18 June 2005

"There's a Hole in the City" by Richard Bowes

I tried hard to dislike Richard Bowes's story "There's a Hole in the City". Because it somehow seems crass to write fiction about September 11, 2001, to use real tragedy to evoke a reader's sympathy for imagined characters. Because it's so easy to become maudlin and sentimental about tragedies, to invoke God and Hallmark, to trivialize. Because a short story just shouldn't try to encompass all that. Because we risk losing real emotion through knee-jerk responses. Because.

But the story gripped me with more force than anything I've read in months. The matter-of-fact, journalistic tone helps make the emotions of the story truthful rather than overblown. The details of life in the altered landscape of downtown Manhattan are convincing, and I found the story particularly haunting because I was a student at NYU for three years and lived and worked in the area Bowes describes, though by 2001 I was in New Hampshire.

The story is complex, even enigmatic, without being baffling. It's a ghost story (as was the only other story about September 11 I've read that has impressed me, Lucius Shepard's "Only Partly Here", which I wrote about last year), and while I can imagine a less careful writer deciding to create a story of scary hauntings to try to jerk the reader into feeling the terror of that time, Bowes has more taste and tact than that. His ghosts are the ghosts of memory, the ghosts of dreams, the ghosts of despair. They are the shadows that haunt a consciousness rattled by events too large for the mind to absorb all at once.

I feel like there should be more to say, but one of the wonders of the best fiction is that through words it builds something beyond words in our brains, and while that something-beyond-words remains strong, there's no need to say more.