The Breakfast Table

Is the Great Art of 9/11 Already in Place?

Good morning David,

I have a feeling that Slate will want us to bring our unparalleled geopolitical expertise to bear upon Bush at the U.N. later this morning (since there’s likely to be a dire shortage of commentary on his Iraq speech). But in the interim I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t warn the nation of a different kind of threat we need to prepare ourselves for. One that may not threaten us physically, the way al Qaida and Saddam might. But one that holds the potential for untold psychological damage.

I was alerted to this threat in the course of my omn-media, multitasking tv/radio/print/ Web coverage of 9/11. It was something I heard on the Howard Stern show: Billy Joel is contemplating writing an opera about 9/11! I don’t recall the details, perhaps because I was distracted by the touching reflections of the previous Stern show caller, a woman identified as “Dawn the stripper.” But even the thought of a Billy Joel 9/11 opera justifies raising our nation’s bad-art threat level to CONDITION ORANGE.

And then, later in the day came the news that 9/11 already has its “Springtime for Hitler.” The Drudge Report linked to a BBC News account of the Vienna (!) premiere of “a musical about the events of 11 September.” The musical, written by an Austrian citizen who was in New York last 9/11, “tells the story of Suzanne, a struggling young singer who lands a dream role on Broadway on the eve of the attack. … Suzanne sets out from the borough of Queens for her first rehearsal. Then to the sound of the Austrian rock band Slash, the twin towers are attacked. … The musical ends with Suzanne struggling to come to terms with the attack—and a New York she barely recognizes: ‘As from a warm bed into a cold night we leave the life we had,’ she muses.” Just what I was musing! By the way is there any scarier phrase in the language than “the Austrian rock band Slash”?

But speaking of music, you and I have expressed our disappointment in print with the well-meaning but strained efforts of Bruce Springsteen to be a 9/11 revival preacher. And I know you didn’t like Neil Young’s “Let’s Roll” (I think everything Neil Young does is at least worthy of study; he’s an underappreciated genius when compared to the overappreciated Bruce). Did you find any music worthy of the day? And in a larger sense, you’re a distinguished novelist and critic: Do you think it’s possible to make art of any kind out of 9/11? Has anyone yet? Or maybe this is the real question: To what extent will novels and films need to acknowledge the subterranean psychic ways in which 9/11 has changed America and Americans? Can you have a contemporary novel that doesn’t have, if not a direct reference, then some kind of acknowledgement of 9/11’s impact on the interior landscape of its characters?

I’ll wind up now with a sentence I never thought I’d write: I saw something remarkable on the Barbara Walters special last night. She had managed to gain access to group therapy sessions for widows of 9/11 victims. This was heavy tear-jerking stuff which even I, determined not to be moved, succumbed to. For me the revelatory moment was the disclosure by one of the widows that the one song that she and some of the others had clung to for solace and consolation was the Stones’ “Memory Motel.” I love that song; I’ve had that song on CD-repeat for days on end sometimes. It’s endlessly haunting, beautiful, and mysterious. Maybe the great art of 9/11 was already in place before 9/11. I gather from your novels(correct me if I’m reading them wrong) that you’re a Stones afficionado. Can we at least agree that “Memory Motel” is a great meditation on loss?

Over to you if you want to do Bush, so to speak. Or we could just talk more about books and music (hint, hint). I’m checking into Memory Motel. Like “Suzanne” says: “As from a warm bed into a cold night we leave the life we had.”