18 June 2005

"There's a Hole in the City" by Richard Bowes

I tried hard to dislike Richard Bowes's story "There's a Hole in the City". Because it somehow seems crass to write fiction about September 11, 2001, to use real tragedy to evoke a reader's sympathy for imagined characters. Because it's so easy to become maudlin and sentimental about tragedies, to invoke God and Hallmark, to trivialize. Because a short story just shouldn't try to encompass all that. Because we risk losing real emotion through knee-jerk responses. Because.

But the story gripped me with more force than anything I've read in months. The matter-of-fact, journalistic tone helps make the emotions of the story truthful rather than overblown. The details of life in the altered landscape of downtown Manhattan are convincing, and I found the story particularly haunting because I was a student at NYU for three years and lived and worked in the area Bowes describes, though by 2001 I was in New Hampshire.

The story is complex, even enigmatic, without being baffling. It's a ghost story (as was the only other story about September 11 I've read that has impressed me, Lucius Shepard's "Only Partly Here", which I wrote about last year), and while I can imagine a less careful writer deciding to create a story of scary hauntings to try to jerk the reader into feeling the terror of that time, Bowes has more taste and tact than that. His ghosts are the ghosts of memory, the ghosts of dreams, the ghosts of despair. They are the shadows that haunt a consciousness rattled by events too large for the mind to absorb all at once.

I feel like there should be more to say, but one of the wonders of the best fiction is that through words it builds something beyond words in our brains, and while that something-beyond-words remains strong, there's no need to say more.

4 comments:

  1. A lot of recent post-9/11 fiction is of course "about" 9/11, but in an implicit/metaphorical manner.

    The TV series LOST, clearly has a post-9/11 theme. (Consider: an airliner full of people crashes on an island. Manhattan is an island...)

    How long will we have to write "around" 9/11 until we're able to write about it directly?

    -A.R.Yngve
    http://yngve.bravehost.com

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  2. A.R.
    Well, that's exactly what Bowes does in his story.

    I've mentioned on the SCIFI.COM BB that I find it very difficult to objectively "see" this story as it is the story of my experience in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in NYC. Not the ghost or personal stuff. But the everyday living in NYC during that period.

    If Lucius Shepard had sent me "Only Partly There" several months after he did, I would have bought his story. But...it was too soon and I was too raw, and had no interest in reading about the event in fiction.

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  3. For the kind of review I dream about, thank you very much.

    Rick Bowes

    rickbowes@earthlink.net

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  4. Rick: Happy to oblige. It was the first piece of yours I'd read, I think, so now will have to catch up.

    Ellen & A.R.: I would hesitate ever to say somebody can't write about something, because there's often a genius waiting in the wings to prove such generalizations wrong. But some subjects take more skill and sensitivity than others. There are also things that for one reason or another we're unwilling to read at certain times, no matter how well written. I'm skeptical of any fiction that utilizes real tragedies as a central element of the story -- at least, ones recent enough to have some resonance for some part of the audience -- because of all the reasons I listed at the beginning of this post. The easiest way to make me wary of reading something is to say it's about 9/11, because it takes a really careful, intelligent writer to be up to that challenge. I still don't like 99% of the fiction and poetry I've read about the Jewish Holocaust, because it seems to have become the easiest way for writers and readers to be self-congratulatory about their ability to feel things for the victims of atrocities. It's not impossible to make it work -- I liked Louis Begley's novel Wartime Lies -- but it's phenomenally difficult. Works that incorporate the difficulties -- the poetry of Paul Celan, for instance, or the movie Ararat, about the Armenian genocide -- are the ones I most respect. Rick's story works brilliantly through careful use of details, control of tone, and avoidance of easy moralizing.

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