Surrealpolitik: Terrorism and the Novel, 1970-2001

Authors: Robert Appelbaum, Alexis Paknadel


Quick Summary

A study of over a thousand terrorism novels published between 1970 and 2001, categorized into a typology based on genre, register, controlling consciousness, climactic action, terrorist incident, terrorist identity, target identity, objectives of terrorists, and location. They rely quite heavily on Douglass and Zulaika's ideas of a mythography of terrorism, and note that fiction responds and contributes to this mythography. The authors note there are "many terrorisms" and many different approaches to the terrorism novel, but also note some basic similarities shared by a preponderance of the novels: all come from a "controlling consciousness" of the victims, rather than the terrorists, who come from the same list of usual suspects, and mostly the books are essentially sentimental rather than political. The stories are not about the planning and implementation of the violence, generally, but about the disruption of the "fabric of everydayness". Disruption is "decisive", it's not terrorism itself but its effects. My aim, incidentally, also centers on disruption, but disruption of the narrative. It is rare-to-nonexistent for a novel to take the political position of terrorists seriously. Nothing whatsoever is said in the study about false flag terrorism. The notion of terrorism as simulacra is discussed overtly, but only in the context of the fictionalized mythography. It is noted that none of the goals of terrorism make any sense since they are never achieved, leaving that as a hanging unanswered question, rather than considering that if the goal is to increase the power of the national security state, then the tactic is extremely effective. The authors generalize that "most recent terrorism fiction in English is not about terrorism per se; it is about the political legitimacy and moral integrity of the society to which terrorism's victims belong." (p 397) They note two novels that are terrorism novels without terrorists, like mine: My House in Umbria by William Trevor and Eureka Street by Robert McLiam Wilson. They argue that these novels "deliberately efface the identities of the terrorists and with them the political issues and organizations involved." It occurs to me that my deliberately efface the identities of the terrorists precisely in order to highlight the political issues and organizations involved. The central political question is who is actually responsible, the terrorist of the big Other's narrative or is that just the cover story? They further note that terrorism is often deployed in modern novels "as signs of reality, the quais-Lacanian 'real' cutting through the sutures of the 'imaginary'", i.e., a breaching of constructed reality by the traumatic unrepresentable void of the Real. Death, in other words, and chaos, shred the fabric of our pretense that things are normal and clean and orderly. Again, it occurs to me that my novel takes the reverse approach in some ways, that terrorism is as imaginary a construct as bourgeois comfort, a fake real, and the two concepts work together to enable the national security imperative of capitalist realism.


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Since 1970, terrorism has become a prominent subject for English-Language novels...Preliminary results establish that though there is a great deal of diversity in terrorism novels, both in what they do with terrorism and why, they are by and large focused less on politics than on sentiment and less on the perpetrators of terrorism than on its victims. But novels introduce an innovation in what has been called the "mythography of terrorism" by introducing new types of "controlling consciousness" through which terrorist violence is perceived. (page 387)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
Whatever the reality of terrorism may be -- and a good deal of criticism and theoretical work has regarded terrorism as something that is i effect really real, a Laconian "real" defying symbolization (for example, Zizek 2002 [Welcome to the Desert of the Real] and Baudraillard 2003 [The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays]) -- fiction has taken up terrorism as a thing of its own.

But what is this "thing," this narrative thing? What does terrorism do in novels? What in fact is it, and how does it operate? ...In the context of the mass media, William A. Douglass and Joseba Zulaika (1996) have discussed what they call the "mythography" of terrorism: taken up by the press, by politicians and policy makers, by television producers and filmmakers, terrorism is inserted into an "enabling fiction," a myth of terrorism and its causes, dangers, and meanings, which ends up making its own realities. The result of this mythography is not simply a distortion of perception; it is the replacement of the perception of things with a reaction to representations. Policies end up being made, wars even end up being fought, not in response to real conflicts in the realms of social relations and politics, but in reaction to the simulacra of conflict circulated in the media by way of a mythography of terror.

Fiction, we perceive, both responds to this mythography and contributes to it... (page 388-389)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Truth & Real, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Media, Disinformation, Literary/Poetic, Gaslighting, Paranoia, Crime/Noir]
The cultural work performed by fictions of terrorism is driven in large part by what the fictions want their readers to identify with and experience. (page 392)
Tags: [Culture, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
But how much of a shift is actually exemplified by novels written after 9/11 is a subject warranting further study. Our initial perception is that a great many works are still adopting motifs and plots and even ideas about terrorism developed in the 1970s and 1980s, if not earlier. (How different, after all, is Forsyth's "Afghan," but for his Afghani disguise, from the secret agents of Cold War fiction?) (page 396)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
Of course, a novel about terrorism may also be a novel about other things. My House in Umbria is predominantly a character study, mainly of the narrator herself, while Eureka Street is a politically minded, satiric portrait of Belfast during the late stages of the Troubles. Similarly, Walter Abish's How German Is It recounts several terrorist incidents but is fundamentally about the character of the "new Germany" of the late 1970s, as much notable for its programmatic repression of memory as for its experience of politically motivated sabotage and murder. (page 397)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
The conclusions we have ended up drawing may be unexpected. For if we have found, as will be seen, that the terrorist incident is determinative of terrorist fiction generally, we have perhaps discovered no more than what formalist analysis since Aristotle demands that we discover: the "soul" of terrorism fiction, though in complicated ways, is the terrorist plot. But if we have also found, as will be seen, that the main focus of most terrorist fiction in our period is the target of terrorism and the injury it inflicts, we have found something that had yet to be appreciated: most recent terrorism fiction in English is not about terrorism per se; it is about the political legitimacy and moral integrity of the society to which terrorism's victims belong. (page 397)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
Terrorism may be deployed in modern novels as signs of reality, the quasi-laconian "real" cutting through the sutures of the "imaginary"...and it may supply occasions for profound reflections on the realities of conflict, inequality, and violence in the world. But terrorism in the novel is largely a re-narration of the mythography of terrorism that precedes it. (page 400)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
Not surprisingly, the mythography to which novels respond and contribute is frequently paranoid, obsessed with fantastically exaggerated dangers. Before the 1970s, the most famous novels about terrorism commonly depicted terrorism as a type of philosophical and psychological derangement and hence not much to worry about, except insofar as philosophies and psychologies can be worrying. The terrorists in novels like Conrad's Secret Agent (1907) are in fact capable of little; they suffer from indolence and aimlessness, and the police have their number. In G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), a presumably dangerous terrorist conspiracy turns out to be wholly an invention of counterterrorist and counter-counterterrorist agents spying on one another. The only terrorist threat, for Chesterton, is the fear of terrorism. Even in Greene's The Quiet American, the main terrorist (the American of the title) is ineffectual; he causes death and destruction but misses his targets and does not accomplish any political goals. Twenty years later, in post-1970 fiction, however, terrorists are often magnificently adept at inflicting harm on others an challenging the security and the politics of their adversaries. It is not just that they succeed in causing damage; they succeed implausibly, stringing up success after success, engaging in more and more elaborate, ingenious, and unlikely conspiracies, and causing all sorts of implausible disruption. That a certain formal realism, including attention to realistic detail, may nevertheless convince their readers to take the fantasies of danger seriously, to see plausibility and vitality in them, is not in dispute. Nor is it in dispute that, though the fictions exaggerate, what they exaggerate is itself something real to the external world. Terrorism disrupts, damages, ills. But i its implausible exaggerations, the fiction is often unmistakably a fiction of fear, nightmarish in its concocting of terrors, ghoulish in its concocting of agents of mass destruction. (page 401-402)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Everyday Life, Truth & Real, Propaganda, Terror, Myth, Conspiracy, Literary/Poetic, Gaslighting, Paranoia]
English-language literature mainly limits itself to the usual suspects: Palestinians, above all, but also IRA recruits, Irish Ultras, post-sixties anarchists in America and Europe, and Latin American communists...There is the important exception of the unidentified terrorist. In My House in Umbria, Eureka Street, and some others, the character of a terrorist responsible for one atrocity or another never appears, little if any effort is expended to discover the terrorist's identity, and the point of the novel is in fact to underscore either the randomness and anonymity of violence in the modern world or, as in Eureka Street and other Troubles novels, the pointlessness of traditional political commitments -- left against right, Catholic against Protestant, separatist versus unionist -- which end up causing all the pointless violence. Such novels deliberately efface the identities of the terrorists and with them the political issues and organizations involved: all that really matters is the suffering that terrorism causes. (page 404-405)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Simulacra/Illusion, Literary/Poetic]
So terrorism novels have been very diverse. But there are limits to the diversity among all the novels, and patterns to be discerned. These novels, for one thing, are limited geographically. They occur almost entirely in Europe and the British Isles, the eastern seaboard of the United States, and a corner of the Middle East, with some attention paid to Latin America and almost none to such catastrophic sites of terrorist activity as Sri Lanka and Algeria. Little ever happens in Asia or sub-Saharan Africa or, for that matter, in such parts of the English-speaking world as Texas, Canada, or Australia. for another thing, the terrorists are almost always culled from the same list of suspects: Palestinian nationalists, European and American anarchists, Irish Republicans, and Latin American communists as well as, in thrillers, terrorists for hire, the latter often glamorously European assassins. (page 407)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
In most novels, the controlling consciousness is assigned not to terrorists and political activists who might sympathize with their cause, but to a handful of other kinds of characters: victims, bystanders, law enforcement officials, reporters, and a special category, popular among mainstream novelists...: inadvertent collaborators...Terrorism novels have been many things in the English-speaking world, but they have shied away from the representation of terrorism and terrorists from the psychological, moral, and epistemic perspectives of terrorists. (page 408-409)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
The story of terrorism in such novels is not the story of violence planned and exacted, but the tale of a disruption, a tear in the "fabric of everydayness". It is as much a story of something missing or taken away -- a continuity in everyday life, a familiar landmark, the life of a loved one -- as it is a story of assertive aggression. Indeed, as we will see below, for most novels it is the disruption that is decisive. And so it is not the terrorism that is fully present in the novel, but terrorism's effects. (page 415)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
Though a novel about terrorism lacking a terrorist incident is certainly conceivable, none of our novels seems able to do without the incident or counterincident and the function it formally serves. (page 417)
Tags: [Terror, Literary/Poetic]
But novels like American Pastoral deliberately stand apart from the crowd, removing themselves from the relatively naive conventions of plot-driven fiction. If they are about terrorism, these novels are also about something else, a wider theme of which terrorism is only a symptom and which requires that terrorist violence not be allowed to drive the main plot of the story to its conclusion...Yet at the core of all these novels there is nevertheless a determinative incident: a bombing, a kidnapping, a torture scene, which very much succeeds in having a lasting and definitive impact on the lives of the protagonists and the course of their narrative journeys. So, again, it can be said that the terrorist plot is the soul of the terrorism novel. (page 417)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
[I]t is crucial to provide two sorts of identity: for on the on hand, every novel in our sample specifies a political identity, an affiliation of the incident with a political faction and the purposes for which the faction is agitating; and on the other hand, every novel also provides the incident with what may be called a characterological identity. The political identity of the terrorist incident is often drawn blandly or unreflectively. It is enough in some novels to say "IRA" or "Palestinians" -- or, I'm the intentionally ridiculous and apolitical Glamorama, "fashion models". The political realities behind terrorist incidents are seldom expanded upon i these novels, and when they are, the convictions of the terrorists are commonly belittled, parodied, or rejected...There is no political necessity for a resort to terrorism, this and many other novels make clear. There is not even a political advisability or plausibility for the resort to terrorism, for the terrorist act proceeds from a motive beyond political calculation. Thus the political identity of terrorist incidents in such novels is almost always unsatisfactory, even if it is also a necessary correlate of the terrorist incident...But if the incidents have unsatisfactorily obscure political identities, they usually come with expansive characterological identities. (page 418)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
The "something missing," the tear in the fabric of everydayness that the victims of terrorism suffer, includes the absence of an explanation of why they have suffered, a premise according to which someone might have believed in terror or have been impelled by personal circumstances to engage in terror. Not only are the victims innocent; they suffer from being unable to point to who is guilty and why. It is probably no exaggeration to say that, when the terrorist incident lacks identity as either a political ideology or a character-driven agency, the novels operate around the idea that it is just this lack of an identity that renders the incident dreadfully absurd. Here the victims suffer for no reason at all. (page 419)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
Most of these novels sentimentalize terrorism in just this sense: terrorism is something that the reader is caused to want to prevent or to undo on behalf of its victims; terrorism is something that causes terror and pity and anguish and that cries out for relief: relief for the victims and for the readers who identify and sympathize with them. It is for this reason that we make our claim that terrorism novels commonly sentimentalize terror. They make it into a pretext for feeling; and not just the feeling of suspense but also of affective solidarity between the reader and the fictional beings whose welfare and/or suffering the narratives document. It is for this reason too that we claim that most of these novels implicitly argue on behalf of the moral and political legitimacy of the side the victims are on. The victims have never done anything to deserve what befalls them; they are victims pure and simple. Nor do they ever stand for something which might rightfully be targeted by political violence or participate in a political society whose members may justifiably be targeted by terrorist violence. Without necessarily making overt arguments, or having characters make overt arguments, about the political or moral legitimacy of the society to which terrorism's victims belong, the novels recruit us to the side of victims, terrorizing us along with them, and in so doing implicitly enlist us against the perpetrators, rendering illegitimate the terrorists' political aims often even without stopping to say what they are. (page 422-423)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Culture, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
For the criminal mind, and sympathy with criminality, may not be as foreign to crime novels on the whole as the terrorist mind and sympathy with terrorism are to our sample of terrorism novels. (page 423)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic, Crime/Noir]
[Terrorism novels] prefer to dramatize, portentously, the threat of philosophical and psychological derangement rather than account for the real sources of terrorist violence in the world. (page 426)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, Literary/Poetic]
[T]he cultural work of the terrorism novel from 1970 to 2001 has been by and large to legitimate the position of innocence occupied by terrorism's victims and the political society to which they belong. If novels frequently encourage identification with a form of complicity, they seldom if ever challenge the legitimacy of the moral, legal, and political order against which a complicity with the other is proposed. These novels tell us that terrorism is the violence of an Other; it is illegitimate violence perpetrated from an illegitimate position...What contemporary fiction does with terrorism is mainly to articulate the subject position of the nonterrorist, who is not quite at fault, but not quite uninvolved, either. (page 427)
Tags: [Politics & Novels, Terror, The Other, Literary/Poetic]