The Anxiety of Expression
: Word, Image and Sound in 9/11 Fiction

  • Laura Findlay

    Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


    Responses to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 came in many forms - political, social, cultural, and military. The events of that day shaped the first decade of the 21st century, and continue to have enormous resonance worldwide. This research project examines a particular aspect of the response to September 11 – the literary one, and more specifically, New York fiction. However, in conducting this research it became apparent that the effect of these traumatic events deeply scarred writers, and their writing, and the process of creating fiction about New York was one which was threatened by the enormity of the events. Also, these texts seemed to be in dialogue with other forms of responses to the events in other media. The sense of a community coming together to examine the wound that had been received was strong in New York after the attacks, and that same spirit of coming together could be seen in works that could be labelled as “Post 9/11”. These included comics and graphic novels, artworks, and projects like The Sonic Memorial. This thesis will consider the relationship between these some of works in order to highlight some of the most important aspects of the literary and cultural response.

    The introduction sets out the historical context and establishes the texts and artworks which will be examined, giving an overview of the research. The first chapter looks at Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) and Art Spiegelman’s comic In the Shadow of No Towers (2004). It argues that text and image exist in an uneasy relationship in these works, replicating both the lack of comprehension of the events and gaps in memory or expression that emerged through the retelling of the events of September 11. This is one response to the difficulties that come with the attempt to express trauma through narrative, particularly when the political and historical circumstances being described are so complex, and the emotions that surround the event are so raw. The second chapter considers the controversial relationship between performance, art, and acts of terror in Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man and Gerhard Richter’s October 18, 1977 cycle of artworks. The final chapter explores narrative and testimony in Paul Auster’s novel Man in the Dark and The Sonic Memorial Project, which gathered sounds and reminiscences related to the Twin Towers and September 11.

    The methodology of considering fiction alongside other modes of response is embedded in the structure of the thesis, with each chapter exploring a major novel alongside a related artwork or narrative. This mirrors the cacophonous and varied responses to 9/11, but also captures something of the way in which the reaction to the trauma brought sometimes distinct and separate people, voices and perspectives together in the spirit of sharing experiences and perspectives. It is concluded that the act of creating a piece of literature, artwork, or another kind of narrative, about September 11 is often confronted by the traumatic nature of the events, and that many responses to them internalised this problem, becoming as much about the nature of trauma, and how it makes certain memories and thoughts extremely difficult to express, at least in a way that is equal to the emotion involved. September 11 poses a challenge to artists that is much wider than the problem of representing the event itself. It asks artists and writers to consider how one can represent a traumatic and widely witnessed event, and whether world-changing events require an upheaval of literary and artistic conventions. It also questions the role of the writer or artist in the face of what Don DeLillo described as ‘all that howling space’.

    The thesis concludes that the strategy employed by most of the works examined here is to use unconventional methods to construct a memorial to those lost, but to do so in a way that involves the reader, bringing them into the events, but also pointing to the process of creating a post-9/11 artwork, and the difficulties inherent in it. This maintains the long established tradition of metafiction in New York fiction, demonstrating that these are works that do not seek a complete break with the past, but bring a new raw edge of tragedy and trauma into the metafiction. In this way formal play, and the attention to the process of creating a text or artwork becomes a means of representing the trauma of the event, and the trauma of creating literature and art about it. The metafictional aspects therefore become a means of cathartically approaching the site of the wound. This is perhaps why so much post 9/11 fiction remains either controversial or divides critics. It looks at both the event and its own processes. Whether or not this is satisfying to the reader, or the critic, it does point to the anxieties felt by writers and the wider creative community in the wake of 9/11.

    Date of Award2014
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorAliki Varvogli (Supervisor)


    • 9/11
    • Anxiety
    • Fiction
    • Word
    • Image
    • Sound

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