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Names of the Dead: An Elegy for the Victims of September 11

by Diane Schoemperlen

Surely no one would dispute that real-life tragedy can spark transcendent art. But that blithe generalization gets put to the test in Diane Schoemperlen’s new book-length essay, Names of the Dead: An Elegy for the Victims of September 11.

One might wonder, first, why such an elegy should be delivered by an Ontario novelist with no connection to any of the victims. To pre-empt that question, Schoemperlen quotes François Mauriac on the Holocaust: “It is not always the events we have been directly involved in that affect us the most.” Fair enough. But as an effort to transform such events into literature, Names of the Dead must stand as a how-not-to by nearly any measure.

The book is essentially an alphabetical list of the names of all 2,973 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, interspersed with biographical details, factoids, a timeline of the day’s major events, some lightly fictionalized scenes, and sometimes just lone words – “conflagration,” “emptiness,” “valor.” This fragmentary form does nicely evoke a sense of post-catastrophe confusion and terror. And since Schoemperlen’s feeling for the domestic and quotidian is one of her great strengths as a fiction writer, she’s well suited to researching and celebrating the everyday lives of the victims.

Names of the Dead, however, is cloying and sentimental in tone – entirely appropriate for a memorial, but not to be taken seriously in a piece of writing. And throughout the book, Schoemperlen relies on intellectual and emotional shortcuts. By her own admission, her list-heavy technique (possessions, hobbies, distinguishing body features) is borrowed from Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam story “The Things They Carried,” but she only occasionally achieves O’Brien’s incantatory power.

Worse, Schoemperlen constantly grasps for added pathos when none is necessary. Any victim with a birthday, wedding anniversary, or other milestone that falls near the attacks gets a special mention, as does any expectant father; the ones without such a ready-made zinger in their biographies merely have their names listed. And the character sketches resort again and again to the basest of dramatic ironies: “She could almost allow herself to believe that the best was yet to come,” thinks one victim on the eve of the attacks.

Names of the Dead ostensibly seeks to honour the 9/11 victims, and it appears to have been written with genuine feeling. But in Schoemperlen’s hands, these people’s lives have become nothing more than hackneyed literary devices – she denies them their humanity even as she attempts to celebrate it.