Redrawing the New York-Comics Relationship

Subjective Ramblings and Peripheral Thoughts from the Edges of a Comics Studies Project

Book Review: Charles Strozier’s “Until the Fires Stopped Burning”

Historian and psychoanalyst Charles B. Strozier’s Until the Fires Stopped Burning: 9/11 and New York City in the Words and Experiences of Survivors and Witnesses is an interesting book, one that both comes off seeming incomplete and lacking and is eminently readable and recommendable.

As the title suggest, Strozier’s purpose is to tell a story of 9/11 through (mostly) the testimony of survivors and witnesses. He is also interested in separating the different kinds of experience that marked the day. To that end, the early part of the book is structured around the concept of “zones of sadness.” For Strozier, there were four such “zones,” peopled by survivors, witnesses, participants, and onlookers, respectively experiencing 9/11 “from the spaces of death, to the areas where all but death was witnesses, to the areas with minimal visibility with pervasive fear, to the universal experience of virtual reality on television” (212). In many ways, the last zone was vastly different from the others, in that it provided only a partial – mediated and incessantly repeated – experience that provided no room for working through, helping in the long run to foster greater anger among viewers that was easy to manipulate by the administration for its belligerent purposes.

While the book is predominantly focused on studying 9/11 as it relates to New York City and New Yorkers’ experiences of the event and their aftermath in the hundred days during which the titular fires burned at Ground Zero, Strozier makes digressions. One chapter, for example, features his interviews with a group of Chicagoans who as Jewish children in Nazi-occupied European territories were hidden by neighbors or family, and another women who became pregnant after 9/11. In the final section of the book, Strozier broadens his focus even more, discussing American exceptionalism and its relation to the sense of surprise over the attacks, among other things.

Fires is strongest when Strozier bases the discussion on his own material. In other places, he often resorts to summarizing previous work, which but only to so small an extent that it seems incomplete. Similarly, he introduces several interesting concepts that grew out of his research, but doesn’t develop them nearly enough. In a sense, this makes the book a victim of its own ambition; Strozier tries to cram too much into just over 200 pages. Still, although the books is sometimes disjointed and while it is occasionally difficult to see what a long digression into comparative historical vignettes plays in the interpretation of 9/11 and its experience, Fires is overall a very interesting book. It strongest contribution to the understanding of 9/11 is definitely the framing of the zones of sadness, while the rest of the book serves more as a general introduction to the topic than it does as research. But in the end, the strengths outweigh the weaknesses.

 

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