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John Utz

Terrorism in Literature

Not just the usual suspects.

Terrorist is among the most vital keywords of our day, and among the most fiercely contested. One culture's murderer is another's martyr; revolutionaries may also be freedom fighters. Experts debate where one should place the dividing line between "legitimate" acts of war, even those that harm noncombatants, and acts of terrorism, which are by definition illegitimate. An often cited definition was proposed by Thomas Perry Thornton in 1964: terrorism entails "a symbolic act designed to influence political behavior by extranormal means, entailing the use or threat of violence."1 The immediate damage wrought by such acts matters less than the effect they have upon the imagination of the people who witness them, especially through the media.

Given this dependence upon imagination and representation, it should come as no surprise that terrorism has served as a ready topic for fiction. The 19th century was a fertile ground for violence intended to effect political change, and dime-novels about Irish secret societies, Russian anarchists, and other prototypical terrorists proliferated as the century waned. In the 150 years since, there have been countless thrillers in which terrorists play the villain. Their secrecy, their remorseless tactics, their irrational desire to unmake our very world—all this conduces to our horrified fascination, and the straightforward use of terrorist-as-ultimate-menace remains quite popular today in the work of such writers as Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum (whose franchise continues to flourish under new management).

Alongside this robust tradition runs a parallel vein of fiction about terrorists in which suspense and violence are subordinated to larger political, philosophical, and aesthetic issues. Some novelists have focused on the social conditions that give rise to terrorists as a group, others have focused on the cultural and political systems that terrorists claim to oppose; some try to get inside an individual terrorist's head, either to explain or criticize, while others focus solely on the experience of being a victim of terrorism. Perpetrators and victims, causes and effects, social conditions and psychological roots: clearly, the variations are endless. But what all these literary treatments have in common is a deeper curiosity about what terrorists might represent, both culturally and artistically. They are made to be more than a mysterious menace lying in wait to terrify us; instead, terrorists are used to tell us something about ourselves, for better or worse.

There have been surprisingly few sympathetic treatments of terrorists over the years. Even two novelists of such opposing philosophical perspectives as Fyodor Dostoevsky and Joseph Conrad were able to share a contempt toward the terrorists of their day, the anarchists. In Demons, Dostoevsky allows the ne'er-do-well Stephan Trofimovich a death-bed conversion and seeming redemption; the anarchists led by Stephan's son, however, all end up dead or in prison. In The Secret Agent, Conrad's protagonist is ordered to destroy the Greenwich Observatory but manages only to get his simple brother-in-law blown to bits. The secret agent's unfortunate wife kills him in anger over her lost brother and then takes her own life; no lasting change is effected by the bombing.

Doris Lessing's The Good Terrorist would seem at first blush a counter-example; when it was published in 1985, it was hailed as an utterly convincing depiction of a terrorist cell "from the inside." The protagonist, Alice Mellings, is a young English communist who has dedicated herself to fighting the injustices of modern capitalist society. She and her comrades in the Communist Centre Union are desperate, both individually and collectively, to prove themselves serious and committed to the cause. One of the book's strengths lies in its depiction of small group dynamics; Lessing makes the process leading up to the house's decision to embrace terrorism—as a means of proving themselves to the IRA—seem both natural and unavoidable. But Lessing also uses her psychological acuity to give us insights into the characters that they are incapable of having themselves; she implies that they are deluded, subject to motivations and passions much more psychosexual than political.

In the end, these would-be terrorists prove almost comically beneath their task: when they decide to plant a car-bomb in London, they have a minor accident on the way to the target site, putting them fatally behind schedule. One of the group is killed along with four bystanders killed and 23 injured. Alice, for all her maternal instincts, is strangely dispassionate about the bombing, convincing herself that she hadn't really been supportive of it. She is less concerned with the loss of innocent (meaning proletarian) life than with the possible response of serious organizations like the kgb or ira to the botched job. It is this emotional and moral disconnect that forms the basis of Lessing's damning condemnation: the good terrorists lack self-awareness to the point of overlooking the suffering of real people.

Though many novelists display a certain contempt for terrorists, some hint at affinities as well as differences between the terrorist and the artist. Henry James' 1886 novel, The Princess Casamassima, is an early example. James was drawn to the idea of a seething subterranean group, waiting to rise up in revolution. But the hero of his novel, Hyacinth Robinson, is as much an artist as a revolutionary. (Much has been made of James's choice of bookbinding as Hyacinth's trade - it's a material craft, to be sure, but one that lies awfully close to the enterprise of writing books.) Though Hyacinth is desperate to prove himself a sincere revolutionary, his exposure to "the movement" is concurrent with his exposure to the life of the haute-bourgeoisie as well. And in the end, James's hero decides it is better to erase himself than to destroy the beautiful culture he has come to appreciate under the titular princess's tutelage.

But if James was confident in the power of art to overcome its political enemies, artists today are more often united by their shared perception of political impotence; they bemoan their inability to remake the world as they see fit and feel threatened by a political structure that does not understand or appreciate them. This alienation has led some recent novelists to treat the relationship between terrorism and art with more anxiety than confidence or contempt. Such novelists express a kind of competition with terrorists, not in blind admiration but with a sense of having been surpassed or made outdated by the ability of a lone bomber to effect radical change.

Such is a central theme of a recent book, Plotting Terror: Novelists and Terrorists in Contemporary Fiction, by Margaret Scanlan.2 Scanlan argues that writers face a reduced political role in an age of mass media and virtual entertainment. In response, postmodern writers have re-envisioned terrorists as their doubles or rivals; if bombs are dangerous, so is the power of the written word as a political act.

A key text for Scanlan's argument is Mao II (1992) by Don DeLillo. A darling of college radicals, this book makes much of the theoretical connections between post-modern novelists and terrorists:

"There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. … Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of a culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated."

These are the pronouncements of protagonist Bill Gray, a famously reclusive and paranoid writer (think Thomas Pynchon). Bill is drawn away from his unfinished novel—and the assistant who manipulates him to keep it unfinished—by the chance to aid a young writer held hostage in war-torn Beirut. Surely artist and terrorist will meet in a final reckoning? But DeLillo keeps his protagonist wickedly distanced from the action, and in the end, the novelist dies anonymous and alone from injuries sustained in an accident, having never confronted the terrorists face to face.

Readers of G. K. Chesterton (Scanlan seems not to be one) may recognize echoes of Lucian Gregory in Bill Gray's assertions. In The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), Gregory, the anarchist poet, famously equates anarchists and artists:

"An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. … The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway."

The difference between DeLillo and Chesterton, of course, is that Chesterton clearly finds these ideas absurd, which lends The Man Who Was Thursday the quality of a farce. In turns out that all of the anarchists are undercover policemen, chief among them Gabriel Syme, who contradicts Gregory to his face: "The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it." It turns out that the most poetical thing in the world is the Underground Railway; art is about order and discipline, not Bacchanalian chaos; and in the book's climactic battle between anarchists and police, it is a simple lantern, which casts light instead of heat, that is used to disperse the mob.

What Chesterton and DeLillo share, despite their very different politics, is a disregard for terrorism as a real threat; a comic tone pervades their texts, whether from an absurd or an ironic perspective, and we aren't meant to be too troubled by the real bombs that their literary terrorists reference. DeLillo's is the darker book; he lacks Chesterton's faith that the railway and the lantern will see us through the present crisis. In fact, dissolution and disorder fairly threaten to overwhelm the real communication once made possible through fiction. But DeLillo's focus on artists as the true victims of this global shift marks his lack of connection with the political realities of terrorism.

Readers familiar with both Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club (1996) and Anne Patchett's Bel Canto (2002) will find it strange to encounter them in the same essay, let alone the same sentence, but they may be fruitfully paired in juxtaposition with the preceding novels. Both novels focus carefully and sympathetically on the terrorists behind the violence. In neither novel are the terrorists meant to be contemptible or incompetent; the threat they pose is very real.

Beyond these similarities, of course, the two novels are radically dissimilar. In Bel Canto, art is allowed to triumph over ideology, even though the story ends tragically. An opera diva is first used to lure a Japanese executive to a poor Latin American country and is then trapped with the executive when terrorists take them all hostage. The great irony in Patchett's book is that the diva is the one who eventually holds everyone captive, including the terrorists, through her beautiful singing. Patchett succeeds in creating true sympathy with her terrorists by making them seem very human, even lovable; we feel for them without ever sharing their cause. But like the terrorists presented by Conrad, James, and Lessing, they are tragically done in. The idyll that art has created must finally come to an end, and political realities return with a vengeance.

In Fight Club, we find one of the rare depictions of a terrorist who is allowed the last word—a terrorist whose acts of destruction are meant to elicit admiration rather than scorn: Tyler Durden. Thanks to the film adaptation of Palahniuk's novel, Durden (played by Brad Pitt in the movie) has become something of a cult figure. Admittedly, most of his real-world fans (and they are legion) are more interested in the unrestrained fisticuffs that give both book and film their name than in Durden's pseudo-philosophical rants against consumer culture. But in both book and film, the amateur boxing society that is Fight Club quickly evolves into Project Mayhem, a fraternity engaged in violent acts that start with simple vandalism and escalate to terrorism. Durden is the charismatic leader of the group, and he intends the violence to teach a generation of fatherless men to strip away their attachment to material things, while also obliterating the material things themselves. This nihilistic ambition culminates in the destruction of the Los Angeles skyline.

Palahniuk's novel can be taken as a coolly cynical variation on men's movement texts like Iron John and Fire in the Belly, which were so popular in the early 1990s. His aim in the novel seems to be promotion of an alternative masculinity that is primal, honest, and self-reliant, as well as a violent rejection of the narrow lives of conformity and consumption that many men accept instead. Reading Fight Club—or, worse, watching the film—after 9/11 can be a harrowing experience. Whatever one's feelings toward consumer culture and narrow conformity, the image of a series of skyscrapers collapsing can no longer be received with ironic detachment.

Indeed, since 9/11 it has become much harder to sustain either confident dismissal of terrorism as a threat or ironic acceptance of it as a political or artistic act. Certainly anarchists were a legitimate threat in the 19th century as well; Queen Victoria survived multiple attempts on her life, and Scotland Yard itself was bombed once. But 19th-century novelists responding to these acts seem to have had more resources to depend upon; they had greater confidence in the ability of Western culture to endure. By contrast, the literary depictions of terrorism that have emerged in the last year have been much more sober. Though they give reason for hope, and even transcendence, they do so with a sense of vulnerability rather than contempt or cynicism. And they do this by focusing less on the terrorists and more on their victims.

Two recent books that demonstrate this vulnerability are Saturday by Ian McEwan, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Much has been written about both of these books; here I would like merely to note the ways in which they speak to the same cultural moment. Both novels rely heavily on their protagonists. McEwan gives us Henry Perowne, middle-aged neurosurgeon, in a detached, third-person omniscient narrative; McEwan's style is strict realism bordering on naturalism. Foer's book depends upon the enthusiastic, inventive, and expressive voice of Oskar Schell, a nine-year-old who lost his father in the World Trade Center attacks. And as if the verbal pyrotechnics of an extremely precocious nine-year-old weren't flamboyant enough, Foer also includes a variety of graphic elements, including a now-famous series of photographs, presented here in flip-book fashion, in which a man who jumped from the World Trade Center towers ascends back into the heavens.

Perowne is a man who is accustomed to complete mastery of his environment; his expertise even allows him to explain our emotions and experiences in strictly chemical and physical terms. The looming sense of unease in Saturday derives from the fact that this man at the top of the social pecking order no longer feels secure. The terrorist attacks, and the looming Iraq invasion in which Britain will take part, lurk in the back of Perowne's mind through the book, so that when he and his family are threatened by a local, irrational thug, we are able to draw ready parallels to the threat to civilization posed by terrorism.

Nine-year-old boys are of course more familiar with feelings of being out of control; these feelings are only exacerbated for Oskar by the loss of his father in the attacks. A particularly poignant motif of Foer's book is Oskar's recurring attempts to rewrite the day of September 11th; if only he could invent a shirt made of birdseed, for example, perhaps the pigeons of New York could come to the aid of anyone wearing it and fly them to safety. Oskar undertakes a quixotic quest to understand his father and, more importantly, his death, through an overinterpretation of clues his father left behind.

Both Perowne and Oskar are figures for our loss and bewilderment, both protagonists reach a kind of understanding by book's end, but I can't help feeling that Oskar's resolution involves more emotional maturity. For it is finally by letting go that Oskar is able to transcend, rather than by putting greater faith in his ability to rationalize, respond, and control all variables. If Henry Perowne's faith in himself has been shaken, it survives by book's end. Oskar's faith, though only subtly spiritual, lies in something outside himself, and that surely is one of the most important lessons that stories about terrorism have to teach us.

John Utz teaches literature and writing at Duke Divinity School.

1. Thomas Perry Thornton, "Terror as a Weapon of Political Agitation," in Internal War: Problems and Approaches, ed. Harry Eckstein (Free Press, 1964), pp. 71-99.

2. Margaret Scanlan, Plotting Terror: Novelists and Terrorists in Contemporary Fiction (Univ. Press of Virginia, 2001). Professor Scanlan, who is Chair of the Department of English at the South Bend Campus of Indiana University, had the misfortune of releasing her book in May of 2001, four months before the 9/11 attacks. Her suspicion that the revolutionary impulse itself was dying—in politics as much as in literature—has proven tragically premature.

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