Traumatic Brain Injury in Post-9/11 Fiction

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Periodically throughout Jess Walter's 2006 novel The Zero, the brain-injured detective Brian Remy confesses his confusion to interlocutors ranging from the woman he has woken up beside to his work partner to colleagues at a bar. "I'm not sure what's real and what isn't," he claims; "I can't keep track of anything anymore."1 Remy means for these comments to be taken literally; he frequently finds himself coming to consciousness in the midst of unfamiliar situations. But, in what becomes a running gag, those to whom he speaks interpret his comments not in relation to his neuropsychological condition (which is, of course, invisible to them) but as a generalized series of complaints about post-9/11 New York. At the bar, as he notes, "Some of the guys laughed. Others nodded as if he'd struck a chord." 2 "I know what you mean,"3 they say, and "Maybe that's what life is like for everyone."4 In Richard Powers's The Echo Maker, also published in 2006 and nominated, like The Zero, for that year's National Book Award, something similar occurs: all the characters who interact with brain-injured protagonist Mark Schluter reflect that they too suffer from the syndrome that afflicts him. The recurrence of such scenes does more than reveal the similarity of these otherwise quite different post-9/11 American novels. It suggests that the attacks' cultural afterlifeat least as of the mid-2000sis evident through a series of disruptions to and distortions of memory. By considering the topic of memory, both novels also offer a rejoinder to recent complaints that post-9/11 fiction is either too realistic or not realistic enough.5 In both, actual recent political and social events expose what Marc Redfield has called, in relation to the 9/11 attacks, the "virtual[ization of] trauma" itself.

In fact, traumatic brain injury, or TBI, is central to both novels, although neither identifies it as such: each begins in the immediate aftermath of a major head injury suffered by its protagonist, in The Zero a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head and in The Echo Maker one of multiple injuries sustained in a truck rollover. Both repeatedly juxtapose literal discussion of this injurythe fact that each protagonist's debilitation is the effect of a particular, physical eventwith claims that the injury exemplifies more general cultural trends and attitudes. This juxtaposition echoes recurrent debates about the nature and effects of TBI itself. Characterized as the "signature wound or injury for our time,"6 TBI has generally been described as either an individual, empirically verifiable, physiological condition or an essentially "metaphorical" "trauma" whose origins are cultural.7 But Walter and Powers expose the slippage between these explanations as well as between the real and imagined and between what Redfield calls a post-9/11 confusion of "knowledge," "amnesia," "memory" and "hyperbolic forgetting."8 In the process, both explore what scholar Mark Seltzer has called, in a discussion of trauma, "a fundamental shattering or breaking-in of [ . .  . ] boundaries,"9 including those between "the physical" and "the psychical" and between the "torn and exposed individual" here, the TBI-afflicted protagonistand the "public spectacle."10

What Seltzer also calls "coalescence or collapse"11 is evident in both novels' refusal to identify TBI as such, as well as their evasive treatment of the 9/11 attacks. (This evasiveness exemplifies Redfield's implication that after 9/11 amnesia functions as a mode of memory that is "projected against the ground zero of a hyperbolic forgetting."12 The Zero is mostly set in Lower Manhattan while the remains of the WTC are still smoldering; at the time of his injury, protagonist Brian Remy has been working as a first responder. Ground Zero, obliquely referred to as "the Zero," is always in the background. Remy and his partner Paul Guterak several times tour the site, and Remy is hired to investigate a terrorist plot purportedly linked to the suspicious actions before the attacks of a woman working in the Towers. Yet The Zero never describes the attacks (which Remy can't remember until the end of the novel) or even identifies them as such; Remy and his coworkers instead repeatedly refer to "that day."

In The Echo Maker, mostly set in Kearney, Nebraska, beginning in early 2002, the attacks are even more remote. The novel refers to the WTC site only once, and indirectly: Dr. Gerald Weber, the Oliver Sacks-like neurologist who comes to Kearney to examine protagonist Mark Schluter, recalls that during a 2002 Manhattan visit he saw "a patch of sky where there should be none."13 Yet 9/11 is also central enough to the novel's background that Colson Whitehead has called it a "post-9/11 novel"; Powers himself has associated it with an "estrangement" that he calls "the baseline condition for life in [21st-century] terrorized America."14 As Charles Harris has observed, the attacks also indirectly cause Mark's accident: 15 Barbara, the aide who helps care for Mark, was a journalist working in New York City at the time of "the towers," she tells Weber late in the novel, but the act of repeatedly "sticking a video camera in people's faces" makes her "[start] to lose it."16 This PTSD-like reaction leads her to reassignment to Kearney, where her attempted suicide on a dark road causes Mark to swerve and crash his truck.

Certainly physical debilitationincluding Remy's recurrent "floaters and flashes" and Mark's slow process of learning to speakand memory problems are central to both novels even as other characters repeatedly interpret their protagonists' conditions as emblematic of early 21st-century American culture. While both novels repeatedly describe such metaphoric explanations, neither novel fully commits to them. Instead, both espouse a more fractured mode of connection that recalls the "metonymic displacing [ . . . ] of the already-available world and its language"17 associated by Rosemary Winslow with "trauma writing."

In The Zero, the recurrent scenes in which others identify with Remy's "gaps" are partly comic, partly tragic: we are meant to identify with these claims but also to note their redundancy. Certainly the single scene in which Remy visits a psychiatrist seems deeply satirical. The psychiatrist glibly diagnoses Remy with "textbook PTSD"18 and reassures him that the "secret agents" and "mysterious Arab men" with whom he has been interacting are "delusions, persecution, paranoia. Delirium."19 Remy subsequently informs several characters that they and their predicaments are not "even real."20 But a later scene seems to echo the psychiatrist's association of Remy's symptoms with the trauma of 9/11: Remy confides to Jaguar, one of the men he is following, that the Zero ("nothing left here but a hole, a yawning emptiness fifty feet deep") resembles his own mind, which is "maybe [ . . . ] a hole like thisthe evidence and reason scraped away."21

While Remy's condition seems to localize something already pervasive in the culture, a similar confusion of what Seltzer calls the "individual" with "the public spectacle" is evident in The Echo Maker through Powers's implication that Mark's condition has expanded beyond its bodily confines. Just as Mark is troubled by his failure to recall the events leading up to his accident, Weber, who plans to describe Mark's case in a new book about memory, acknowledges "worry" about his own memory problems.22 The Capgras Syndrome Mark develops shortly after his accidentdefined by his local doctor as "one of a family of misidentification delusions"23 in which the patient fails to identify "his loved ones"24is similarly linked by all the novel's central characters to early-21st-century experience. Weber, for example, calls Capgras "contagious,"25 and Mark's sister and caregiver Karin at one point notes that "the whole race suffer[s] from Capgras."26 And while Mark's sense that he is the victim of a massive conspiracy is partly an effect of his Capgras, Powers locates these delusions in the context of "newspapers [ . . . ] full of conspiracy theories"27 and "crackpot talk-radio show[s]" ranting about terrorist prevention.28 Mark's Capgras is thus depicted variously as a physiological effect of his neurological condition, a metaphor for contemporary culture, an effect of this culture, and an ironic subversion of it.

Both novels also suggest that what seems real is actually characterized by virtuality and performance and the reverse. A number of Mark's theoriesincluding several that Weber claims sound "like paranoid invention"29turn out to be accurate. In contrast, Remy's attempt to identify the members of a secret terrorist cell culminates in his realization that no one in the supposed cell "happens not to be a government informant."30 Yet even after this revelation, the performance continues: government agents impel the fake terrorists to make extremist declarations, as one character notes, "just like on TV,"31 after which, as part of a propaganda campaign, nearly all of them are killed. But then Jaguar, the survivor, ends up detonating a bomb provided by government agents to make their raid seem more real. The problem, according to both novels, is that reality itself has been so suffused with virtuality that old-fashioned realism has become unrealistic.

This confusion of the real and the virtual is in some ways consistent with features associated (by Seltzer and others) with both TBI and trauma more generally. But it also enables both novels to comment, at least obliquely, on their status as novels. Both plots focus on Remy and Mark's attempts to construct coherent narratives from the fragments to which they have access. The Echo Maker, especially in its last third, reads like a mystery; in The Zero, Remy's revelations help readers, who participate throughout in his mid-scene blackouts, decipher its highly fractured plot. Yet both protagonists' interpretations are also inaccurate. Remy fails to anticipate the actual bomb explosion that impels him to recall the events of "that day," while Mark's theory that his sister and house have been replaced by simulations is, as several characters note, internally consistent but untrue.

In this context, it is significant that both novels depict frustrated attempts at reading and interpretation. Not only does Remy discover a cryptic possible suicide note reading "Etc. . . ."32 when he first awakens, but his only memory of 9/11 for much of the novel is of paper: "He remembered smoke and he remembered standing alone while a billion sheets of paper fluttered to the ground."33 His subsequent research requires that he interpret some of these "partials"torn or partly burned bits of paper collected and carefully sorted by the novel's bureaucrats.34 In The Echo Maker, a mysterious note Mark discovers by his hospital bedside catalyzes his quest to understand the cause of his accident, a search often indistinguishable from his search for the note's author. Yet Remy's investigation fails to prevent a future attack, and the provenance of Mark's note can only be explained by Barbara.

Similar acts of frustrated and inconclusive reading are a staple of postmodern fiction, but these novels offer (or in the case of The Echo Maker imply) extratextual, real-life explanations for their preoccupation with interpretation. The Zero includes two framing statements. A prefatory notes reads, in its entirety, "This happened,"35  but the final acknowledgments assert that "this book is fiction" and express the author's "wish" that "those people whose real pain I witnessed [. . . find] real peace"36 (italics added). The novel unfolds between these contradictory claims about veracity. Walter's acknowledgment elsewhere that many of the novel's details derive from his observations of Ground Zero while he was working as a ghostwriter for the real New York mayor37 further complicates the distinction between truth and fiction.

Perhaps the most explicit comment on a similar confusion occurs late in The Echo Maker when Weber reflects on the truth of "stories," that is, the case histories on which his reputation was built:


Here, the interplay between "story," "stories" that are "true," "fictional truth," and "narrat[ion]" signals the difficulty of distinguishing these concepts. Weber self-identifies as an author; his wife sometimes calls him "Famous Gerald." Yet he here acknowledges the charges journalists bring against him throughout the novel, chief among them that he has used the stories of real people for personal gain while ignoring their actual suffering. Paradoxically, his use of the third person in this apparently intimate confession suggests, at this moment of self-revelation, his need to fictionalize his own experiences.

This passage is spoken by a secondary character in relation to a subplot. A fictional character who resembles at least one real-life neuroscientist, Weber here considers the real-life implications of his fictionalizations. Such reflections invite us to recognize that Powers too is implicated: Weber's ruminations enable Powers himself indirectly to speak aboutor more exactly to interrogatehis own aims in writing. What, that is, does it mean to convey real-life neurological conditions in fiction? Does Powers's post-9/11 novel represent, as do Weber's case histories, a savvy career move? (Powers did, after all, receive the 2006 National Book Award.) In fact, is it, as Weber elsewhere notes of his own writing (357), "basically immoral" to write fiction after 9/11? Or can such fiction be justified, partly because it is (only) fiction?

As I have been arguing, neither novel directly answers these questions about fiction's capacity to convey, and also to compete with, preexisting reality. Instead, both present what might be called facsimiles of fact-based fiction, apparently realistic fiction that avoids what some have called the hyperreality of 9/11 itself. Fiction is relevant, both suggest, only insofar as it interrogates its own relevance. Remy's gaps and Mark's Capgras are simultaneously individual and collective, physiological and tropological, real and imaginary, metaphoric and metonymic. In fact, TBI (along with other neuropsychological conditions) may be so compelling to these (and other) post-9/11 novelists because it forces positivist, (neuro)scientific discourse together with a sense of radical uncertainty. (The TBI plot is also at least implicitly political insofar as most recent American cases of TBI are the result of war injuries, a connection that was emerging as early as 2005.39 ) Or perhaps the explanation is simpler. Jonathan Lethem has argued that it has always been difficult to "distinguish amnesia from fiction,"40 a difficulty that may help explain why the concept of amnesia has become, at the start of the 21st century, "a floating metaphor very much in the air."41 Certainly 21st-century discoursefrom discussions of Alzheimer's disease to the spate of recent thrillers about amnesiacshas so far been deeply concerned with, and also deeply anxious about, memory loss, knowledge, and how they coincide.

Perhaps surprisingly, both novels end with the implication that the need to narrate or detect can, and perhaps even must, give way to something quite different. At several points, Remy observes that he feels "a kind of drifting contentment, slipped consciousness"42; he claims to have "convinced himself that if he just abandoned himself to this skidding, lurching life, without questioning it, things would turn out okay."43 Similarly, by the end of The Echo Maker (and with the help of a new drug protocol suggested by Weber), Mark stops chafing against Karin, acknowledging that he has "grown close [to her] over [the] months" following his accident44; "only some kind of direct synapse transfer," he reflects, could have given her knowledge of their shared childhood, "which means that something of his sister is actually downloaded inside this woman.[. . .] Some part of her brain, her soul. A little bit of Karin here."45 This voluntary relinquishing of the need to know and remember is relevant not only to these brain-injured protagonists but 21st-century Americans more generally.

 

*Thanks to Jeanne Follansbee, Katherine Fusco, and Gautam Premnath for useful comments on an earlier version of this article.

Ann Keniston is an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she has taught since 2002. She is the author of two monographs, including the just-published Ghostly Figures: Memory and Belatedness in Postwar American Poetry (Iowa, 2015) and is coeditor of two collections on 21st-century and post-9/11 American literature (with another forthcoming in 2016). She is at work on a new monograph on economics and 21st-century American poetry, as well as a collection of poems.

  1. Jess Walters, The Zero (New York: HarperCollins, 2006). 102, 128. []
  2. Ibid., 95. []
  3. Ibid., 228. []
  4. Ibid, 128 []
  5. Ruth Franklin (in "The Stubborn, Inward Gaze of the Post-9/11 Novel," The New Republic, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books/magazine/94180/september-11-the-novel-turns-inward) criticizes 9/11 literature for exaggerating the attacks' significance, whereas Anis Shivani (in "Announcing the Death of the Post-9/11 Novel," Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/announcing-the-death-of-t_b_525805.html) claims that it trivializes the attacks' incommensurability. []
  6. Daniel R. Morrison and Monica J. Casper, "Intersections of Disability Studies and Critical Trauma Studies: A Provocation," in Disability Studies Quarterly 32, no. 2 (2012), http://www. http://dsq-sds.org/article/view/3189/3073. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Marc Redfield, "Virtual Trauma: The Idiom of 9/11," Diacritics 37, no. 1 (2007), http://muse.jhu.edu/ journals/diacritics/ v037/37.1.redfield.html, 59. []
  9. Mark Seltzer, "Wound Culture: Trauma in the Pathological Public Sphere." October 80 (1997), http://www.jstor.org/stable/778805?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents, 10. []
  10. Ibid., 4. []
  11. Ibid., 4 []
  12. Redfield, "Virtual Trauma," 59. []
  13. Richard Powers, The Echo Maker: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006), 99. []
  14. Colson Whitehead, "Migratory Spirits," review of The Echo Maker by Richard Powers, New York Times Sunday Book Review 22 October 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/22/books/review/Whitehead.t.html?_r=0. []
  15. Charles B. Harris, "The Story of the Self: The Echo Maker and Neurological Realism," in Intersections: Essays on Richard Powers, ed. by Stephen J. Burn and Peter Dempsey (Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008), 244-45. []
  16. Powers, The Echo Maker, 435. []
  17. Powers, The Echo Maker, 609. []
  18. Walter, The Zero, 194. []
  19. Ibid., 195. []
  20. Ibid., 199. []
  21. Ibid., 307. []
  22. Powers, The Echo Maker, 220. []
  23. Ibid., 61. []
  24. Ibid. []
  25. Ibid., 430. []
  26. Ibid., 347. []
  27. Ibid., 117. []
  28. Ibid., 5. []
  29. Ibid., 391. []
  30. Walter, The Zero, 294. []
  31. Ibid., 315. []
  32. Ibid., 4-5. []
  33. Ibid., 306. []
  34. Ibid., 98. []
  35. Ibid., n.p. []
  36. Ibid, 327 []
  37. Jess Walter, interviewed by Amy Grace Lloyd, "P.S. Insights, Interviews, & More" in The Zero (New York: HarperCollins, 2006); and "Q&A with The Zero's Jess Walter" in Book Thieves: The Altruistic Reviewers of Unknown Authors, July 7, 2007. []
  38. Walter, The Zero, 413-14 []
  39. "Brain Injury and War in IRAQ: News Items," Brain Injury Association of Oregon, http://biaoregon.org. []
  40. Jonathan Lethem. Introduction to The Vintage Book of Amnesia: An Anthology of Writing on the Subject of Memory Loss, ed. Jonathan Lethem (New York: Vintage, 2000), xvi. []
  41. Ibid., xiii. []
  42. Walter, The Zero, 164. []
  43. Ibid., 180-81 []
  44. Powers, The Echo Maker, 257. []
  45. Ibid., 373. []

an otherwise healthy man [ . . . ] thought that stories turned real. People spoke the world into being.[ . . .] That one delusionstories came trueseemed like the germ of healing. Story was the storm at the cortex's core. And there was no better way to get at that fictional truth than through [. . . ] neurological parables [ . . . ]stories of how even shattered brains might narrate disaster back into livable sense.38