Telling Terror in Contemporary Australian Fiction

by Tino Dallmann (Author)
©2016 Thesis 171 Pages


After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, terrorism as a literary theme has flourished in Australian literature. This book examines how terrorism as a theme has been represented in five exemplary novels and elaborates a distinctively Australian approach to the topic. The novels taken into consideration focus on strategies of fictionalisation rather than the actual violence or the threat of it. By doing so, the author argues, Australian literature provides a powerful antidote to the widespread fear of a terrorist attack. Without competing with media and political sciences, this book underlines the contribution literary studies can make to the expanding field of terrorism research.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • I. Introduction: The Australian Antidote
  • II. Writing the Discourse: Terrorism, Literature and Post-9/11 Fiction
  • 2.1 Creating the Enemy: Terrorism as a Discourse
  • 2.2 Representations of Terrorism and “9/11” in English Fiction
  • 2.3 Terrorism as a Theme in Australian Fiction
  • III. The Discursive Antidote: Terrorism as a Theme in Recent Australian Fiction
  • 3.1 Due Preparations for the Plague: Terror as a Case of Epidemic
  • 3.2 Terrorism as Myth of the Underground: Janette Turner Hospital’s Orpheus Lost
  • 3.3 Adib Khan’s Spiral Road: Terror as a Response to the Globalised World
  • 3.4 The Unknown Terrorist: Fashions of the Terrorism Question
  • 3.5 Andrew McGahan’s Underground: Terrorism as Satire
  • IV. Conclusion: Telling Terror in Australian Post-9/11 Fiction
  • Works Consulted

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I. Introduction: The Australian Antidote

Australian novelists, parallel to their counterparts in English-speaking countries, were engaged, fervently, in political discussions after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Apart from representatives of governments, political scientists and journalists, writers were among the first to comment on the events and attempted to set their own statements against the spectacle of images which had been created by the terrorist acts. “Emotions have their narrative,” wrote Ian McEwan on September 15, “after the shock we move inevitably to the grief, and the sense that we are doing it more or less together is one tiny scrap of consolation” (“Only Love,” par. 1). As an initial response, literature was seen as contri-buting to the widespread politics of mourning and commemoration (Randall 2). The very act of telling appeared to become a counternarrative to the powerful images of the collapsing towers of the World Trade Center. “In our delirium, most of us wanted to talk, we babbled, by email, on the phone, around kitchen tables. We knew there was a greater reckoning ahead, but we could not quite feel it yet. Sheer amazement kept getting in the way,” continues Ian McEwan (“Only Love,” par. 2). He and other writers increasingly began to interrogate the spectacle that had occurred on September 11: “no visionary cinematic genius could hope to recreate the majestic abjection of that double surrender, with the scale of the buildings conferring its own slow motion. It was well understood that an edifice so demonstrably comprised of concrete and steel would also become an unforgettable metaphor,” Martins Amis wrote on September 18 (“Fear and Loathing,” par. 6). Aside from examining the narrative nature of the attacks, many authors saw literature itself as standing opposed not only to the irrationality of fundamentalist beliefs (Amis, Second Plane 16; Spencer and Valassopoulos 330), but also to public discourses that were fuelled by such acts of political violence. “Today, the world narrative belongs to terrorists,” argued Don DeLillo (“Ruins,” par. 2). Regarding these developments, he views old, structuring narratives that were provided for example by the cold war, as scattered. “The narrative ends in the rubble and it is left to us to create the counternarrative” (par. 13). Whereas DeLillo referred to the “100,000 stories crisscrossing New York” (par. 14) and “improvised memorials” (par. 18), fictional responses to the terrorist attacks were soon to create their own counternarrative.

Such counternarratives, of course, have to be distinguished with regard to the context in which they have been made. Most importantly, statements which were put forward by McEwan, Amis and DeLillo in a number of newspapers ← 7 | 8 → differ from those they made within the fictional context of their short stories and novels. In the first context, they are directly confronted with political discourses which came into existence after September 11, most importantly the “War on Terror Narrative” which was established by the Bush administration (Hodges 5; Jackson 26–27). Although fiction can be seen as responding to these discursive formations (Foucault, Archaeology 22–23), it has the potential to challenge those discourses which also rely on the confusion of sign and context. “Emptying the sign of its deadly messages seems to be […] the best antidote to the experience of terror,” argue Joseba Zulaika and William Douglass. “And nothing appears to be more damaging to the ghosts and myths of terrorism […] than fictionalising them further to the point that fear dissolves into ‘as-if’ terror” (29).

Literary responses to terrorism after the September 11 attacks ranged from memorisations of the events, such as Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel In the Shadows of No Towers, and reappraisals of trauma as in Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to novels that attempted to address the cultural implications of the attacks, most notably John Updike’s Terrorist, and their figurative aspects as a staging of violence as it is accomplished in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. These responses varied also from country to country as some critics have pointed out. American literature referred back to “the myth of the fall” (Gray 2) in order to contextualise the events, whereas a variety of English novels showed a tendency towards the anticipation of future terrorist acts (Frank, It Could Happen Here 145). Although the means of commemorating and contextualising the events have been an important contribution to the reworking of the public trauma caused by the September 11 attacks (Keniston and Quinn 2), other critics have argued that realistic descriptions have neither adequately captured “political and ideological belief as a social and emotional reality in the world” (Mishra, par. 40) nor the “stunning visual symbolism” of the attacks (Randall 17). Australian literature, being written from tens of thousands of kilometres away from the scenes of terror in a politically and culturally diverse region such as the Pacific, is a likely candidate to address these aspects.

From an Australian perspective, the terrors of world history have been both real and fictitious since the establishment of the first settlement more than two hundred years ago. The country defined itself above all by the distance it inherited to England and Europe, as Geoffrey Blainey has pointed out (319). This point of view was challenged with the arrival of accelerating globalisation in recent decades. Especially the significant numbers of Australians who died during the attacks on the World Trade Center or in Bali illustrated the country’s interconnectedness with the rest of the world, as well as the contradictions of the globalised world order which became visible in the ‘war on terror’ (Allon 67). Today, the country can be seen as ← 8 | 9 → being shaped by both “distance” and “claims that distance has been ‘imploded’ and space ‘annihilated’ by the transnational connections spun by global economic and information networks” (Allon 71). Events in recent years appear to support Allon’s arguments. Australia has been effected by violence that has been inspired by terrorist organisations from other countries as well as by violent acts that have been committed in other countries: in mid-September 2014, the threat of terrorism became apparent when police raids in Sydney and Brisbane detained 15 persons connected to the ‘Islamic State’ who were preparing public beheadings in Australia (“Terrorism raids”). Two months later, a gunman, Man Haron Monis, held hostage ten customers and eight employees of a café in central Sydney. He declared that his acts were to be understood as an attack on Australia by the ‘Islamic State’ (“Tony Abbott”). And after the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in France in the beginning of 2015, more than a thousand Australians gathered in Sydney to hold a vigil which was concluded by a rendition of the Marseillaise (“Demonstrations”).

Apart from the sense of distance as a defining element of Australian identity, extreme living conditions had an immense influence on the emerging conscience of the nation. As a new continent, Australia was seen as a social utopia in which values such as egalitarianism and mateship could be realised: “A sense of community grew out of the prevailing conditions. It was a harsh country for the settler seeking to establish himself […] In the face of such widespread disasters as flood, fire, and drought, he must often seek help from his neighbours, and the moral compulsion to lend a hand in time of trouble became a tradition” (Palmer 34). These conditions, as Nicholas Birns argues, have created a unique perspective which constitutes Australian literature as an “Anglophone alternative” with “the potential to disestablish sundry truisms of standard literary discourses” (115–16). He refers to both the country’s geographical position as an anglophone culture in the Pacific and the utopian drive within this culture when he points that it is “[the] tension between myth and reality, between settlement and the uncharted, is emblematic of how the settler literature of Australia can unsettle [concepts of the] ‘English’” (116–17, emphasis in original).

Both the geographical position and the country’s cultural traditions provide Australian writers with unique perspectives on the terrorism debate. As no major terrorist attack has been realised on Australian soil, this study is going to argue that fictional approaches to the subject tend to focus on strategies of how events are manipulated in order to achieve greater effect in the public psyche. These strategies of fictionalisation were also employed by the Australian government under John Howard. His anti-terror legislation, in the eyes of John Frow, was accompanied by a “magical redescription of the real” (49) which, among ← 9 | 10 → other things, equated asylum seekers with potential terrorists. In a similar way, the political debates about the military actions taken against terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) illustrate how “truth becomes a primary battlefield for the antagonists and their ideologies” (Lewis, par. 4).

This book examines how terrorism as a literary theme has been embedded in a number of Australian novels that were written after the September 11 attacks. Its aim is to carve out a distinctively Australian approach to terrorism literature which sets itself apart from other English literatures. As this study will argue, Australian literature does not only focus on aspects of fictionalisation within the terrorism discourse, it also employs the terrorism discourse as a literary theme. Moreover, Australian terrorism novels are written within a tension between literary and popular genres. References to Gothic genre conventions, in particular, illustrate concern about the colonial past of the country which also resonates in the increasing occurrence of racism after 2001. The tendency to dissolve threats as fictions thereby highlights the Australian attitude to interrogate and ironise hegemonic discourses.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (May)
Terrorism Post-9/11 Fiction Australian Fiction Terrorism Discourse
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 171 pp.

Biographical notes

Tino Dallmann (Author)

Tino Dallmann studied English, History and Journalism at Universities in Leipzig and Manchester. In addition to teaching assignments at the University of Leipzig, he works as a literary critic.


Title: Telling Terror in Contemporary Australian Fiction
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174 pages