115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

“With Prophetic Disclosure”: Absence, Trauma, and the Pre-9/11 9/11 Novel

Brian Jansen, University of Calgary

With particular emphasis on the work of Don DeLillo, this paper seeks to explicate a tradition of critics embracing certain pre-9/11 novels for their prophetic anticipation of the events of September 11, 2001.  I argue that reading these novels through the lens of 9/11 provide an alternative to what Richard Gray has worried is the inward-gazing impulse of many post-9/11 novels--compelling readers to face the historical complexities leading up to the events of September 11th, 2001.


In his 2016 collection But What If We’re Wrong, pop culture essayist Chuck Klosterman speculates that, for readers in a distant future, the defining 9/11 novel may well end up being David Foster Wallace’s mammoth Infinite Jest (1996), despite the fact that it was published five years before the events of 9/11 and has seemingly little to do with terrorism or global politics (48). Klosterman’s argument, whether he knows it or not, is actually participating in an interesting cultural tradition, one which sees various pre-9/11 texts elevated as being not simply prescient with regard to the September 11th terrorist attacks, but as somehow better or more satisfying than actual 9/11 novels in the way they address terror, trauma, and anxieties about America’s place in the world. Writing in Esquire, Tom Junod has argued, for instance, that Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) and Mao II (1991) are “better” 9/11 novels than DeLillo’s actual post-9/11 work, Falling Man (2007); decrying the “stubborn, inward gaze” of the 9/11 novel, Ruth Franklin has made a similar case in the New Republic, for DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997).

With particular emphasis on the work of DeLillo, my paper seeks to explicate this prophetic tradition. I argue that turning to these pre-9/11 texts offers a way out of a bind articulated by a number of scholars of the 9/11 novel: the difficulty of what Richard Gray has called “a tale that cannot yet must be told” (14), or, as Birgit Däwes puts it, translating the singular imagery of 9/11  into narrative without merely “re-enacting the ‘terrorism of spectacle’” (3). These pre-9/11 texts are, of course, not without their own risks—in turning to them, we run the risk of framing the events of 9/11 themselves as unpresentable, unspeakable, or “unfathomable” (Däwes 76), or of drawing false historical analogues. Yet by the same token, these works offer a corrective to the inward-gazing impulse of so many post-9/11 novels—rather than “retreat[ing] into domestic detail,” reducing “a turning point in national and international history to . . . a stage in a sentimental education” (Gray 134) and potentially propagating the ideology behind George W. Bush’s claim that “[a]ll of this was brought upon us in a single day” (qtd. in Keeble 9), these works compel us to face the historical complexities leading up to the events of September 11th, 2001. They recognize, as Franklin writes, an “ominous note of gathering menace”; they recognize that “[t]hings can’t go on like this . . . The breaking point is in sight.”