What will the novelists say?
Pete Hamill tells a story about completing the manuscript of his novel “Forever” and putting it in an envelope to send to his publisher the next day, which happened to be Sept. 11, 2001.
Eventually, when the smoke had cleared and he could begin thinking about life going on, he realized that he had to rewrite the novel, a New York fantasy about a man who is immortal as long as he never leaves the city. Hamill says the book couldn’t stay the way it had been on Sept. 10 and still feel true to its subject.
As a veteran reporter, Hamill had plenty of experience as the writerly equivalent of a first responder, charged with beating competitors to the scene, nailing the who-what-where-when-and-how, and swiftly getting the story out. But as a novelist he was a last responder, whose job it is to take his time and go deep on a different question: What did it mean?
For the first few days after the Marathon bombing, during its first-responder phase, cops in uniform filled our screens. All those local police chiefs and high-ranking Staties, so close-shaven and buzz-cut that they looked boiled and peeled, inspired a potent blend of anxiety and reassurance. When such men are holding press conferences, it means both that something awful has happened and that public servants are facing danger on our behalf. Now the first responders have been succeeded by investigators, lawyers, doctors, policy types, and others figuring out what happened and what to do about it.
Something similar is happening among the ranks of storytellers.
First came the on-the-scene reporters and photographers, local literati firing instant op-eds from the hip, analysts explaining how what happened illustrates what they’ve been saying, TV personalities doing breathless stand-ups or trying to get experts to speculate on the basis of unreliable information.
Now come the more considered, more accurate newspaper retrospectives and magazine profiles, and later the official reports, the nonfiction books, the articles about the books.
Then, traditionally, come stories from literary fiction writers, followed by the critics and historians who are the very last of the last responders. But in our era of sped-up, overlapping media cycles, this latter phase is already upon us, signaled on page one of Wednesday’s New York Times by Michiko Kakutani’s interpretive reading of the online oeuvres of bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, as if she were reviewing controversial memoirists.
The stories of the victims and their loved ones are already assuming painfully familiar patterns of loss and, perhaps in time, recovery, but what about the developing story of the accused perpetrators?
I put the question to a colleague at Boston College, Katie Daily-Bruckner, whose work has alerted me to a broad turn in recent literature to stories about immigrants whose Americanization narrative goes off the rails. From Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” to Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland” to Gary Shteyngart’s “Super Sad True Love Story,” for the past decade we’ve been seeing more stories about immigrants who don’t find their way into American life, who freak out or are shut out, who don’t stay or wish they’d never come.
As Daily-Bruckner points out, such stories express skepticism not only about immigrants’ prospects for assimilating but also about the viability of the American project they’re supposed to espouse.
As she framed it, the central question for writers and critics resembles the one investigators are now asking: “Are we writing an immigrant tragedy or a narrative of international terrorism?”
In some ways, she says, the developing story of the Tsarnaevs “pivots off the traditional immigrant tragedy, in which problems in Americanization lead to disenfranchisement and ultimately a story of failure.”
But, in contrast, she also notes a letter to the editor in the Globe that asked, “If we are all Bostonians, what does that make the Tsarnaev brothers?”’ She says, “It’s an excellent question. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is an American citizen and, by many accounts, a normal-seeming Massachusetts college student, but he’s now being portrayed as something foreign.”
Last responders will be working out the terms and resonances of this story for years to come, operating at a reflective pace that counterbalances the hurry-up-and-get-it-wrong dynamics of social media that increasingly dominate the breaking-news cycle.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.”