BOOKS AND ARTS SEPTEMBER 10, 2010
Since 2001, fiction based on September 11 has become almost de rigueur among major novelists writing in English. In the aftermath of the attacks on the Word Trade Center, many of the most famous authors of our time have weighed in on the attacks, depicting the ways large and small in which they altered people’s lives. Some hypothesized possible motivations behind the terrorists’ actions: John Updike in Terrorist (2006) and Martin Amis in the short story “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta” (2006). Others used the events as narrative bookends: Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007) and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006) are two examples. Some novels commented more indirectly: At the start of Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005), the protagonist sees a plane flying low and fears a terrorist attack, while, in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), the main character’s quest to unravel a personal mystery is motivated by his father’s death in the World Trade Center.
Meanwhile, the literary response to Hurricane Katrina, the other great American disaster of the last decade, has been almost nonexistent. In the five years since Katrina, almost no major literary figure has similarly illustrated the effects of the hurricane. There have been some works: notably, Dave Eggers’s sparse and affecting Zeitoun (2009)—not a novel, but a literary work nonetheless; Josh Neufeld’s well-received comic book, A.D.: New Orleans after the Deluge, which traces the experience of seven characters navigating the city during and after Katrina; and Tom Piazza’s 2008 novel, City of Refuge, which takes place in New Orleans pre- and post-Katrina and chronicles the lives of two families confronting the storm. But that’s about it—which raises the obvious question of why.
September 11 and Hurricane Katrina are not equivalent events, of course, but both led to unprecedented and unanticipated horrors that jolted people from their ordinary lives and created innumerable individual tragedies—ripe material for literature. So what is it about Katrina that has left novelists uninspired?
There are some obvious reasons for the disparate literary output. It has been only five years since the hurricane and nine since September 11. New York City is a major population center, as well as a writers’ town; consequently, more novelists had first-hand experience with September 11 than with Katrina. While the total number of people who died as a result of Katrina is still somewhat obscure—Louisiana officially recognizes 1,464 victims—the immediate death toll of September 11 was more severe: the State Department says it was approximately 3,000. By that straightforward measure, the tragic ramifications of the attacks were greater.
There are more abstract and philosophical reasons that could also explain the difference. A Manichean dynamic is more readily apparent with September 11; identifiable humans caused the attacks and murdered innocents, while Katrina and its aftershocks were the result of nature and mismanagement. These latter two forces have longstanding precedents and, in the case of mismanagement, dull bureaucratic justifications. Although the consequences of September 11 were lingering and wide-ranging, the tragedy was immediately apparent, taking place on one terrible morning. Katrina, on the other hand, unfolded over the course of several days that dragged into weeks and months. Perhaps single-blow tragedies capture the imagination with greater force.
But the lack of a strong literary response to the hurricane appears to have consequences. “Five years later, Katrina’s legacy seems less tangible than I'd imagined it would be,” Josh Levin, a New Orleans native, recently wrote in Slate. Perhaps, in part, this is because our novelists have not yet turned to it. For centuries, novels have done the important job of making devastation more concrete for people by examining individual experience, real or fictional, with that devastation. The importance of novels, in this respect, is far too large to scrutinize here, but it has clearly persisted not only in the past but in our own time as well. Indeed, in addition to motivating the many authors who’ve written about September 11, this imperative has influenced the few who have written about Katrina. At the end of Zeitoun, Eggers notes that he wrote the book in order to give a story that had been briefly covered in a McSweeney’s anthology the space it deserved. Neufeld told The New York Times that he adapted the real-life stories he discovered into a comic book in order to “make the emotional truth of the stories much clearer.” And Tom Piazza says that he wrote City of Refuge because he “wanted readers to have an actual experience. … You can’t understand the kind of experience that people in New Orleans went through from an air-conditioned [tour] bus. You need to get the mud and the water and the blood all over you.”
The more pronounced creative response to Katrina has taken place on film. Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009) and David Simon and Eric Overmerer’s TV series Treme (2010) are two examples of auteur-driven works, and there have also been a number of well-received documentaries by household-name directors, including a two-part series by Spike Lee. Mainstream television has also looked to New Orleans, hoping to capture (however superficially) some of the poignancy associated with the city’s revival. “New Orleans … is coming back and we’re hoping our cast members and the series can play a small role in the city’s rebirth,” said Jon Murray, executive producer of MTV’s “The Real World: New Orleans.”And why is it that the response to Katrina has occurred largely on screen? Recently, Fresh Air contributor David Bianculli posited that television “brings [Katrina] back the … way we first experienced it.” We saw the disaster unfolding in real time on our TV screens, and so it makes sense to go back to them to remember it.
But a film-based response to Katrina is ultimately insufficient. After all, we saw September 11 happen on television, too, yet we’ve still turned to books to relive it, understand its wide-ranging consequences, and help order the overwhelming emotions it has elicited. Indeed, no amount of documentary footage eliminates the need for novels that would impress the horrors of Katrina upon our collective consciousness.
Novelists have done a commendable job exposing us to the dust and the rubble of September 11. It’s time for more of them to churn the mud, water, blood, and decay wrought by Katrina.
Chloë Schama is the assistant managing editor of The New Republic.