vulnerable but implanted with the capacity to suppress misery and narcissistically move on. “In America, nothing lasts,” Jasmine observes. How about that for a new post-9/11 stoicism, or rationalization? Here are her next two sentences, surely conceivable only in a post-9/11 novel: “We arrive [in the US] so eager to learn, to adjust, to participate, only to find the monuments are plastic, agreements are annulled. Nothing is forever, nothing is so terrible, or so wonderful, that it won’t disintegrate.”

What about New York City in the post-9/11 novel? How does any novel even partially set in the Bruised Apple now situate itself in relation to the disintegrated Twin Towers? Jasmine’s two and a half years in New York are divided between Queens and the upper West Side of Manhattan. In Queens (Flushing, to be precise) is the India ghetto, where uneasy immigrants rent Indian films, eat native foods, and crowd together in apartments to save money. City icons such as towers, bridges, fashionable shops, and parks are outside their constricted milieu. Their lives implode rather than expand. New York is merely “an archipelago of ghettos seething with aliens.”

Only when Jasmine goes to work as au pair for an academic/professional couple near Columbia University does the novel’s purview enlarge. More of New York becomes visible. Not the World Trade Center, but a ration of other icons: Riverside Church, Park Avenue, and Broadway.

So finally one wonders if the serious (­non-formulaic) post-9/11 American novel is destined to incorporate some or all of the following characteristics: Newly global in purview, but acknowledging only by quick brushstrokes the inconceivable complexity of non-American cultures and politics and passions. Rife with erasures of icons that now have traumatically inscribed themselves on American readers in previously unimagined ways. Driven by characters taking narcissism to previously inconceivable lengths. Collectively, here would be something new in fiction, though parts of the Don DeLillo oeuvre could be called post-9/11. Expect a sort of previously unimagined wonder, somewhat disingenuous, that people and buildings, and usable firkins and pans, still exist.

Here’s wonder of another kind: Bud and Jane in Iowa have adopted a teenage Vietnamese refugee with astonishing talents in “recombinant electronics”—actual creativity (not just improvising) by putting parts of one gadget with parts of another, to form something new. Jasmine is both friend and mother to him, and has studied circuitry; one day when they do some soldering she confesses that she once killed a man (her Florida rapist). “There’s nothing in this world that’s too terrible.” Du Thien, who “has seen his country, city, and family butchered, bargained with pirates and bureaucrats, eaten filth in order to stay alive,” replies that he too has killed. “More than one.”

Here’s no wonder since 9/11: probable waning of the unsturdy American novelistic plot of mere relationships. It now looks plastic, and there’s still a vestige of it in Jasmine. As au pair in New York, she has fallen in love with Taylor Hayes. He and his wife Wylie both come from “traditional American families,” in upstate New York and Maryland, respectively. During the two years Jasmine worked for them, “[t]hey loved to go caroling, holding candles and singing their way down Claremont Avenue. In the Christmas season, New York became just another small town for them”—midnight church services, Christmas goose, presents waiting till Christmas morning.

In this old undernourished plot, only the family—not the city or nation—feels vulnerable, and only temporarily. Wylie finds herself in love with another man and moves with him to Paris. Husband and daughter are left abandoned, which is serious, but they start getting over it. And at least they are not cursed with waking up in America every morning feeling the way much of the rest of the world feels—unsafe, vulnerable, murderous if called upon.

From Dogwood, faithfully yours,

C.V.

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