9/11 Fiction and the Death of Irony

Dolores Resano

A week after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the editor of Vanity Fair, Graydon Carter, was quoted as saying that ‘the end of the age of irony’ had arrived, while Roger Rosenblatt, of Time, wrote: ‘One good thing could come from this horror: it could spell the end of the age of irony’. The affirmation that irony had died seemed to be confirmed in those first weeks, with many other commentators foreshadowing the demise of black comedy and cynicism in a post-9/11 climate where, according to John Duvall, ‘a new form of PC (Patriotic Correctness) shaped most discussions of the US response to terrorism domestically and globally’ (280).


The horrors of 9/11 led some critics to proclaim the end of the age of irony

[Image by Wally Gobetz under a CC BY NC ND license]

However, both Carter’s and Rosenblatt’s assertions were soon contested, when Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times and Zoe Williams of The Guardian (among many others) wrote authoritative pieces to the contrary. Kakutani, in her ‘Critic’s Notebook: The Age of Irony Isn’t Over After All’, reminded the public that ‘disturbing historical events have tended to elicit not PG-rated displays of inspirational good taste but darker works of art resonating with a culture’s deepest fears and forebodings’; Williams’s ‘The Final Irony spoke of a type of engaged irony that has the capacity to question shallow patriotism, pompous rhetoric, and official lies. As Ted Gournelos and Viveca S. Greene seek to demonstrate in A Decade of Dark Humor: How Comedy, Irony, and Satire Shaped Post-9/11 America, ‘humor, irony, and satire were not only shaped by 9/11 and its aftermath, but were also pivotal in shaping responses to the events’ (xii).

However, even if largely dismissed by the media by now, the ‘death of irony’ still serves to kindle an ongoing debate over whether irony has died or not, and what ‘irony’ really means. For instance, Andy Newman’s 2008 piece in The New York TimesIrony Is Dead Again. Yeah, Right’ is one among many pieces published in recent years. There seems to be a general consensus that irony did not die on 9/11: often-cited examples include The Onion’s ‘U.S. Vows to Defeat Whoever It Is We’re at War With’ from 2001 and Saturday Night Live’s sketches in October of that year. However, the idea that irony died still ‘has a certain resiliency in academic criticism’ according to John Duvall (279), and some continue to argue that ‘irony never really did make a comeback after 9/11’ (Hirschorn).


The ‘death of irony’ debate is still ongoing and a consensus is yet to be found

[Image by Jenn Calder under a CC BY NC ND license]

If we examine 9/11 literary fiction, a point could be made regarding the death of irony. If we remember the self-questioning that fiction writers underwent in the wake of 9/11 as regards the ability – and validity – of fiction to effectively address such an event. As fiction writers were expected to ‘give meaning’ to 9/11, and while there have been increasing efforts by cultural media to define and find ‘the great 9/11 novel’, there was also the suspicion that fiction was not able to provide the kind of understanding the American public was seeking. Novelists themselves (Ian McEwan, Jay McInerney and Martin Amis, among others) did acknowledge that, for a while, fiction seemed inadequate and even frivolous. McInerney retells how Norman Mailer admonished him to wait ten years before writing about 9/11, because that was how long it would take him to gain some perspective on it (McInerney went ahead and published The Good Life in 2006). Validating Mailer’s advice, journalist Rachel Donadio argued in 2005 that it was ‘safe to say that no novels have yet engaged with the post-September 11 era in any meaningful way’, in her piece for The New York Times, ‘Truth is Stronger Than Fiction’.

While it is difficult to determine what exactly makes a ‘great 9/11 novel’, it seems that such a text would have the ability to make sense of the event and guide us through the process of understanding in the complex ways that fiction permits. As McInerney wrote in 2005, ‘[w]e desperately want to have a novelist such as McEwan or DeLillo or Roth process the experience for us’. Novelists did respond to the event right away, mostly in non-fiction form at first, and some as early as September of that same year (for example, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Jonathan Franzen and Richard Powers). In one of these first responses to 9/11 by fiction writers, DeLillo already resisted ‘the demand to speak with moral clarity and declare what the event means’ (Abel 1236). In his harrowing essay ‘In the Ruins of the Future’ (published in December 2001) he suggested that ‘response is always a question of response-ability, or the ethical how’ (Abel 1236). Acknowledging the multiplicity of stories, ‘crisscrossing New York, Washington, and the world’ (34), DeLillo made evident the difficulty of the task at hand. ‘The event itself has no purchase on the mercies of analogy or simile’, he wrote, resonating Richard Powers’ feelings that ‘[t]here are no words. But there are only words. To say what the inconceivable resembles is all that we have by way of learning how it might be outlived. No comparison can say what happened to us’.


In the face of 9/11, novelists themselves acknowledged that, for a while, fiction seemed inadequate and even frivolous

[Image by Chris Piascik under a CC BY NC ND license]

In this cultural climate, when the prevailing mood was to delve into the inexpressible nature of what was deemed collective trauma (‘it’s like a movie’ seemed to be the most apt description), the first 9/11 novels began to be published. These first texts dealt mostly with individual and cultural trauma, seeking to reflect on personal losses within the larger framework of collective grief. When DeLillo published the much-awaited Falling Man in 2007, many reviewers shared the impression that it was ‘a terrible disappointment’; the novel was considered to be too turned in on itself, ‘mired in domesticity’ (Gray 30), as it re-dimensioned the tragedy of the collapse of the Twin Towers back to a domestic scale, focusing on the private ruminations of a 9/11 survivor. Other works of 9/11 fiction, were slammed by critics or received highly-contrasting reviews, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005), judged by many as too sentimental to convey the horror of 9/11, or even defined as ‘obscene’ and ‘pornographic’ due to their detailed descriptions.

One might wonder if there is such thing as a ‘great 9/11 novel’ when expectations are so diverse and so difficult to define. According to Laura Miller, ‘the great 9/11 novel’ hasn’t been written yet because ‘even the best of these books can’t seem to do more than circle around a void’ and because ‘[a]t its heart, 9/11 was meaningless’. For Miller, ‘[g]reat fiction is a kind of lie that tells the truth, but it’s impossible to lie about lies and end up with anything besides more lies’. It seems that 9/11 literary fiction is a difficult terrain to negotiate, when questions of decorum, truth, and perspective are mingled with the adequacy of irony or even fiction, and where, on the other hand, trauma narratives seem to fail to fulfill ubiquitous yet disparate expectations of what a ‘great 9/11 novel’ should be.

I argue that satire has produced some of the best 9/11 novels to date, novels that could arguably become ‘the great 9/11 novel’, and which inscribe themselves within the long-standing tradition of American satire. As Duvall argues ‘to claim that irony died on 9/11 is to selectively read fiction published since 2002’ (280).  If we take the OED’s definition of satire as ‘[t]he use of humour, irony, exaggeration, or ridicule to expose and criticize people’s stupidity or vices, particularly in the context of contemporary politics and other topical issues’, we can find many examples of 9/11 literary production that make evident fiction writers’ willingness to engage with irony and satire in the post-9/11 world. For instance, Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers (2004) offers some satirical passages within its dark atmosphere. Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (2006) opens with an estranged couple secretly rejoicing at watching the Twin Towers collapse—believing that their hated spouse is in them—and goes on to describe the spouses’ subsequent efforts to annihilate each other.


Satire has produced some of the best 9/11 novels to date

[Image by Ron Mader under a CC BY NC license]

It is within the field of satire that we can find two texts that can be considered ‘great 9/11 novels’ in their own right: Jess Walter’s The Zero (2006) and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2012). The Zero, a novel that received good reviews and was a finalist for the National Book Award, remains largely under-examined by critics and scholars alike, though in recent years it is beginning to draw some scholarly attention (see: Derosa 2011, Santin 2011, Duvall 2013, Dodge 2014, Miller 2014). One might argue that, in light of the debates about irony mentioned above, The Zero’s trenchant and wildly enjoyable critique of post-9/11 America was deemed precocious, but it surely deserves a prominent place within the corpus of 9/11 fiction. This ‘satire about us’ (in the words of its author) is a black comedy that focuses on an allegedly traumatized, presumably schizophrenic individual whose paranoid experience serves to dissect post-9/11 culture and politics, their lethal logic of violence and forgetting, and the manufacture of consent through aggressive state-propaganda, ‘the most insidious, greatest propaganda ever devised’ (Walter 222). The novel tells the story of Brian Remy, former hero-cop turned undercover agent of a government agency, whose mission is to trace a woman presumed missing on flimsy evidence. The final irony of the novel is that the terrorist cell Remy has infiltrated is made up exclusively of undercover agents of competing government agencies, and the operation ends up being ‘a clusterfuck’ (319), with ‘[t]wenty competing agents busting in doors and swinging through windows, dropping through vents’ (319). The counter-terrorist effort proves ineffective, suggesting that the state itself has become the real terrorist as a consequence of its push for ‘action and justice’, but not for critical thinking.

Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is a novel that is being widely discussed and is currently under Hollywood production. The novel tells the story of  Private Lynn, a virginal, 19-year-old, working-class boy from Texas who has enrolled in the US Army to skip prison. The plot takes place during a few hours on Thanksgiving Day, when Billy and the remaining seven soldiers of the Bravo Squad are being honored in a nationally-televised Dallas Cowboys football game as part of an oversized and media-intensive ‘Victory Tour’ designed by the Pentagon to reinvigorate support for the war. Bravo is not an ordinary group of soldiers: what has made them America’s most sought-after heroes is a three-minute skirmish with Iraqi insurgents captured by the camera of the now ever-present embedded reporter and broadcast by Fox News. The tour, which includes TV shows and a visit to the White House, goes into overdrive and turns into a media extravaganza: movie deals with Hollywood producers, sweet-talk by executives and the general public, and being ‘pimped out’ for the halftime show with Beyoncé. Interacting with a wide catalogue of characters (spectators, players, cheerleaders, reporters, groupies and megastars) Billy finds that facing his fellow-Americans’ prosaic enthusiasm, their display of patriotic paraphernalia – that flag that speaks, according to Susan Willis ‘for a form of patriotism raised to the level of religion’ (16) – and their constant repeating of the 9/11 buzzwords – ‘terRist, freedom, nina leven, wore on terrRr’ – can be more challenging and confusing than going back to Iraq to fight a war he is not even convinced of in the first place.

What makes these two novels powerful contributions to the corpus of 9/11 fiction is that through satire they are able to respond to the urgent need to write a ‘counter-narrative’, not only to the world narrative that ‘today, again, […] belongs to the terrorists’ (33), but to the Bush administration narrative as well (34). Both novels ridicule and question the pervasive heroization of post-9/11 America, laying bare the process by which a hero is made and pointing to the political and commercial uses of grief and violence by means of a militarized and deeply engrained notion of regeneration through violence (Slotkin 1973). At the same time, the novels expose the consequences of this course of action, reflecting not only on the losses suffered on September 11, 2001, but on all subsequent losses in America’s crusade against terror.

CITATION: Dolores Resano, “9/11 Fiction and the Death of Irony,” Alluvium, Vol.4, No.4 (2015): n. pag. Web. 7 September 2015, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.4.03.

Dolores Resano is a research fellow (FPU) at the Centre Dona i Literatura, Universitat de Barcelona, where she is currently completing her dissertation on 9/11 fiction and satire. Her research examines political and media rhetoric on 9/11 and their satirical contestation in literature. She is also the coordinator of the site for online reviews Lletra de Dona.

Works Cited:

Abel, Marco. “Don DeLillo’s ‘In the Ruins of the Future’: Literature, Images, and the Rhetoric of Seeing 9/11”. PMLA 118:5 (2003): 1236-1250.

DeLillo, Don. “In the Ruins of the Future: Reflections on Terror and Loss in the Shadow of September”. Harper’s Magazine (September 2001): 33-40.

Di Blasi, Debra. “Jaded Ibis Press publishes controversial novel linking 9-11 with pornography”. PRWeb [online] 09 May 2012 http://www.prweb.com/releases/jadedibispress/2011books/prweb9016518.htm

Donadio, Rachel. “Truth is Stronger than Fiction”. The New York Times [online] 7 August 2005 http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B03E6D8103CF934A3575BC0A9639C8B63

Duvall, John. “Homeland Security and the State of (American) Exception(alism): Jess Walter’s The Zero and the Ethical Possibilities of Postmodern Irony”. Studies in the Novel 45:2 (2013): 279-297.

Fountain, Ben. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2012.

Gray, Richard. After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Gournelos, Ted and Viveca S. Greene (eds.). A Decade of Dark Humor: How Comedy, Irony, and Satire Shaped Post-9/11 America. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011.

Hirschorn, Michael. “Irony, The End of: Why Graydon Carter Wasn’t Entirely Wrong”. NYMag [online] 27 August 2011 http://www.theonion.com/article/us-vows-to-defeat-whoever-it-is-were-at-war-with-219

Kakutani, Michiko.  “Critic’s Notebook: The Age of Irony Isn’t Over After All; Assertions of Cynicism’s Demise Belie History”. The New York Times [online] 09 October 2001 http://www.nytimes.com/2001/10/09/arts/critic-s-notebook-age-irony-isn-t-over-after-all-assertions-cynicism-s-demise.html?ref=michikokakutani

—. “A Man, a Woman, and a Day of Terror”. The New York Times [online] 9 May 2007 http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/09/books/09kaku.html?_r=0

McInerney, Jay. “The Uses of Invention.” The Guardian [online] 17 September 2005 http://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/sep/17/fiction.vsnaipaul

Miller, Laura. “Why We Haven’t Seen a Great 9/11 Novel”. Salon [online] 10 September 2011 http://www.salon.com/2011/09/10/9_11_and_the_novel/

Newman, Andy. “Irony Is Dead Again. Yeah, Right”. The New York Times [online] 21 November 2008 http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/23/fashion/23irony.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

Powers, Richard. “The Way We Live Now: 9-23-01: Close Reading: Elements of Tragedy; the Simile.” New York Times Magazine [online] 23 September 2001 http://www.nytimes.com/2001/09/23/magazine/the-way-we-live-now-9-23-01-close-reading-elements-of-tragedy-the-simile.html

Rosenblatt, Roger. “The Age of Irony Comes to an End”. Time [online] 24 September 2001 http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1000893,00.html

Walter, Jess. The Zero. New York: Harper Perennial, 2007.

Williams, Zoe. “The Final Irony”. The Guardian [online] 28 June 2003 http://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2003/jun/28/weekend7.weekend2

Willis, Susan. Portents of the Real. A Primer for Post-9/11 America. London & New York: Verso, 2005.

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