In America, God is now everywhere. Only in a Muslim country is he comparably pre-eminent
In London, I was involved in an absurd case of double-booking. This meant that at 8.40pm I was on the stage of the Purcell Room discussing with Fabian Peake (son of the artist Mervyn Peake) and Michael Rosen a new edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, illustrated by Peake pere and introduced by myself. The audience was urbane and curiously disengaged. By 9.40pm, I was on stage in Studio Two at BBC TV Centre, watching Bob Mortimer present an uncomprehending Larry Hagman with the evening's "Star Prize", a "fartridge". (This was a stuffed partridge with an inflated plastic bag attached to its anus - did you really have to ask?) The audience was raucous and thoroughly involved. To ferry me between weighty literature and light entertainment, I rode pillion on a taxi motorcycle driven by a worldly South African. Once he'd ascertained that I knew enough to lean into the curves, he milked the throttle for all it was worth. Personally, I sympathised strongly with the fartridge.
On the Continental Airlines flight out to Newark, New Jersey, the atmosphere was suitably subdued. I read William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, while my 11-year-old son, Alexis, watched The Simpsons. Both of us, I suspect, were struggling to come to terms with the new American religious revivalism that's such a strident aspect of the nation's response to 11 September. Everywhere we went in the States over the next four days, the name "God" was pre-eminent. "God Bless America," proclaimed billboard after electronic sign after bumper-sticker. To find any comparable incidence of deist calligraphy, you'd have to be in a Muslim country.
On our connecting flight to Minneapolis, we sat next to an expat Scottish CFO (chief finance officer) of a baby-milk conglomerate based in New Jersey. As the jet bucketed through the first cold front of the winter, she regaled us with tales of daring-do in her company's Lear jet, and noted with some obscure satisfaction that 400 of her neighbours worked in the twin towers. Later, at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in a mall in a suburb of the city, I read my satirical/metaphysical novel about death to half a high-school poetry class and two book collectors, while Lex slumped in an armchair sipping a Frappuccino.
Six weeks on, there's the sense that people in America are talked out about events. In the nation where the psychobabble term "closure" was coined, declaring an open-ended, unwinnable "war" always had to have been a mistake. In the airports, people stand around wall-mounted TVs watching CNN advertisements that urge them to log on to the CNN website, so they can watch the bombing of Afghanistan in "real time".
In Chicago, Lex and I walked 20 blocks through the Loop, only to discover that the Sears Tower's viewing platform was shut - for obvious reasons. We backtracked and, together with two sheepish couples from Indiana, ascended its little brother, the 99-storey John Hancock Building. From the observation deck, the view out over Lake Michigan and the vertical polis below was sublime, awesome and, for me, adumbrated by events.
But Lex knew no such empirical neurosis: this was his first trip to the States and he was caught up (as so many must be, even Mohammed Atta) by the extent to which the reality either conformed to - or diverged from - a thousand televisual images of the Promised Land.
With an afternoon to kill in Iowa, we hired a sloppy Dodge and drove out to the sticks to visit the Amana Villages. This is a rural museum based on a long experiment in communal living. A Lutheran sect pitched up here in the mid-19th century, and farmed and manufactured. Unlike the Amish, they never eschewed technological innovation. Perhaps that's why the community disbanded in the 1930s, while the Amish - who revile the button and the zipper, let alone Windows XP - are still going strong. Now the Amana Villages are little more than a clapboard huddle of curio shops. At a "family style" restaurant, we ate the kind of prairie food that makes British carbo-fests look like mere snacks - piles of cornbread, mounds of potato - while watching our fellow diners rally their pendulous jowls around the little flagstaffs on every table. Later that evening, a woman who gave us a lift into Iowa City told us that this corner of the state was the very epicentre of American obesity.
In New York, Lex wanted to go and see Ground Zero. Initially I demurred, but then, as we were seeing friends who lived three blocks north in Tribeca, I gave in. I also hoped it might help him - and me - to come to terms with the enormity of it all. But not the reality - we all know this happened.
Walking downtown, the atmosphere became hushed and tremulous. It was Sunday and the relatives of the dead were arriving for a prayer service at the site. But, given the close confinement of the surrounding buildings, all that can be witnessed of this corporate burial mound is a kind of atrocity exhibition. As we moved from one intersection to the next, circling the ruins, we were confronted with vertical sections of twisted girders and greyish slag heaps. What affected us most were the flyers put up by the relatives of the "missing". They're faded and torn now, but so recognisably human that they make the saddest, smallest mockery of all the grandiose, political rhetoric of retribution.