You wouldn't know it by looking at him—he was once cast in Woody Allen's Manhattan as a "homunculus" to make Woody look comparatively macho—but Wallace Shawn is an American Renaissance man. Short, bald, soft, with a wet infantile lisp emerging from a droopy-eyed face that makes him look a perennial insomniac, Shawn has become one of our best comic character actors (he was Vizzini in The Princess Bride, the timid dinosaur in the Toy Story movies), though his sly technique has also attracted such serious-minded directors as Louis Malle, Mike Nichols and Andre Gregory (for whom he worked in the amazing Vanya on 42nd Street). He also happens to be one of the country's major playwrights (Aunt Dan and Lemon, Marie and Bruce, The Designated Mourner) as well as the co-creator of a daring little classic of American film called My Dinner With Andre, which is composed in its entirety of Shawn and Gregory saying extraordinary things over dinner.
Like Allen, Shawn's a congenital New Yorker—he gets a little phobic thinking of the world that stretches beyond Manhattan—and the disasters of Sept. 11 hit him particularly hard. A self-described "bland liberal" until he was 40, Shawn, in Sept. 11's aftermath, began to think more seriously about his responsibilities as a citizen of a country whose leaders, as he puts it, "have a sick need to set fire to cities, wear enormous crowns and march across crowds of prostrate people." That Shawn benefits from the actions of Bush and Co. in a very real way—they're the ones whose martial posturings make it possible for Shawn (and many of the rest of us) to live a "very easy . . . and very pleasant life"—was not lost on him, however, so he got a group of his writer friends together to create a magazine that would address the strange fate of being an American in the post-Sept. 11 era. Because Shawn is anything but grandiose, he decided to call the magazine quits with the publication of its inaugural issue, which he's titled Final Edition, which is both a cute marketing ploy and a testament to Shawn's modesty. (Seven Stories Press has published 7,000 copies of the edition. It's hard as hell to find in bookstores, so you'd best order it at www.sevenstories.com.)
The content is anything but modest, though: it includes Shawn's interview with Noam Chomsky, a long story from Deborah Eisenberg, a short essay by Jonathan Schell (who wrote the classic jeremiad about nuclear war The Fate of the Earth), fragments from Shawn's diaries in the months leading up to the past election, and a deeply moving new poem by Mark Strand. Schell's essay works off the premise that since Sept. 11, "the very quality of public events . . . has seemed to undergo a certain deterioration, as if from that day forward, history was being authored by a third-rate writer rather than a master or was being compelled, even as it visited increasing suffering among real people, to follow the plot of a bad comic book." The reason? The new bond that had formed between the media and terrorism: "the news media's longstanding symbiosis with violent criminals along with their infection of reality with fantasy provided models for bin Laden's action as well as a global stage on which it would appear and be guaranteed unlimited coverage." The media didn't consciously seek this bond, of course; nevertheless, its millennial trajectories—toward more and more violent spectacle, toward more and more confusion of the real and the fantastic—play into terrorist strategies and work, as Schell puts it, to damage "the dignity of the real."
And Bush's response to the attacks—his Manichean separation between "lovers of freedom" and "evildoers"—just dumbed down the comic book even more. We might laugh this off as one more act in the postmodern bazaar, but Schell reminds us that "the injection of fantasy into the real offends the aesthetic sense, but the true price is paid in blood—in the torture of prisoners, in the launch of wars."
Shawn's interview with Chomsky starts oddly: Shawn poses some strikingly naive and leading questions ("Wouldn't it benefit the world if more people studied philosophy?"), which Chomsky clearly has no interest in addressing, and it takes a while for Shawn to set aside his agenda and just let Chomsky talk, which he does, about class ("Class is a dirty word in the United States. You can't talk about it"), the distortions of consumerism ("What you're taught from infancy is that the only choices you're supposed to make are choices of commodities") and the fallacies of America's "free market" economy ("Just about everything in the new economy . . . computers, Internet, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals . . . comes out of state initiatives"). In the end, Shawn catches up, though, and tops off the interview with a marvelous little excavation of the hope for engaged citizenship that is buried in Chomsky's Cassandrisms.
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Shawn's diaries leading up to the election are probably the journal's weakest entry, though he does manage a sustained and provocative comparison between addicts of porn and those "frightening number of Americans who seek relief in nationalistic fantasy": "Their dream is not about sex or pleasure . . . instead it's about blood, which is flowing from the wounds of the enemies of the nation. And just as the male heterosexual pornography addict identifies with and revels in the exploits of the triumphant naked male in the pornographic scene, the nationalism addict identifies with the soldier, the bomber and above all the president."
Deborah Eisenberg's story, titled "Twilight of the Superheroes," which at 40 pages takes up half the journal, is a kind of "The Way We Live Now" tapestry of post-Sept. 11 New York life, and if it reminds us structurally of the late Susan Sontag's classic story of life in the city when AIDS first devastated the populace, Eisenberg's tone is much more Grace Paley, loopy, philosophically penetrating, adolescently excitable by turns. The theme, woven through two strands of narrative, is about how America, even New York itself, has convinced itself that things have "gotten back to normal" after the attacks, when in actuality we've just returned to the consumer/entertainment mindset that preceded the attacks: "the curtain" that rose after Sept. 11 to expose us to the national complicity in international horror, the curtain that rose then to remind us of our mortality has fallen again.
But the crown jewel of the journal is Mark Strand's gorgeously deft poem "The Webern Variations." Though it's the only contribution that doesn't directly address Sept. 11, its theme is facing mortality, so its presence here is hardly out of place. Consciously evoking T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, the poem's about the poet's responsibility to "stitch and sew the shroud of song" in the face of the inner quaking that comes when the "sudden gust" of our mortality attacks us. It's about the challenge to sing death's coming, to hear the "secret voice of being telling us/that where we disappear is where we are." It's poems like this that keep Eisenberg's curtain from falling completely and best illuminate Shawn's effort in Final Edition to respond humanely to the task of taking the national narrative back from the third-rate hacks and returning it to a master.
Final Edition edited by Wallace Shawn; Seven Stories Press; www.sevenstories.com. Magazine, 79 pages, $10.