Elisabeth Reidy Denison
This paper concerns itself with American fiction published since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A chapter devoted to contextualising recent literature of the United States outlines the influence of dominant political discourse, the impression of language, on the civilian response, rendering the coping process largely a private, unspoken enterprise, an observation supported by the sentiments and reflections of American and international writers, journalists, and theorists. From this, the argument arises that the spirit of post-9/11 American life is perceptible, and indeed best encapsulated, by those novels that do not set out to fictionalise the event. Following context, three separate chapters analyse the narrative framework, thematic material, and linguistic choices of Anthony Doerr’s About Grace (2004), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), and Karen Russell’s Swamplandia!. These chapters demonstrate the ways in which each novel reflects its “moment” in the decade, with attention to the earlier discussion of language, and the way that this literature may enact the element of catharsis – but not, as the Conclusion will state, closure – still largely missing from American society.
I. LITERATURE OF THE MILLENNIAL DECADE IN AMERICA
“[I]ntensifying the single realm we all inhabit”
Two years ago, days before the eighth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, Samuel P. Jacobs wrote an article addressing a smattering of the 164 “9/11 novels” published or distributed in the United States in the intervening years. In evaluating the progress of fiction in grappling with the event, his article ultimately argues that this sector has generally been found to be lacking. It does, however, highlight a number of novels that seemed to best exemplify the current civilian experience in the United States as of September 2009. Interestingly, says the author, only one was written by an American.
There should be no question whatsoever that this was a global tragedy – citizens of 104 countries were lost – and a global event for the international political shifts brought on in the aftermath. Presumably, then, every nation has had its own experience of and relationship to the attacks, and accordingly its own set of responses, including political, social/cultural, and artistic. The top contenders put forth by Jacobs suggest that other countries have more quickly come to grips with the day itself and the new era following than has the United States, despite continued reverberation in the collective global consciousness. So why focus on the American response, as this paper does?
It is not enough to single out the US because of geographic truths, that is, because it happened in America. Any subsequent literature must be considered with more attention to the context not only of its production, but also of the event itself, what led to the attacks, and what came about immediately afterward. To do this, a still more blunt truth must be acknowledged: the event was directed at, or intended for, the United States. Karen Russell, in her novel Swamplandia!, crucially touches on the psychology of the target: “he didn’t think it came naturally, to see yourself as the object” (Swamplandia!, 166). My decision to examine American literature stems from this differentiation of the positions occupied by various nations; I have elected to examine how the ‘object’ reacts. This is not say that the United States occupies a higher or more victimised, or otherwise worse position than do other countries – that it has more claim to the tragedy. It is merely a specific one, a fact that, as I discuss, is itself at the core of the ensuing national response.
In order to fully comprehend the American mentality since 9/11, we must discern how its many facets have seeped through in recent fiction. To be direct is not necessarily to be truthful; as John Sutherland has put forward, the novel or novels most resonant of our times may have nothing ostensibly to do with September 11. Sutherland observes that “one can feel the impact, remotely and symptomatically – but rarely directly” in subsequent imaginative works. If this is so – and I contend that it is – it is likely because the same can be said about the impact on daily life.
Therefore my decision is, more particularly, driven by a belief that this apparent literary stagnation is both a symptom and a consequence of the national situation. The object of this paper is to show that the novels most comprehensively encapsulating the climate of American life since 9/11 are not those which re-imagine the event itself and attach a fictional narrative to it but rather, those novels which, through a combination of their narrative structure, thematic material, and language, exhibit the phenomenon of emotional internalisation have characterised the prevailing popular response in the United States. In other words, the very indirectness of literary approach (both in the sense of a subconscious “seepage”, wherein authorial decisions might be subtly traceable to the writer’s personal response to the event, and also as a kind of default, the only currently feasible way of responding) is a reflection of the modus operandum.
The central texts discussed here are Anthony Doerr’s About Grace (2004), Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), and the aforementioned Swamplandia! (2011) by Karen Russell. Of the three, only Foer’s novel may be classed as a 9/11 novel; its inclusion offers a point of comparison to the others, which evoke rather than address. The novels will be analysed in the order of publication, highlighting how each novel provides a kind of snapshot of its moment in the decade and illustrates the nation’s progress in coping to date.
Significantly, I will not be arguing that Doerr or Russell’s books should, or could, be read as allegories of post-9/11 America. I am simply suggesting that the internalisation of grief is identifiable in their writing. By “internalisation of grief” or “emotional internalisation” is meant the following: for reasons to be discussed, there has been a remarkable lack of discussion about 9/11 in American daily life almost since it occurred. Unlike the mass fear incited in the subsequent period, the coping process has in America been largely a solitary undertaking, even as people understand that they have it in common.
Thus, the literature is dually important. First, these novels voice in writing what has generally gone unspoken, and therefore initiate a cathartic process. This leads to the second element of significance. Of course, these are single texts by individual authors, all of whom have lived separately through a seminal event and the same tumultuous decade that followed it. None of them – no singular novel ever, for that matter – can be taken as a distillation of an entire generation’s sentiments or experiences, let alone an entire nation’s. Their writing is nevertheless a tangible personal and thus inherently subjective reflection upon a wider experience. In support of this, Mark William Roche argues that individuals’ writing is valuable precisely because it speaks to “something of value to a broader consciousness – and yet in a style that belongs uniquely to that person X or Y.” As opposed to cultural materialists Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, who insist that “[c]ulture is not by any stretch of the imagination – not even the literary imagination – a unity,” Roche holds that
In an era that has increasingly abandoned any sense of coherence or unity, we benefit […] from artworks that are able to capture a defining idea of an age or a culture or an experience […]
Therefore, the production of work that contemplates not only what the author is navigating but also what he or she perceives others might be as well is testament to the personal and internal nature of a national struggle to manage a collective (prevailing, ‘defining’, not universal) tone of reaction. It is evidence of a slow, quiet working-through.
With these geographic and generic parameters established, another important distinction must be made: on what grounds can and should two or three novels be chosen from ten years’ worth of fiction? Several established American novelists have taken 9/11 as a subject in their later work, as well as newer writers such as Foer. This paper concerns itself with the work of young emerging novelists for two reasons. Firstly, they were not born before the twentieth century’s many humanitarian tragedies as preceding generations were: this has been the first of their lifetime. And whereas Vietnam served for American writers now in their sixties and seventies as the first contradiction to preconceptions of their own national identity, so did September 11 for this wave. For that older generation, “9/11 fiction” might be a next step in the catharsis of writing about – or around – an atmosphere they bore witness to. It is a revisiting, not a jumping-off point. By extension, because the aftermath of 9/11 will likely have a continued global influence in coming decades, it is important to look at how the novelists whose writing lives are ‘in line’ with the event might revisit it themselves, perhaps in relation to a future event that will mark the beginning for a subsequent generation, as 9/11 did for them.
The rest of this paper is organised into four chapters and a conclusion. In the first chapter, I outline the development of the American political landscape of the last ten years, and the effect of the political on the cultural and social climate from which these novels have sprung. With this context as a backdrop, I devote one chapter to each of the texts, discussing their narrative shape, their themes, and their language. The literary discussion follows this course in order to demonstrate the overarching formal framework, offering a glimpse at how civilian minds have been sorting and ordering and making sense of content. Furthermore, I will explore on a more minute level the very language of the novels, which functions as a tool of generating the thematic content. As Arundhati Roy explains, “The way you tell a story, the form that narrative takes, is a kind of truth, too.” If the legacy of 9/11 can yet be deemed a story, then what follows is an exploration of ways to begin telling it.
II. LANGUAGE AND LANDSCAPE: WITHIN THE CONTEXT
“[W]e are overwhelmed by our impotence”
The following examination of the dominant political discourse that arose in America soon after September 11, 2001 demonstrates the ability of a manufactured ‘language’ to seep through society via government policy decisions into the consciousness of individuals. We see how American society has been shaped over the last decade, unpacking the different factors and emotions that contribute to the prevailing mindset, which reveal its intricacy, and therefore we can obtain some clarification on the underlying nature of the production context of any recent novel emerging from the country.
Recently, Adam Haslett concluded that “[…] what has characterized the last decade of American life is a kind of constant, low-grade panic. A hysterical normalcy […].” So, a fundamental question arises for the American people, particularly if they are to be able to write about what happened: “how did life become this way?”
Citing the theories of trauma psychologist Judith Herman, Haslett suggests that that day’s events have gone “unmetabolized by the psyche” because Americans have yet to “articulate a narrative of what happened to them.” His phrase is helpful precisely for the invocation of “metabolism,” the body’s undertaking to render a foreign object manageable – to absorb it, rather than to cast it off. According to him, this “hysterical normalcy” is the messy upshot of a population-wide failure to overcome or metabolise the tragedy emotionally. He contends that this process was thwarted because the administration of President George W. Bush treated the situation as potential leverage for its pre-existing agenda in the Middle East, thereby, as Roy contests, “cynically manipulating people’s grief.”’.
While the object of this paper is not to defend, dispute, or qualify the above belief within the context of existing political discussions, the “conscription” or “manipulation” Haslett and Roy argue for can be identified in Bush’s language, policy aside. In Writing the War on Terrorism, Richard Jackson explains that
The process of inducing consent […] requires more than just propaganda or ‘public diplomacy’; it actually requires the construction of a whole language, or a kind of public narrative […]
This concept of ‘inducement’ is important because it implies that a decision has been made (there is no working proposal to speak of) and that people’s approval is inevitable once the language is fixed and disseminated. But, Jackson notes, establishment of a major political tragedy’s wider cultural and social significance is never fixed; language is a vehicle for the rationalisation of one’s actions and experiences, making different readings of significance and different versions of the story available through differing sets of words. The point is that Bush might have chosen otherwise. His language reveals a particular aim: the government needed to explain why the United States had been targeted, and this answer had to maintain a wholesome, innocent, heroic image in order for the administration to retain popular backing.
Consequently, political discourse formed around notions of “freedom,” which was presented at once as a tenet of the American identity and an incontestable good. “America was targeted for attack because we’re the brightest beacon for freedom and opportunity in the world,” Bush insisted in his statement on the evening of September 11, 2001, invoking the word thirteen more times in the 20 September address. Not only did government statements generally exclude alternative explanations for why al Qaeda had acted in opposition to American freedoms, but this particular explanation was rooted in Western thinking, the values of which, according to Derridean philosophy, have historically been ordered by dichotomy. In the introduction to her translation of Jacques Derrida’s Dissemination, Barbara Johnson explains that one “term in each pair is considered the negative, corrupt, undesirable version of the first, a fall away from it.”
Thus, Bush’s distinctions — good/evil, us/terrorists, friends/enemies, freedom/fear, justice/cruelty — drive home an already-embedded preconception about what is good, moral, and valued. This discourse rendered it inconceivable that al Qaeda’s motive for what was widely deemed a cruel deed could be opposition to what many Arabs perceive as the injustice of continuous Western and primarily American influence in the Middle East. Insofar as the discourse was concerned, justice is consigned to the American raison d’être and cruelty to that of the terrorists. Bush’s marginalising language worked to decontextualise the historical relationship between al Qaeda and America. By leading people to believe “this assault was part of some diabolical deception that came like a bolt from the blue,” he furthermore validated virtually any manner of US response. As a result, this grossly warped any positive (though again, Western) conception of “freedom”, linguistically and literally exploiting it.
Haslett recalls an interview with the mother of an American soldier who had died in Iraq around the time “the absence of weapons […] was becoming undeniable, even for the Bush administration.”  The woman, asked if she thought the government had been dishonest with its people, responded, ‘“I just can’t believe that […] If I believe that, then nothing else makes sense.”’ In her answer one can perceive a dawning consideration of the possibility; she does not say ’no’. Instead it is a reluctance to know otherwise, to face evaluating an ongoing bereavement.
It is worth revisiting the public statements Bush made just after 9/11, as they explicitly prioritise emotions. What was referred to on the day as a “terrible sadness” was promptly deemed to have had its time:
“Our grief has turned to anger and our anger to resolution.”
“And in our grief and anger we have found our mission and our moment.”
“It is my hope […] life will return almost to normal. […] Even grief recedes with time and grace.”
In light of the aforementioned linguistic decontextualisation, these apparently comforting, reassuring sentiments contain a call to arms, wherein grief is less productive than anger and must be set aside. Not in ten years has any such transformation really occurred, because the government’s actions took for granted that it could occur in nine days.
Alternately, Bush might have said, “in time we will find our mission”, which would have accommodated a greater, multi-staged emotional response amongst the population. Grief would not need to be replaced by anger, but accompanied by it. Resolution – that oft-used term – could have been replaced altogether. Whereas that word carries strong connotations of obstinacy, another might have communicated a dedication to reparations, at home and with the “enemy,” to the extent that education and, perhaps, a resultant empathy are capable of enabling. In this case the “mission” might have been a review of identity and an eventual overhaul of the national perspective. While healing does not necessitate forgiveness for the attacks, it does demand unpleasant intervals of disillusionment in its various forms. Because the administration could not allow this, the official discourse is one of absolutes.
And yet, as if averse to breaking a longstanding habit only recently recognised, for years Americans largely avoided confronting alternative explanations. Writing in advance of the 2004 Presidential election, James Wolcott identified stagnation and evasion:
But I also think the future is what this election wants to avoid. The country […] finds it too taxing, would rather back up into the future than face it honestly.
In his stream-of-consciousness, retrospective meditation, “In the Aughts,” Alex Carnevale notes the same indecision permeating his daily life.
Once I found myself walking across an island near the coast of the Eastern seaboard. It was early morning. The date seemed significant, but I found I could not recall it. […] I thought of a place we could go, but we never went there.
Also at this time, however, Arundhati Roy lauded the national attitude for its more pointed dissent and budding mobilisation:
Ordinary people do have a conscience. […] If the bubble were to burst, and people were to know all of the horrendous things that have been carried out in their name, I think it would go very badly for the American establishment. And I think it has begun.
Barack Obama’s election in 2008 testifies to the decisive awakening to the bubble Roy speaks of. Obama’s victory over the continuation of hawkish policies heralded the replacement of the official discourse with the public discourse, which had gradually been developing an alternative narrative surrounding 9/11. Wolcott noted a reversal of the climate of four years earlier, that “Obama’s candidacy inspirits the idealism” of the young generation of voters, but that this
is not a dreamy, naïve mime-artist idealism clutching a cluster of pretty balloons. It’s an idealism tempered by the experience of growing up in a post-9/11 world […] a restricted view that threatened to give everybody a permanent squint.
In The New Yorker, George Packer lauded Obama’s Inaugural Address for its replacement of sensationalism and rhetoric in favour of the solidity of language so long missing from American politics and media: ‘[…] what he’s always been is a great explainer, who pays the rest of us the highest compliment – the appeal to reason.’
While it may be unwise to ascribe to anything the status of “truth” or “reality,” one can surely say that Obama offered an alternative explanation or definition of the American experience than had been widely available for eight years previous. “That we are in the middle of a crisis is well understood,” he told a global audience, but while there were “indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics,” there was also an equally critical, though “[l]ess measurable […] sapping of confidence across our land.”
This is a public, official acknowledgement of the engrained and residual “constant, low-grade panic.” With awareness that weakness and fault must be admitted to if recovery is to be really achieved, Obama told his audience that ‘our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please’. Speaking of progress and creation, he argued that ‘Your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy’, and referenced ‘Our common good’, ‘our common defence, our common dangers.’
Obama’s word choice speaks directly to the national psyche’s paradoxical solitariness, given that it is shared. He reshaped the conception of American unity, rejecting the predominant and nationalistic ‘us versus them’ and insisting that “[…] our common humanity shall reveal itself” as should have been sanctioned before. Just as Bush’s discourse imprinted on the American people, so did Obama’s animate them – now to “choose our better history” and continue the restoration already, if timidly, begun in daily life at both the national and individual levels.
In the nearly three years following this speech, the damage done to the domestic atmosphere has by no means been restored. As Thanassis Cambianis and others argue, a “coherent shift in grand strategy, in America’s thinking about how it should contend with the wider world” should have occurred after 9/11, but it never did. Now the time for a gracious response to the event is past, yielding a kind of poorly healed bone, Wolcott’s “permanent squint.”
These are emotional disfigurements as well as structural or tangible ones. The election of a man whose thinking appeared in line with what had been the public and subordinate discourse – who recognised alongside civilians what needed to happen in 2001, what had been quite possible – may well be the key to a healthier future. But insofar as 9/11 is concerned it is almost symbolic: “After metaphors collapse, people still fill the streets,” is Carnevale’s summation of the decade. Rejection of dominant discourse is understood to have come too late in the day for these damages. Somehow even the most promising progress remains “starkly inconclusive.”
The question for the mentality then becomes one of reconciliation: How does one reconcile grief for one’s people and for mankind with having allowed – tacitly, unwittingly, or otherwise – the enactment of an equally vengeful, destructive, and indiscriminate retaliation in one’s name? How does a nation reconcile its losses with its response to those losses, a response which has dishonoured the original sorrow? A sickness of spirit abounds in a society whose own situation has for so long been lost on itself. This is what the three novels at hand attempt to negotiate, in the pursuit, as literary analysis will show, of Obama’s national goal for a “hard-earned peace.”
III. ANTHONY DOERR, ABOUT GRACE
“It was an ambitious and marvellous and amateur effort all at once”
Anthony Doerr has explained that the germ of About Grace grew out of an interest in the photography of snow. The extreme delicacy of the process, both in the forms of patience and physical gentleness, is echoed throughout the novel, and resonates as a facet of the mentality early in the decade: contemplation is rarely less than tentative. The trajectory of the plot follows David Winkler’s quest for the family he abandoned with good intentions. But it is a quest informed by the long period of aversion that proceeds it, a kind of anti-quest that slowly morphs from avoidance into compulsion. It is altogether a precarious pursuit reflecting the earliest attempt in America to advance beyond bewilderment.
Winkler’s sense of insurmountable displacement is created in large part by the narrative voice. The entire story is told through the limited point of view, so the author uses the third person but Winkler is the one character whose perspective we are granted access to. As such, we are left somewhat in limbo: in addition to the exclusion of our real acquaintance with the interiority of other characters, we are not even able to truly inhabit the protagonist’s mind because we are distanced from him. We are told his thoughts and concerns, rather than being privy to the raw, evolving seeds of his response firsthand. Doerr leaves us with impressions of everyone but resists exposing them.
Resistance also manifests itself in the narrative structure. There are six parts, of eleven to sixteen chapters apiece, each beginning anew with Chapter One. This mirrors the kind of wilful stagnation that Wolcott has noted, at the same time as it illustrates the frustrated efforts to reform: the “scribbling, rehashing, restarting” (110) and the “frowning, erasing, refiguring” (112). Thus, the jarring avoidance pivot that embodies Winkler’s search is present down to the bones of the text.
The same dislocation moulds and unites the novel’s major themes, each of which is reducible to the paradoxical juxtaposition of clarity and confusion. Doerr’s fixation on time and memory evokes the disruptive nature of searing mental images, the way clarity is in fact able to disorient and paralyse. In About Grace, this occurs in relation to both the plot and the structure. Winkler is dominated by a lifelong tendency to vividly dream that which later transpires in waking life, while Doerr makes use of recurrent scenes, returning to “the same original nightmare” (59-60). As Winkler grapples with the relentlessness of his memory, which is perpetuated by persistent dreams, so does the reader face that continual bombardment of drowning Grace.
The effect is, for Winker, a crippling stagnation: “time would not be a sequence as much as a repeated rhythm” (109). As a result, the concept of the ‘Future’ becomes relatively improbable. Through Winkler, Doerr poses the question “Did no one see? Could the future ambush people so completely?” in advance of an event that his character knows is imminent (49). It is as if to say ‘how can we have no idea what we are veering towards?’ while at the same time asking with hindsight ‘How did we not see this coming?’ Doerr offers an explanation for the persistence of the dichotomy when, echoing Wolcott’s sentiments, he writes, “The funny thing is, people don’t want to hear about the future.” (114)
This in turn elucidates the stunted quality to Winkler’s ‘quest,’ similar to that of the American people. Of these three novels, comprehension, though haphazardly found, is least overtly pursued in About Grace. The seeking is dominated by hesitation, and generally everything is halted at observation – to the exclusion of action – for longer than arguably seems natural. Winkler’s wife Sandy does not try to understand her husband’s affliction – not the science or logic responsible for it, nor the emotional turmoil produced by it. It upends her life, and so she rejects it altogether in “an unwillingness to allow anything more to upset the realm of her understanding” (54). Winkler is not much more active himself. He is aware of the episodes, but though he eventually resolves to retract the past by searching for his family, he never heartily seeks out their cause so that he might overcome them. Instead, his existence balances unhealthily and indefinitely on the rationalisation that at the time he believed the only viable move was to leave Sandy and Grace, so that they might stand a chance of surviving. “He had fled, yes,” he tells himself, “but with reason” (104). Still, he knows that original decision, however well intentioned, is insufficient cause to carry on waywardly avoiding, “hacking away at rocks with a half-ruined shovel. Weren’t there other ways home? […] Wasn’t each passing moment a betrayal?”(104).
Winkler intuits that a point will come, if it hasn’t already, when this retraction ceases to be an option:
a small part of him understood that he might not be able to return. After a measure of time […] Sandy would recover and seal herself off and then she would be finished with him […] (83)
Even perceiving this, he resists. What Winkler fears is the inevitable wreckage that awaits any thorough, honest evaluation of his situation. Doerr emphasises that fear with a motif of sight: clarity, when it comes, is “agonizing” (23), “stabbing” (43), “ruinous” (86), apparently altogether intolerable. Doerr illustrates a consistent inclination toward “deep private blindness” rather than lucidity, which hinders communication for too long (238).
Communication in this novel is, as with the other two, noteworthy for characters’ failures in it. Conversations are frequently quiet; Sandy, in particular, always speaks in ‘nearly a whisper’ (262). Winkler’s exchanges with her are barren in content, hollowed out, because they consistently opt for “talking around the edges” (21). They struggle to speak directly about their baby, how things have changed for them even though the precise implications of these changes have yet to manifest themselves: “‘Pregnant,’ he said, but at first it was only a word” (30). And they cannot address the dreaming that has wedged so much unbroachable matter between them. It warranted hashing out, “a skirmish in the night, some harsh words, some measure of truth actually spoken aloud” (59), but in neglecting it they have effectively “seethed and spat and turned over and slept on” (89).
Fitful sleep, figurative and actual, brings about a disorientation too profound to for Winkler to navigate. Glimmers of this appear early, as when “Suddenly he forgot how to stand […] He knelt awkwardly in the yard” (58) and when, later, “He couldn’t bear it and had to go stand in the bathroom” (64). These instances are symptoms of “Another kind of purgatory: waiting to wake up” (243), “a dream no one could cross over from” (258), suggesting that isolation is more complex than mere spatial conclusion. It is a kind of internal incongruence that prevents characters from relating to their outer environment. Winkler’s theory about the make-up of snowflakes might apply also to people in the novel, including his earlier self, his wife, or the adult Grace: “On the outside a crystal looks stable, but on the inside, it’s like an earthquake all the time” (24). The frenzy belying an apparent stoicism is also reminiscent of the solitariness of coping we have been returning to. Even more pertinent, when Winkler meets Sandy’s first husband for the second time, dinner conversation is routinely punctuated with the silence of their “taking a moment to accustom themselves to the minute shifts in their individual burdens,” the unspoken recognition of how their “burdens,” though their own, are united by Sandy’s absence from their lives (325).
The “minute shifts,” like tiny fractures, are visible even at the level of Doerr’s typical sentence, wherein longwinded phrases are consistently disrupted by punctuation. Semi-colons perpetuate a seemingly wilful but consistently directionless venture to communicate, while colons are used unusually frequently – at least a total of one hundred times and in two cases, twice in a single sentence (245, 259). The colon works as an organiser, enabling Doerr to cultivate miniature lists (‘There were new phenomena, thousands of them: […]’ (179)), and as a definer (‘It felt as if a last lock had ruptured: the hinges were giving way; light was rushing in’ (187)). It is as if while writing he is compelled to say THIS is what I mean by X. The use of punctuation reads as a shambolic by-product of the initiative to tidy up unruly, or underdeveloped, thoughts – as though this is the first that Doerr himself is publicly voicing them.
The language of About Grace is dizzyingly, ironically rich for a story so much about emptiness. Doerr’s landscape of a silent society searches almost frantically, or hysterically, for some right words. Little goes unobserved or undescribed, and the adjectives bear a heaviness in themselves: the sun and Winkler both “clambered” (115, 126); handwriting is “ungainly” (119); leaves “seethed” (141); Sandy is “immured in her yellowing photograph” (221); hills “burgeoned” (221); Naaliyah’s specimens exist in “lumpen multitudes” (259). But rather than making anything accessible, Neel Mukherjee observes, “the wall of luminous prose almost fences off the reader’s heart […].” For all of the detail, we fail to ever be definitively inside or outside Winkler’s head, to connect with the characters and their surroundings. Again, we are surrounded by impressions but cut off from their substance.
Herein lies the success of About Grace, as pertains to this discussion: a vividness that fails to provide connection, maddening though it may be. The novel reflects accurately the dual disarray and bleakness that was left over and, in the first years after September 11, generally left, until all of the residual notions “hibernating in him, not dead but merely dormant, weathering it out […] stumbled out of their thousand dens” (188). Doerr is messy. He offers not answers but gestating insight in modest doses: “[…] this, perhaps, is how lives are measured, a series of abandonments that we hope beyond reason will eventually be reconciled” (38). For while Winkler reunites with Grace and she begins to accustom herself to both his existence and his presence, this does not quite square his old, meagre response; he was never able to return to Sandy, for one. Recognition of these “aabandonments” is arguably the extent of realisation that a people resistant to contemplating the future is capable of.
IV. JONATHAN SAFRAN FOER, EXTREMELY LOUD
AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE
“‘We could imagine all sorts of universes unlike this one, but this is
the one that happened’”
Where About Grace is cautious in its curiosity, balking at solution or any paths to it, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is loudly, often brazenly inquisitive. The nine-year-old protagonist is desperate to understand his surroundings: Manhattan in 2003 and his new, fatherless existence. Believing that peace of mind is tied to a newfound key, which belonged to his dad, Oskar hurries unreservedly about the city in pursuit of the lock it fits. Coping is explored further in two parallel narratives, which chart the thoughts and memories of Oskar’s grandparents, who survived the 1945 Bombing of Dresden. From these angles, Foer confronts large-scale tragedy without parrying.
Disruption is the defining element of the novel’s narrative structure. The three voices have distinct formats. The central narrative is given by Oskar, who contributes the especially subjective voice of a child and through whose consciousness the story is largely filtered. This generates an intimacy with the reader in two ways. First, simply, because we have access to his thoughts and feelings as they arise, we share more in his experience than is possible with Winkler. Secondly, his youthful perspective expands the range of available reactions to the attacks: where an adult narrator might have a more subdued response, whether on account of decorum or emotional maturity, a child is likely to be less inhibited.
Offsetting Oskar, Thomas’ narrative is fluid and private, especially as he has not spoken since he was a young man. In the form of decades-old, unsent letters to the unborn son he lost, these segments are replete with lengthy sentences perpetuated by commas, not unlike Doerr’s use of the colon and semi-colon. In addition, more visual manifestations of Thomas’ silence intermittently appear throughout the novel. Single phrases on otherwise blank pages stand in for the notebook he uses to communicate with people – to ask for ‘The regular, please’ (23); to answer, ‘I’m not sure, but it’s late’ (25); to plead, ‘Help’ (26). Pages of single digits mark a kind of Morse code confession to his estranged wife from a nearby phone booth (269-71). One letter becomes so long that the line spacing grows increasingly cramped, until text is superimposed on text, becoming illegible and, ultimately, a blacked-in page (273-84).
Grandma’s narrative, her own memoirs, is also a stream of consciousness. Characterised by uneven spacing, gaps between sentences, and often paragraph upon paragraph of single lines – which form a grocery list of thoughts – the choppiness is assaulting, and chronic. However, it is turned on its head with several empty pages midway through, when she shows Thomas her writings, which amount to a slue of blank paper. The onset of blindness prevents her from realising the typewriter did not transcribe her words.
Elsewhere appear photographs of miscellaneous objects Oskar encounters. Some examples are a rack of keys (53), people on a rollercoaster (148), a flock of birds (166-7), and at the end, a thirteen-page flipbook that reverses the famed photographic sequence known as “The Falling Man.” These images are abrasive in their chaos, a barrage of words and pictures similar to contemporary news media. Furthermore, when a new chapter formally begins (for these interruptions to the narrative often occur mid-sentence), Foer frequently recycles its title from previous chapters. For instance, Grandma’s narrative is consistently entitled “My Feelings,” while each of Thomas’ letters is labelled “Why I’m Not Where You Are” with a new date beneath. As in About Grace, the chapters denote a hindrance of forward progression: Grandma’s existence is confined to emotions, and Thomas cannot move from where he is.
Progression is certainly evident, however, in Foer’s treatment of questions, knowledge, and understanding, whether rising from the page in whispers or shouts. Indeed, where Doerr’s characters are slower to ask questions of each other and of their situations, Foer’s are constantly reminding us how adrift they are. Sometimes this is in Thomas’ distant, abstracted prose:
[…] the meaning of my thoughts started to float away from me, like leaves that fall from a tree into a river, I was the tree, the world was the river […] (16)
In other instances, we see Oskar’s childlike variation of the same, such as, “It was getting hard to keep all the things I didn’t know inside me” (154) and the devastating kneejerk admission, “‘I don’t. Understand. ANYTHING’” (292). At one point, Foer wisely proposes considering whether the “right questions” are being asked, which is a groundbreaking suggestion in the wake of Doerr’s relative hesitation (305).
Oskar appears to believe, probably correctly, that if people better understood one another, “we could be more careful with each other” (163) and “[w]e would have been safe” (326). He, for one, is certainly candid about he feels: “I’m constantly emotional,” “I feel too much,” “My insides don’t match up with my outsides” (201). These statements are distillations of the quandary, and their bareness might usually render them unspeakable. But for Foer, Oskar is a vehicle through which he may express what is generally circumvented in his society. One blunter example is the following exchange between Oskar and his mother:
“Dad had a spirit,” she said […]. I told her, “He had cells, and now they’re on rooftops, and in the river, and in the lungs of millions of people around New York, who breathe him every time they speak!” “You shouldn’t say things like that.” “But it’s the truth! Why can’t I say the truth!” “You’re getting out of control.” (169)
The frankness of the exchange arises from Oskar’s speaking his perception instead of internalising it. His mother is taken aback by what she hears because sidestepping has become the norm: control, or management of one’s emotions, is upheld by not speaking about bone dust, among other things. Apparently unable to conceive of the reverse as a more beneficial control, she is unequipped to respond to her son.
Contrast Oskar with his grandfather, who as young man underwent an absolute breakdown of communication as a result of his loss. This is more proximate, though certainly an extreme, to the stunted discussion that prevailed in the United States in the first years after the attacks, when the novel was being written. Thomas’ loss of words – he has the vocabulary but his body rejects using it (16) – brings a silence into his marriage akin to Winkler and Sandy’s, a kind of involuntarily self-imposed distancing.
Here it is summarised in single sentences such as
We were about to go in different directions. [sic] We did not know how to do anything else. (81)
[…] I didn’t know how to be with her and be with her. (281)
Above all, this is a result of the collectiveness of collective memory going unacknowledged and unrevered: “I think and think and think” (215), Thomas writes. But while it is not only his plight, he cannot even speak of it to those with whom he shares it – including his wife, who has lost the same things, the same individual people. Instead, they put up imaginary walls between each other, transforming their home into “Something” or “Nothing” spaces. They institute a tacit understanding that henceforth there are places they do and do not allow themselves to go – “we knew it was there but we never looked at it” (110). This echoes the way Americans might know what generates their silence but rarely say so.
Foer mirrors this with language. To address his grief Oskar develops a substitute phrase, “heavy boots,” which recurs throughout:
I desperately wish I had my tambourine with me now, because even after everything I’m still wearing heavy boots […] (2)
[…] New York was in heavy boots. (38)
It is an invented phrase, but we swiftly intuit what is meant by it: with so much sadness attached to you, it gets difficult just to walk around. That the term is intelligible in the first place suggests commonality at the level of recognising one’s own practices, if not emotional reactions, in other people. Additionally, along with Foer himself, we “come to wonder if he simply didn’t possess the vocabulary. And if that failure of language was at least part of the problem.”
Given that his family does not encourage Oskar to speak, and given the horror of what occurred on September 11, this is highly plausible. However, it is oddly countered with verbiage by all accounts too mature for a bereaved nine-year old. Indeed, from the start Oskar proclaims that ‘entomology is one of my raisons d’être’(1) and explains to an adult store clerk the numerical value of a ‘googolplex’ (40). Had Oskar sought out a new lexicon to grasp his father’s death, it might be more convincing. As it is, his ultra intellectualism stands in the way of the refreshing humanity revealed by his candour, itself partly generated by virtue of his youth.
Inappropriately incongruous language is a manifestation, at the level of the sentence, of the same issue that plagues the thematic treatment and the structure of this novel, insofar as evaluations of representation and catharsis are concerned. The historical context of the novel’s production – by default, that period of roughly 2002 to 2005, in which “to face it honestly,” as Wolcott says, is asking too much – would suggest a continued need to “dig extremely gently” (9). However, while the thematic excavation persists after About Grace, and the central sentiments and emotions are clearly resonant, they are not represented gently enough. Foer works in extremes, aggrandising versus simply depicting emotions that in recent history had been tamped out. The polarities of Oskar and Thomas’ respective reactions alienate any middle-of-the-road articulation, while sensational visuals and fictionalised voicemails from Windows on the World are a disservice to healing, particularly during the fragile mid-decade.
Not that directness itself is a problem – it may be the goal – but there is a line between its most feasible upshots, restoration and affront. This approach either works to rehash familiar news stories and reopen abrasions, or else the melodrama numbs people to something they should never cease to feel (a point to be revisited in the Conclusion).
For B.R. Myers, the novel ultimately serves to ask the somewhat complacent question “wouldn’t it be nice if 9/11 hadn’t happened?” The reversal of the Falling Man at the end certainly asks this. What is accomplished by it? The man did not fall up; he fell down, along with many others. By and large, readers do not gain from a novel telling them that a recent large-scale humanitarian crisis would have been better avoided, and – this is the core of the issue – to leave the matter there. A simplistic fictional solution, a simplistic response, is insensitive to and disengaged with the historical situation. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by actually missing “the right questions,” occludes what Steve Almond, in a reflection on his own prior review in The Boston Globe, deems “[…] the whole point of art: to confront the heartbreak of this world without the reassuring promise of repair.” Four years is arguably too soon for fiction to so blatantly recast the contemporary past, particularly if in their daily lives its authors and its audiences appear to be bowled over by the thought that it would be ‘nice’ if none of this had happened.
V. KAREN RUSSELL, SWAMPLANDIA!
“And what if it happens forever, […] the bad laughter of that
About her novel’s characters Karen Russell says: “These people have been around for the majority of my 20s. I couldn’t shake them. It’s so nice that the book is published [after ten years] and now I can move on from the swamp.” Is it any wonder, then, that the set of impressions that gestated while Russell went about living is so precisely observed and so well articulated? Ava Bigtree communicates her creator’s enlightenment: “At ten, I couldn’t articulate much but I got the message: to be a true historian, you had to mourn amply and well” (201). That is, mourning takes time, and metabolising – some form of articulation of the past – even longer before relief is felt.
The framework of Swamplandia! is comprised of two parallel narratives detailing the demise of a family’s livelihood. Ava narrates her experience years after it occurred, allowing for hindsight to magnify everything and then qualify it – to say wistfully “My life was so obvious, it would have been such a simple matter to grab it and not let go”, all the while permitting subsequent life experience and evolving perspectives to check an otherwise nostalgic and negligent oversimplification. (Compare this to Extremely Loud, in which the wish is the endnote.) Ava’s narrative is hyper-personal and hyper-subjective, whereas the third-person narrative charting the experience of her brother, Kiwi, places the Bigtree perspective next to “the hell we all recognize.” Thus, Russell elucidates, the “micro-society of one family” is fitted with the “macro view” of contemporary life. The novel allows the reader to delve into one mind, but always to be grounded by the outside, a balance that oppositely eludes the previous two works.
This is relevant in the context of the wider discussion on two levels: on the personal level, Americans could have benefited from more reminders that “the hell” they perceive themselves is also on some level the one they all do (different interpretations do not alter the fact of being in the same boat, proverbially speaking); on the national level, 9/11 placed the United States suddenly and undeniably “in the world,” such that it was no longer cut off experientially from the global community and other national histories. The popping of Roy’s ‘bubble’ required considerable adjustment, a reorientation dependent on disorientation.
Similarly, the Bigtree family has much to adjust to after the death of their wife and mother, whose infamous alligator wrestling had been the linchpin of the theme park’s success with the outside world. Her husband and children understood this in theory, in their awe of her, but not practically, because they had never been forced to. “Swamplandia!’s fall” was unforeseen because, lacking a point of comparison, “it always seemed to me like my family was winning” (7). That family’s eventual, individualised healing is shown to require acknowledgement of the fundamental (and by most accounts, blatant) insularity of their lives and experience to date.
Unlike Doerr’s and Foer’s characters, this family conquers its aversions and reluctances, because with language and sentiment – indeed, mentality – its author has found a way. The process is not embryonic or incomplete, like Winkler’s; not hypothetical, as is the case for Oskar. To bear witness to the Bigtrees’ disillusionment is sometimes highly distressing, but it is ultimately the most thorough and gratifying portrait of coping offered here.
In the early pages Russell outlines the now familiar trajectory of averted metabolism:
“Really, it’s unproductive to ruminate on that particular problem of our sister’s,” [Kiwi] told Ava the night before he left home, by which he’d meant “It hurts.” (67)
Yet none of them, save perhaps Ossie, are content to maintain their aversion. The work of a historian, or anyone analysing a past, is not only to ask questions but to search them out, to accept them with a kind of compulsion. Questions are embedded in the Bigtrees’ new experience, surfacing in their speech often and at unexpected, sometimes unnatural intervals: “The towels are sort of dirty?” (133) and “I feel sort of carsick?” (163) are but two instances.
Indeed, they are made “sick with questions” by the onslaught of their own ignorance: their sheltered existence denies them worldly experience, the sudden downturn of their good fortune confounds them (91). Yet they do not shy away from wondering, as Foer wondered after 9/11, “how could this world be so unlike the world that I believed I was living in?” They reject not-knowing and “lukewarm assent” (63) as unacceptable.
“[…] You know what I mean.” I shook my head. I did not know. Nods weren’t going to come cheap anymore. (93)
Even chosen, disillusionment is rarely comfortable. The “dull and terrible surprise” of the hardships, banalities, and inconsistencies of the “real world”; Chief Bigtree’s humiliating other persona, kept from his children all their lives; and the Bird Man’s betrayal of Ava’s trust are “knit into a dull and terrible knowledge” (256) – dull, perhaps, because it is somehow not altogether news. And the discomfort persists “[…] until I understood that the pain was going to continue happening” (262), namely in the realisation that knowledge alone is not a salve. Ava recalls feeling, at this juncture, a paralysis of thought and action: “My body’s best idea was to stare at the ground” (262).
As ever, botched communication is a plaguing force, although here it is not limited to speech. Russell brings dimension to human interaction by describing on several occasions how one character’s voice is registered by another (“very calm, as if we were discussing a misplaced key” (246); “too gentle” (151), ‘charged with something that was almost kindness’ (246)). Such exchanges lend themselves to misinterpretation, given that the observations are merely interpretations in the first place.
Incredibly, uniquely, these characters also laugh. Russell’s people are always vaguely suspicious that their situations are the result of a “joke” they have missed (50, 173, 251), the sense that something has been warped; laughter is the “costume of grief” (226) assumed precisely because life has yet to resume its normalcy.
Russell’s attention to the impurity of reaction is also present in her treatment of the ostensible “triad” of the emotional response to 9/11 – grief, anger, and bewilderment. Sorrow manifests as “a funny sadness, like a disgust-disappointment” (243) not independent from remorse or resentment. With an effect similar to the American people’s disenchantment, these other feelings fuel sadness, complicate it. Anger, meanwhile, becomes an emotional resort: the product of “our astonishment at death” (201), a way to carry on rather than to submit to coming hardships (201). It is never pure, it “waffles: rage-pain-rage” (245).
Russell’s language is supremely well chosen. Combining teenage vocabulary and mundane household items with the magic realism of the swamp and its spirit inhabitants increases the discrepancy between a surreal emotional experience and the continued existence of society. Elsewhere, use of the title’s exclamation point has the effect of upending sentences and shifting their tone. For while the Bigtrees used it to generate excitement and exoticness, its materialisation mid-sentence exposes an embedded panic, as when Ava explains that “Families had been our keystone species of tourists on Swamplandia! and now they were rarer than panthers” (17) . Kiwi’s fatigued realisation that “He hadn’t yet made a penny to send to Swamplandia!” (98) is undermined by the exasperation and disbelief the punctuation regularly connotes.
Words are manipulated too, rent from their traditional meanings. Ava tells us that in honour of the theme park’s first, “We called all our alligators Seth” (5). And they do; the word “alligator” is rarely used, so that eventually, reading “Seth” conjures the image of the animal. In this way, Russell constructs a discourse. Linguistic manipulation appears again with the rival park; the World of Darkness is figuratively and literally the enemy, and the unknown. The people who inhabit it, the employees, abbreviate it to “The World,” but
[…] to Kiwi the abbreviation felt dangerous; there was something insidious about it, the way it crept into your speech and replaced the older, vaster meanings. (62)
Indeed, depending on context, the abbreviation alters the meaning with ironic, often cynical, implications. While Kiwi’s observation recalls that manipulation of freedom, and Russell acknowledges here the malleability of language, something else appears to be at work with the Seths: linguistic circumnavigation. As with Oskar’s “heavy boots” and Winkler’s “talking around the edges,” we detect an increasingly ingrained habit of using words as replacements for other words, such that for anyone sharing in the habit the replacements become synonyms; the conversation is successfully conducted without direct contact with its import.
Remarkably, the tone of contemporary America is present in all aspects of Swamplandia!. The novel is particularly adept at intertwining the recurring emotions, revealing their coexistence and co-dependence. Russell is also the first of the three novelists to truly address Almond’s observation that change sometimes occurs and takes root and does not change back. Russell captures this in her chapter titling. The first, ‘The Beginning of the End’, and the last, ‘The End Begins’ clearly define the novel’s thematic territory as the period in which the Bigtrees come to realise that their old ways of life and thinking are irretrievable. In her review, Emma Donoghue speculates that the family “will neither succumb nor triumph, but survive in their scarred way […].” “Scarring” is a deft word here, for while they have adjusted considerably, their adjustment is in large part due to having accustomed themselves to the permanent marks of their ordeal.
VI. COMING TO CONCLUSION
“Closure is a myth but progress is not”
It may be posited, then, that language, whether political or literary, is a primary mobilizing agent for socio-cultural responsiveness. Insofar as cultural readings are concerned, literature may be both a reflection of and on its society, and also a helpful tool. A distinction should be made between the resonance of that reflection and the extent to which the text contributes catharsis; healing is dependent upon the author’s handling various elements in such a way as to focus their resonance. Returning to Roy, the way a story is told is crucial to what that story ultimately is.
To summarise the degree to which each work captures, however incidentally, the shadow of 9/11 on contemporary America: the “futile beauty”of About Grace in trying eventually to clear its own wreckage “by the hapless handful” is highly representative of the early years, but this does not quite bring about healing. It maintains isolation at a time when it is capable, by virtue of being fiction, to offer an imagined, middle-ground response. Nevertheless, emotional distillation is a solid start.
With Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close we take a step forward in confrontation and two backward in catharsis. Foer might well have restricted the novel to the grandparents’ stories, which are already relatable to 9/11 – they are survivors of an attack perpetrated in opposition to their country’s political action. His clear ability in these narratives to definitively evoke the way in which “extreme grief stunts our ability to connect with the world” would have more fully captured New York City in 2003 than did his setting of New York City in 2003. Indeed, what could speak more to the prevailing indirectness – of practical and literary approach – than this?
Despite the relative scantness of critical theory toward this generation of literature, I contend fervently that of the three novels, Swamplandia! is both the most evocative of post-9/11 America and the most advanced in literary catharsis. In the form of Swamplandia!, American literature has gained something proximate to peace – not revision or rationalisation, but evidence of the possibility to absorb a trauma in a new, better internalisation, to render it a component rather than an appendage.
In an interview about her new book, significantly titled Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What it Costs Us, Nancy Berns explains that closure has become the “dominant narrative” of mourning in popular culture, largely because of political agendas or the sector of bereavement services that operate by, again, “exploiting the grief” to achieve a particular end. Psychology, meanwhile, maintains that closure is neither beneficial nor possible:
The concept of closure distorts our understanding of what the grieving process is like, […] misrepresents the grief and loss that people are going to continue to feel.
Thus, Swamplandia! is valuable for its allowances for the continuation of feeling. Still, it by no means heralds the end of the 9/11-coping road for the American people or their body of literature. Perhaps in the future a writer will find a way to marry astute encapsulation of the prevailing spirit with confrontation of the event itself, to be direct but measured. Consider that thirty years passed before Tim O’Brien was able to fictionalise, and memorialise, his combat experience in Vietnam with The Things They Carried. In more time, fiction (and its audiences) may be prepared to recast history in a meaningful way.
All of this, importantly, is not to say that a work of art is capable of terminating sorrow or anger or incredulity, but that art may help to situate it. Emotional and artistic advancement should be the object of American literature produced while 9/11 still looms. It is a goal without a true end, but these authors are in the midst of promoting progress.
Books and Articles
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 Stephen Greenblatt, ‘Toward a Poetics of Culture’, in The New Historicism, p. 6
 Alizeh Kohari, ‘Is There a Novel That Defines the 9/11 Decade?’, in BBC News
 Steven P. Jacobs, ‘The 9/11 Novels Worth Reading’, in The Daily Beast
 Kohari, BBC News
 John Sutherland in Kohari, BBC News
 Mark William Roche, Why Literature Matters in the 21st Century, p. 24
 Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield, Political Shakespeare, p. 6
 Roche, p. 253
 Don DeLillo’s Falling Man and John Updike’s Terrorist are two examples of 9/11 novels written by established authors.
 Arundhati Roy in David Barsamian, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, p. 68
 Roche, p. 148
 Adam Haslett, ‘Feeding the Fire: The Political Context of 9/11’, in Granta
 Ibid.; Roy in Barsamian, The Checkbook and the Cruise Missile, p. 47
 Haslett, Granta
 Richard Jackson, Writing the War on Terrorism, p. 1
 Ibid., p. 28
 George W. Bush, Address to the Nation: September 11, 2001, CNN News; Bush, Address to Joint Session of Congress, CNN News, 20 September, 2001
 Barbara Johnson, Introduction to Derrida, Dissemination, p. viii.
 Jackson, p. 43
 Haslett, Granta (see Haslett in bib.)
 Bush, Address to the Nation: September 11, 2001, CNN News
 “Resolve” was explicitly spoken of seven times in the evening statement and address to the joint session.
 James Wolcott, ‘Zero Visibility Ahead’, Vanity Fair
 Alex Carnevale, ‘In the Aughts’, This Recording
 Roy, p. 119
 Wolcott, ‘Who’s Up? Hollywood’s Next Wave’, Vanity Fair
 George Packer, ‘Let Us Set Aside Childish Things’, The New Yorker
 Barack Obama, Inaugural Address: 20 January 2009, The New York Times
 Thanassis Cambianis, ‘Meet the New Power Players’, The Boston Globe
 Carnevale, This Recording
 Cambianis, The Boston Globe
 Obama, Inaugural Address
36 Doerr, About Grace, p. 150
37 All quotations of About Grace are from Anthony Doerr, About Grace (New York: Scribner, 2004); “Off the Page: Anthony Doerr,” The Washington Post, October 2004.
 Neel Mukherjee, ‘“About Grace”: Dream Lover’, The New York Times
 Foer, ELIC, p. 13
 Jonathan Safran Foer, ‘Speechless’, The New Yorker (12 September 2011), p. 31
 Myer, B. R., ‘A Bag of Tired Tricks’, in The Atlantic Magazine
 Steve Almond, ‘Extremely Melodramatic and Incredibly Sad: Why Jonathan Safran Foer’s ballyhooed new novel is cause for despair ’, MobyLives [online reviews branch of Melville House Books]
 Russell, Swamplandia!, p. 315
 ‘Conversation: Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!’, PBS News Hour
 All quotations of Swamplandia! are from Swamplandia! (London, Chatto and Windus, 2011).
 Carnevale, This Recording
 Russell, PBS NewsHour
 Elif Batuman, ‘In the World’, The New Yorker (12 September 2011), p. 37
 Jonathan Safran Foer, ‘Speechless’, The New Yorker
 Emma Donaghue, ‘Infested Waters’, The New York Times
 Frank Ochberg in Dreher, The Boston Globe
 Edward Conlon, ‘Paying Attention’, The New Yorker (12 September 2011), p. 31
 Steve Almond, ‘The Boy Who Knew Too Much’, The Boston Globe
 Nancy Berns in Dreher, ‘The Myth of Closure’, The Boston Globe