Bin Laden belongs to me
11 September - A mysterious terrorist. A secret cell of fanatics. An audacious attack on a
The latest issue of Granta includes fragments of an e-mail "conversation" between the editor Ian Jack and the writer Andrew O'Hagan, who is working on a novel about the life and painful death from anorexia of the Scottish-Italian singer Lena Zavaroni. An extract from the novel, published in the magazine, prompts Jack, in his introduction, to wonder why O'Hagan had chosen fiction rather than biography. "Your question is really about ethics," O'Hagan replies. "Is it right for an author to make use of a person's circumstances in a book? And the answer is complex and simple at the same time: a person does not own the story of his own life. Even when alive, what happens to them and what they do and who they are does not belong to them - it belongs to the world, and possibly to literature as well."
The life of Lena Zavaroni is an interesting subject for a novel, but I share anxiety about what the American novelist Jonathan Dee has called the art of literary grave-robbing: the way more and more contemporary writers are appropriating real-life characters and the actual events of the recent past for fictional ends. In so-called psycho-historical novels, the past itself has become a kind of fiction, a mere construct. It is inherently unstable and open to endless reinterpretation. It is there to be mangled, stretched and distorted - according to the whim of the novelist.
In addition, rather than inventing their own characters - with their own distinct fictional biographies - and recasting them, if they must, in the context of an actual historical narrative, more and more writers prefer simply to adapt the lives of the already known, with their familiar quirks and eccentricities, their successes and their failures. The urge to create something out of nothing is therefore being supplanted by a desire to fiddle with the facts. "But", as Dee says, "simply adopting or impersonating an already interesting real-life character cannot be considered as substantial an achievement as creating a character who enters the reader's consciousness as a total unknown."
There is nothing unknown about Osama Bin Laden - except, perhaps, his present whereabouts. Since the events of 11 September, his public life has been oppressively documented, in an endless flow of articles and instant biographies. His face, with its large, mournful eyes and ragged beard, has become as iconic as any student poster of Che Guevara. But what does he think? What does he want? How disturbed is his consciousness?
If fiction, as Novalis wrote, arises out of the shortcomings of history, the shortcomings in our knowledge of the private Osama, his mystery and opacity, seems to offer thrilling fictional opportunities. Bin Laden is already appearing as a "character" in novels, most notably in Giles Foden's Zanzibar (Faber and Faber), a convincing thriller about the bombing by al-Qaeda of the US embassies in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in August 1998. (Foden began the book long before the attacks on Washington and New York.)
The world-historical moment of 11 September means that Bin Laden no longer owns his own story: he belongs to the world now, and possibly to literature, too. But how to write about, and respond to, the shock of what happened a year ago without succumbing to the gruesome effects and eschatological anxiety of the concept thriller, as perfected by Tom Clancy, or the cheap appropriation of the Hollywood biopic?
How to write, in other words, about the reality of the new terrorist threat, and the collective cognitive dissonance it has induced, without robbing too many graves?
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of the twin towers, our major writers competed with one another to offer a definitive interpretation of what had happened. The most portentous reaction came, predictably, from Martin Amis, who saw in the attacks the "worldflash of a coming future" and felt nothing but "species shame" - as opposed to species pride at the heroic reaction of so many ordinary New Yorkers. It is instructive, in retrospect, to compare Amis's hysterics with the more measured and humane response of Ian McEwan, whose meditations on the plight of the hostages on the hijacked planes were perhaps the most impressive of all the literary contributions to that terrible time.
Amis, in his new book, Koba the Dread, writes: "When I read someone's prose I reckon to get a sense of their moral life." Amis is obsessed with prose style - his own and others'. It underscores his restless quest for novelty and his obsession with posterity. He is also obsessed with catastrophe. Yet he remains imprisoned by the cartoonish effects and looping repetitions of his own style.
The opening of his essay on the attack on the twin towers (republished in the Guardian Yearbook, Atlantic Books), for instance, had the hijacked planes "sharking" out of a blue sky. The opening page of Money, his most celebrated novel, has a low-slung Tomahawk "sharking" out of lane as it speeds along the road. In the opening to London Fields, the narrator arrives at Heathrow Airport and looks down at the planes lined up on the runway: "all the sharks with their fins erect, thrashers, baskers, great whites - killers. Killers every one."
To Amis, the world must seem like one great shark-infested sea: killers everywhere. More seriously, the challenge for him of writing about 11 September was, as ever, the challenge of discovering whether his prose style - and thus moral vision - was equal to the monumentality of the task, as he saw it. Simple reportage was not enough. The subject was too big, too important. It commanded his response. But in extremis, he found himself over-reliant on the same tired formulations: the verb "to shark", for instance, and expressions of "species shame", of the kind he has made before and since (most recently in Koba the Dread). At a moment of heightened challenge, Amis was let down by his own exaggerated style; he became his own self-parody.
Amis was not alone in thinking that 11 September was a moment of definitive rupture: a day that human nature itself changed. Many writers agreed that a certain kind of literature was no longer possible, that a new way of writing about the modern world had to be discovered. "The idea that the novelist's task is to go on to the street and figure out social reality may well have been altered by the events of 11 September," wrote the critic James Wood. To Andrew O'Hagan, writing in the London Review of Books, "language is something else now, and so is imagery, and so is originality".
A year on, we continue to feel the aftershocks from that day, but has anything really changed? The world is the same as it ever was, and so is language and so is originality. The hyperbole of Martin Amis remains undiminished. Wood and O'Hagan are not themselves producing a new kind of fiction, judging from extracts of their works-in-progress, published, respectively, in the LRB and Granta. No doubt, someone somewhere is preparing to write directly about what happened on that September day - perhaps a multi-voiced novel written from the perspective of, say, one of the militant Arab hijackers; of Todd Beamer, who stormed the cockpit of Flight 93, on the plane that crashed in the fields of Pennsylvania; and of a Brooklyn fireman pulled alive from the debris. But it will not have the power or originality of the day itself.
In time, there will be sufficient distance from what happened for the events themselves to be transformed into the stuff of Hollywood disaster drama, in the style of Titanic or Pearl Harbor. Perhaps 11 September 2001 will be supplanted by a future shock of undreamt-of catastrophe. Whatever happens, the task of the writer remains the same as it did on 10 September last year, before the storm: to document the defining particulars of our age with precision, grace and moral authority, and in so doing to escape the deadening effects of habitualism and the ready-made that blight all of our lives.
Viktor Shklovsky, the Russian formalist critic, wrote: "Habitualism devours objects, clothes, furniture, one's wife and the fear of war . . . but art exists to help us recover the sensation of life, it exists to make us feel things, to make the stone stony." Must we wait for catastrophe to awaken us to the sensation of life?