A Week In Books: The literature of ruins has acquired a fresh landmark

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Until the fall of 2001, American culture didn't do ruins. Across "old Europe", by contrast, the contemplation of wreckage had guided thoughts of mortality at least since Vesuvius buried Pompeii in AD79. Come the Renaissance, painter after painter unearthed lessons about life and death amid the mossy rubble of antiquity. By the time of the Romantics, nearly every leading writer and artist itched to draw sweet-sad sermons out of ancient broken stones.

Until the fall of 2001, American culture didn't do ruins. Across "old Europe", by contrast, the contemplation of wreckage had guided thoughts of mortality at least since Vesuvius buried Pompeii in AD79. Come the Renaissance, painter after painter unearthed lessons about life and death amid the mossy rubble of antiquity. By the time of the Romantics, nearly every leading writer and artist itched to draw sweet-sad sermons out of ancient broken stones.

No book explains this odd cult of decay and devastation more persuasively than Christopher Woodward's In Ruins (now a Vintage paperback). It was published, with terrible timeliness, in early September 2001. And, within days, the heart of the new world sported a ruin that outdid the old in its focused awe-fulness – even, perhaps, in its sublimity.

The 17 smoking acres of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan bred vernacular works of art as soon as the first memorial drawings and shrines began to appear around the fringes of the site. Later, journalists and photographers did their best (or worst) on the indescribable scene. A very few fine books emerged: see especially Stepping through the Ashes, with pictures by Eugene Richards (Aperture). More commonly, grief, rage or revenge clouded eyes and minds. Yet the ruins of New York will feed the future art of the wounded city. Spike Lee's latest film 25th Hour (released here in April) tactfully employs the brooding presence of the site to fix its theme of squandered lives.

And I have just read the first outstanding literary work to engage with the Manhattan catastrophe. Significantly, it takes the form not of fiction or poetry but of investigative journalism in the most eloquent American grain. American Ground: unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche (Scribner, £8.99) is based on the author's unrestricted access to Ground Zero in the nine frantic months of demolition and clearance after 11 September. The result deserves to rank as a classic of frontline reportage. Langewiesche forsakes any sentimentality or sensationalism in favour of painstaking research, shrewd observation, and a darkly resonant prose that justifies the jacket quotation from Milton's Paradise Lost, pulling us into Hell with its "sights of woe,/ Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace/ And rest can never dwell".

He shows how a kind of ad hoc mini-state emerged from the chaotic aftermath of the Twin Towers' collapse. A few driven individuals masterminded the epic cleansing. They put a stop to the inter-agency turf wars (the "Battle of the Badges") that sometimes makes this book sound like an outtake from Gangs of New York. Langewiesche tells human, not simply "heroic", stories, and also makes the complex engineering of clearance vivid and immediate. He portrays "the pile" as a demonic character in its own right, "a terrain of tangled steel on an unimaginable scale, with mountainous slopes breathing smoke and flame, roamed by diesel dinosaurs and filled with the human dead".

With American Ground, the literature of ruins has acquired a fresh landmark. Without bluster or bragging, it depicts the site as a microcosm of the society that the hijackers sought to undermine. Courage and ambition, anarchy and and altruism, vested interests and public good – all collided amid the steaming débris with its hideous secrets. Turkish freighters, by the way, have now shipped thousands of tons of high-grade WTC steel for recycling in India and China. In a multitude of unknown buildings, far from American ground, the towers will rise again.

Comments