The Terrorism Novel in a Surrealist Mode

Updated: September 11, 2017 01:28:38 AM

By John Schoneboom

The Ancestor by Leonora Carrington

The Surrealist ideology...never ceased wishing for the death of America. [They] went a long way early on in prefiguring what happened on September 11...As Breton [said:] "May America afar crumble with its white buildings"...Words are responsible; they are answered...Three generations of intellectuals were raised on surrealist milk. Hence our silence and our embarrassment.

-- Jean Clair (2001)

The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down into the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.

-- Andre Breton (2010 [1930])

I had just come back to New York, after twenty-odd years of living out of state. As of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I had been living in western Queens -- what I like to call Skyline Queens because of the view across the East River -- for less than a month. On that brilliantly blue morning, I stood with a small instant community of crisis-bonded strangers on the elevated 7-train platform at 40th Street in Sunnyside and watched that skyline across a few miles of open air.

Two giant chimneys: two buildings with matching diagonal airplane-sized gashes, billowing a lot of smoke out towards Brooklyn. That's all it was at first. That's all we could see. The close-ups were left to our imaginations, but we were receiving news. One man with his ear plugged into a pocket transistor radio had become our public-address system, and he relayed astonishing reports that turned out to be wildly baseless: luridly speculative tales involving dozens of hijacked planes, reports that the Supreme Court had been hit, Los Angeles under attack, no end in sight. Anything could still happen. Why not thirty planes? Why not fifty? We made comments to each other, trying to locate the right New York attitude, some indeterminate blend of jaded, wry, and pissed off. Meanwhile we scanned from the Verrazano up to the Bronx, pensively looking for incoming aircraft, the next big hit. I cast a protective eye over the Empire State Building.

But then one of the towers suddenly and silently crushed straight downward into the path of most resistance in great feathery plumes of exploded concrete and sun-bright twinkling sparkles of glass. All the way down at very near to the speed of dropped bowling balls. All the way gone.

That stopped all conversation immediately. It altered our consciousness. There were seven or eight of us standing there and we looked at each other just to confirm we had really seen it, that all of us had seen the same thing, the thing that couldn't have happened, the silent thing that must have thundered. Sickening unasked questions about numbers and unseen scenes of imagined chaos on the ground began to form in our minds, but could not quite dislodge the primacy of that immediate, visceral gambler's sense of impossibility. Something unfair and uncanny had happened. We beheld the new single-tower skyline in silence. It made no sense, but there it was.

And then of course it happened again.

We looked at the emptiness, towers now of pure smoke. No words were spoken, we were beyond the linguistic: post-predictable, maps discarded, in a dream-like bubble none of us were up to popping. We existed in a shared new imaginary, a dizzying overflow of the real and the unreal, fact indistinguishable from fiction, conscious wrestling with unconscious, rational with irrational, the whole city seemingly gone as mute as we had, the 7 trains suspended in both directions, no horns honking, New York discontinued.

That infusion of the dream-like into the real, the sense of a suspension of disbelief and of time, even as events proceeded with stunning rapidity, continued, for me, with the startling rise of the total surveillance national security state in the too-immediate aftermath of the inciting incident. That bubble of an unreal real seems to persist, its torture-testimony resistant to the power of language. There is no more argument. There are no more facts. There is only with or against.

My novel, The Science of a Single Cabbage (henceforth Single Cabbage), is in substantial part a considered reaction to my experience on the 7-train platform that morning and how it has conditioned my interpretation of subsequent events -- the War on Terror, the curtailing of civil liberties, the proliferation of competing, irreconcilable narratives -- up to and including the arrival of the so-called "post-truth" or "fake news" age and the presidential election of Donald Trump. In an attempt to capture the dream-like sensibility I experienced and to convert it into a literary aesthetic that defies clear distinctions between the real, the purported, the simulated, and the imagined, I have employed what I think of as a surrealist mode of writing.

Why a surrealist mode? Single Cabbage: a) richly indulges the signature surrealist fascination with the interplay of dream-life and conscious experience, b) manifests abundant, playful black humour (l'humour noir, a term coined by Andre Breton); c) shares a political sensibility akin to surrealism's anti-fascism; d) extends surrealism's sustained engagement with noir forms and spectacular crime (Eburne 2008) into the world of terrorism; and e) exploits paranoia's ability to create "systematized confusion" that is "corrosive to reality" within a public "symbolic space [that] has lost its innocence," as did the likes of Salvador Dali and René Crevel in the 1930s (Eburne 2003, p. 107,109).

Dreams, black humour, anti-fascism, crime, and paranoia: five pillars of both surrealism and my project. I don't suggest that the list is exhaustive, only that they are five core strands of surrealist thought that I have identified as being represented in my novel. These are fluid and overlapping elements, to be sure, variously applying to the techniques and the ethos of a surrealist literary mode. All these borders will prove porous. Yet I hope, as rough as it is, this approach will lend a useful structure to my argument.

My reference to the term "surrealism" is not intended to be limited specifically to Andre Breton's historical movement and its ever-shifting (and usually dwindling) formal membership. Rather, proceeding from the notion that "a state of mind survives" the surrealist school (Blanchot 1995 [1949], p. 85), I'm trying to locate an affinity within a more generously defined, yet still coherent, set of ideas and practices, predominantly originating in surrealist thinking but inclusive of related ideas from the movement's heirs, precursors, renegades, critics, competitors, and usurpers.

For example, when Jean Baudrillard describes a hyperreality that "can no longer dream" because images have become indistinguishable from the real "as though things had swallowed their own mirrors" (Baudrillard 2008, p. 4), one can, without going so far as to theorize a grand unified neo-surrealism, identify a certain specular resonance with Louis Aragon's statement in A Wave of Dreams, that "[t]he only way to look at Man is as the victim of his mirrors." (2010 [1924]). One can also, without much trouble, identify a fairly direct lineage from surrealism to Situationism, with its rise of the "spectacle" or the image over the real (Debord 2010 [1967]). From there it's a straightforward extension to Baudrillard's hyperreality and simulacra, which can be seen not only as further elaborations upon Debord (Hussey 2001) but as Baudrillard trying "to outdo the surrealists by locating the unreal 'in the real's hallucinatory resemblance to itself'" (San Juan Jr. 2004, p. 124).

In making such connections, I hope simply to contextualize my novel within a living mode of thought that can be seen in the spirit of carrying on the "unfinished project of surrealism" (Bryson 2000). This "surrealist mode" then is a term of convenience under whose umbrella resides a correlative association of dreams, the unconscious, the irrational, and the absurd. Among its aims is an interrogation of socially and psychologically constructed reality, with a particular interest in transgressing taboos in order to expose and disrupt the processes that establish the boundaries of the conceivable.


Aragon, Louis, 2010 [1924]. A Wave of Dreams. London: Thin Man Press. Susan de Muth, translator.

Baudrillard, Jean, 2008. The Perfect Crime. London: Verso.

Blanchot, Maurice, 1995 [1949]. Reflections on Surrealism. The Work of Fire. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Breton, Andre, 2010 [1930]. Second Manifesto of Surrealism. Manifestoes of Surrealism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Bryson, Norman, 2000. The Unfinished Project of Surrealism. Hypermental: Rampant Reality 1950-2000 From Salvador Dali to Jeff Koons. Bice Curiger, ed. New York: Distributed Art Publishers, Inc.: 15-18.

Clair, Jean, 2001. "Surrealism and the demoralisation of the West." Le Monde. November 22, 2001.

Debord, Guy, 2010 [1967]. Society of the Spectacle. Oakland, CA: AK Press.

Eburne, Jonathan, 2003. Surrealism Noir. Surrealism, Politics and Culture. Donald LaCoss and Raymond Spiteri, ed. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Eburne, Jonathan, 2008. Surrealism and the Art of Crime. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Hussey, Andrew, 2001. "Spectacle, Simulation and Spectre: Debord, Baudrillard and the ghost of Marx." Parallax 7(3): 63-72.

San Juan Jr., Epifanio, 2004. Working Through the Contradictions: From Cultural Theory to Critical Practice. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.