Seven American Deaths and Disasters by Kenneth Goldsmith
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was at work in a café in St. Paul. For reasons unknown, the place was news-themed, so we had two televisions mounted in a corner, tuned to CNN and constantly muted, running closed captions all day while we played Tammy Wynette and Blackalicious. The first plane came as a curiosity; I gawked at the fiery hole while I carried out plates of pancakes. With the second we entered some other air. We turned off the music and stared at the television. It was the meth-addled assistant manager who identified the genre of the event: not malfunction, but terrorism. Customers came in knowing nothing; we enlightened them, if that's the word. Chastened, they ordered coffee, no mochas, no raspberry anything. It was a strange day at work. When the Towers fell, I was behind the espresso machine, trying to put together or fathom my emotional reaction. Mostly, I remember reading the captions, impersonal and voiceless in their all-caps, yet wrought with error, stutters, and the sheer deviance of the thing from any expected event or syntax.
Why this reminiscence? Kenneth Goldsmith's Seven American Deaths and Disasters impels me to it. Transcripts of seven deaths and events (JFK, RJK, Lennon, Challenger, Columbine, 9/11, Michael Jackson), together with a short afterword by Goldsmith make up the book. The transcripts elicit the same strange reactions as the events themselves -- triviality struggling with meaning and voyeurism, involuntary feelings sparking amid search for a "right" feeling. Goldsmith calls this mélange "the flickering edge of cliché," which is an apt enough term for the tumult continually evoked here, with the little distinction that this is literature and therefore a safe zone in which to watch oneself flicker.
Or so it should be, but I kept losing that sense of safety as I read. Goldsmith's material, unmistakably real, refuses to remain in a literary frame:
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And now we take you to KLIF Mobile Unit No. 4 in downtown Dallas.
The latest information -- and things are rather confused as this moment -- shots were definitely fired at the presidential motorcade as it passed through downtown Dallas. All squads are converging code three in the area of Elm and Houston in downtown. There is a tentative description of the shooting suspect. A man, a white male believed to be approximately thirty years old, reportedly armed with a thirty caliber rifle. How many shots were fired, how many persons, if any, were struck and wounded, we do not know yet...
Faced with this, I found it hard to parse "themes" or "appreciate" or think about Goldsmith's "accomplishment."
Goldsmithians will be familiar with the quandary. It seems the usual procedure, when confronting his conceptual, "uncreative" (his word) writing is to head off in a meta-direction, discussing ideas of authorship and literary production, while leaving the work at hand mostly untouched. Closer to the ground, one could analyze what we learn about radio news here (which is a lot; I would assign this book if I taught high school civics or journalism) -- how some newscasters come across as heroic in their willingness to voice what they see ("Oh! A terrible thing!" exclaims a broadcaster after the Challenger explosion), while others seem craven in their desire to "name" events ("The music world was rocked by the sound of gunshots," one reports after Lennon's death), what it is to speak constantly ("Repetition in my speech. I have no alternative. The shock is is so great," one stutters after RFK's shooting), and so on. Or one can tackle Goldsmith's editorial choices, how he transcribes, how he cuts, what he includes. Surely Michael Jackson is here as a bit of a joke, and he's the fleck of diversity in an account that mostly spotlights white male trauma (the Challenger and 9/11 being exceptions), but then this reflects a wider media reality, and so on.
But the approaches above tend to blot out the experience of the flicker, the wince of discomfort, and the leaping fascination, and I want to stay with those strange sensations. I'm oddly reminded of Emily Dickinson, how her poems remain attached to her life and refuse to be entirely removed from their context in it, how her literature and life cannot be teased apart. Dickinson and Goldsmith both place experiences we typically think of as extra-literary inside the literary frame. They are fundamentally impure -- and I want to mirror back with impurity of my own.
I remember The Challenger. I was eight, watching the launch on television like everyone else, with my family. The shuttle powered up, left ground, went wrong. The wrong was obvious, the asymmetry of it, the disaster; we did not need to be told. It was nothing you would choose to see. My mother must have shooed us outside after.
To write that, I just looked up the Challenger disaster on Wikipedia, which I've never done before. (I also have not looked at anything 9/11 related since the month after it happened -- photos, video, anything.) Why have I never looked before? I've been curious, but curiosity didn't seem motive enough. What reason suffices to look at another's death -- or is any needed? I remember my whole family there, but it was a Tuesday, so my father must have been at work. I didn't remember, or I never knew, that the astronauts most likely survived the explosion, dying when their compartment hit the surface of the ocean.
We lived in Florida; our parents often talked about taking us to a launch at Cape Canaveral, but we never made it. Did we go once when a launch was cancelled? I seem to remember wandering among immense missiles. Once we saw the shuttle streaking across the sky. It was near -- our sky, our ocean. We weren't in school, so my brother and I went back to climbing trees. But all day the wrongness, the wreck hung over us -- something we would remember just as we almost forgot it, a stain on the day.
Seven American Deaths and Disasters by Kenneth Goldsmith