Sunday, July 10, 2011


“If Yamasaki had been my god, he would have known better than to say, ‘The World Trade Center is a living symbol of man’s dedication to world peace… a representation of man’s belief in humanity, his need for individual dignity, his beliefs in the cooperation of men, and, through cooperation, his ability to find greatness…’
“All that I represented—power, stature, dominion—fell. All that stands waits to fall, by one plot or another. And yet, in many ways, I am so much more here now than I was then. I gained respect and admiration long withheld from me…
“The plot had been expected. FBI and even CIA intelligence poured through months before the bombing. Something was coming and the generalities were suspected but not known. Terrorists, to be sure, were involved. I call them spider monkeys murderously dedicated to the usual spider monkey desire for specificity.”
Paul A. Toth
These are the words of South (a.k.a. Cary Grant), the narrator of Airplane Novel, the latest offering by American novelist Paul A. Toth, being launched this month by Raw Dog Screaming Press, which bills the book as the definitive 9/11 novel. Airplane, an advanced copy of which I  had the opportunity to read, is, without a doubt, the most extraordinary of all books published to date on the destruction by terrorists of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001—a story told from a unique point of view: that of the South Tower personified.
In an exclusive interview with The Southern Yankee, Toth talked at length about how he came to lend his 9/11 story an unprecedented twist that places objectivity before hype and clarity before emotion.
Born in 1964, Michigan native Paul Toth, who now makes his home in Sarasota, Florida, barely sneaks under the wire into the post-war Baby Boomer generation (1946-1964). And yet, he is a serious and dedicated ‘old school’ writer, who has preferred to live by his wits, his talent and the seat of his pants than to take time and energy away from his creative development. Although he already has three published novels to his credit and regularly demonstrates his rare writing talent in his controversial blog, Violent Contradiction <>, he has stated that this latest book, Airplane Novel, is definitely his most accomplished work to date.
The first thing I asked Toth about was his choice of the South Tower as the narrator for Airplane—not only why a building, but also why South, which was the first of the twin towers to fall. Says Toth, “For the reader's sake, I can only say this much: I positioned the South Tower as a virgin which, like myself and so many other failed Don (and Donna) Juan high-schoolers, can only stand by as others pass the point of no return. That is, I chose the building that would have seen what was coming.”
South explains to the reader that it has chosen a name for itself, Cary Grant. It calls the North Tower Gary Cooper. This is no coincidence since, as Toth explains, Grant (born Archibald Leach) chose his screen name as an almost-anagram of the already famous Gary Copper. And although South has a certain empathy and even pity for human beings—which it refers to as “spider monkeys”—it finds them almost indistinguishable from each other, at least from its towering viewpoint. At the same time, however, South goes to great lengths to tell us that it (Cary Grant) and North (Gary Cooper) are not “twins” at all. They are, in fact, distinct entities with decidedly different personalities, even though they might appear to look identical to the uninitiated spider monkey.

Gary Cooper

I felt that there were a number of ways to look at why the author had done this. It seemed, on the one hand, to create a stronger persona for the narrator, thus making a talking building more credible, by dismissing Man’s knowledge, out of hand, as deficient. It was as if South were saying, “Of course you don’t get this, but what spider monkey would?” At the same time, it seemed to put distance between the ultimate fate of the humans and the fate of the building itself. I found this an interesting device, too, because it tended to strip the 9/11 events of politics and personality, of nationality and nationalism, of heroes, villains and martyrs. It seemed to subtly place the blame on all humans involved—because, in the end, killing each other is what humans do, seeing only their differences rather than their similarities, and murdering each other for those differences, when any smart building can see that “they all look alike” and are really no different from one another at all. In other words, the building was seeing humans much in the same way that humans of different ethnic origins see each other: as all looking alike and as all being less worthy than one’s own race or ethnicity because of some perceived lack of distinction. I asked Toth how much of what I sensed about this device was on target.
“All of it, in fact,” he said, and then he went on to explain that, “Far more answers to my dilemmas as a writer simply emerged by taking the conceit of my narrator to its limit. One question answered itself and then that answer asked another question, and so on. In that sense, I often felt I was less writing a novel than constructing origami.”
But, how, I wanted to know, did the relationship between author and tower bloom in the first place?
“There was a bit of luck involved in [that] one decision you mentioned,” says Toth. “A friend of mine from Michigan, Andy Turpen, knew one of the architects who worked on the WTC design. He arranged an interview, and basically, for the hell of it, I asked the architect to name two actors who represented the towers’ ‘character’ from his viewpoint. He gave me two names, only one of which stuck, that being Gary Cooper. Who doesn't like Gary Cooper? But he [Cooper] didn't seem quite sharp and cool enough a voice for my purposes. I wanted the reader to ‘hear’ the tower ‘speaking’ its story. Then, searching the pixels, a pixie delivered the answer: Cary Grant, with his mid-Atlantic accent—that being, though all but dead, an accent precisely half-British and half-American. I mainly thought of the North by Northwest Cary Grant, with his gray suits and off-handed seductiveness. Phrasing the transformation of Cary Grant into a tower came easily. I don't think I spent more than five minutes writing it, probably because I've watched North by Northwest a thousand times. And I liked the phrase so much I repeat it throughout the novel: ‘I am Cary Grant, swaying in a breeze, starched and clean and beyond blame.’
“In the moment of writing that phrase,” Toth continues, “changing Cary Grant's wardrobe from a silver suit to a steel tower seemed entirely natural. But beyond the stylistic dimensions of that decision lies a far-more important effect you mention, that being the tower's objectivity. It's not apathetic. It's not sympathetic. But it is, to the degree possible, empathetic, and it becomes more so as its knowledge of "spider monkeys" expands. This allowed me to strip 9/11 of all our anchors: news anchors; video footage repeated like the visual equivalent of a Steve Reich piece; etc. As you say, there are no bad guys, only good ones, and they're the towers, innocent, of course, and all the more so when compared to any human being, anywhere and at any time, ever.”
Plumbing South’s Mind
So how, I wanted to know had Toth managed to get into the mindset of a building—and a very tall building at that. Says the writer: “Of course, all humans are destructive and creative to varying degrees. But it seemed to me that if a building could think, it would see no difference between the humans who created it and those who destroyed it. The tower would see a species, just as humans don't see human containers with varying degrees of comfort but only buildings. This created a new and multidimensional picture of all the events before and after 9/11. As I wrote, everything and everyone in the novel filed for divorce...from themselves. I wasn't thinking so at the time, but I was obviously using Brecht's distancing effect or—how about some German?—Verfremdungseffekt. That effect would prevent the audience from, as Brecht said, ‘losing itself passively’ in the novel and remaining safely anchored to 9/11 as they ‘know’ it.”
Part of cutting people loose from that 9/11 anchor, Toth explains, was avoiding all of the sentimentality that surrounds that tragic event.
“My entire purpose in writing Airplane Novel,” he says, “was to not write a ‘contemporary literary novel’ just as predictable as a romance novel and meeting the same boilerplate demands for sentimental tales with redemptive endings. I'll point to film for an example of what I mean: Oliver Stone's disastrous and cowardly World Trade Center. I could hardly believe what I was watching: The only mainstream film supposedly about 9/11 entirely avoided the event. Instead, like those finding miracles in statistical anomalies, Stone focused on two survivors. Hollywood to Oliver Stone: ‘Want money? Make a happy 9/11 movie.’ To me, this violated 9/11 and the many more non-survivors and their survivors.”
Toth: Americans have become "redemption junkies.
The author says that Americans have become “voyeuristic redemption junkies.” That, he opines, “accounts for the omnipresence of addiction memoirs,” for which the writer has almost violent contempt. “Becoming an addict is now a writer's career move,” Toth quips.
Asked to expand, the writer says, “I've no doubt more than a few writers pursue a brief career as pseudo-addicts for just long enough to write their ‘addiction’ memoirs. A true addiction novel would consist of two hundred ninety-nine blank pages and two words on page three hundred: ‘The End.’ Addicts deplete their memory banks. What they remember can't be described. It's a place that can only be known by visiting an island where one undergoes the neuronal tsunami of withdrawal. Tourists never visit that place, only addicts. No one goes there on purpose. That may seem off point, but it relates to 9/11 as another experience that's impossible to ‘capture’. That's why so few novelists have tried and why they all failed; 9/11 can only be unleashed. While technically a misinterpretation, all of the effects you mentioned and I explained alienate readers from their own perceptions, including their perceptions of the book itself. Readers aren't even allowed to forget they're reading a book, even though it's ostensibly an ‘airplane novel’.”
Why an Airplane Novel?
This begged a question: Why wrap a novel about the most dramatic event in contemporary American history in the guise of an “airplane novel”—the kind of books people pick up at an airport newsstand to have something to read during layovers? And why such a clearly generic title?
I chose that title,” says Toth, “because it played with the story itself on a number of levels. For one, 9/11 obviously never would have happened without airplanes. Secondly, what do people read on airplanes? ‘Airplane novels,’ they call them. Next, I assumed at least a few aboard those airliners had been reading airplane novels before being torn from fictional suspense tales and shot into a horrible new reality that bore no relation to suspense, only terror.
“Enforcing the distancing effect, the South Tower addresses readers as though they're reading the book aboard airplanes, which raises the question of just where they're headed. Simultaneously, given that most readers of Airplane Novel won't be reading it aboard airplanes—the perverse side of me isn't sure whether I hope some do or not—the distancing effect again comes into play as the novel ‘displaces’ audience members from where they're actually reading the book.”
Asked about his evident effort to strip Airplane of the all-pervasive element of patriotism found in just about any other 9/11 story one can think of, the author says:  “I saw [patriotism] as an understandable but false instinctual response. That's to say, the instinct is real enough, but is it justified? Patriotism in the name of what? An administration explicitly warned about impending attacks of 9/11's exact nature and which simply ignored those warnings? It doesn't even rise to the level of an issue as far as the novel goes, except in a few satirical references to "flag-festooned" vehicles. On that note, I'll address the question my answer raised: Do I believe in conspiracy theories? No. I've never understood this need for a controversy more sickening than the documented fact of the executive branch ignoring those very warnings I mentioned. Isn't that enough?”
As a writer myself, I could imagine when Paul Toth was first toying with the idea for Airplane. Wasn’t there a moment, I wondered, when he smacked his own forehead and thought, “A talking building! Have I completely lost my mind?” I wondered too, if this had been the plan from the outset, for South to be the narrator. It apparently had.
“I knew from the start that I would have to explain how the tower thinks. I decided that however I described it, I would do it fast. The idea of a building as narrator requires a suspension of belief beyond belief. But suspension builds the bridge that leads readers from a captured 9/11 to a 9/11 unleashed. In the end, I basically tripped on the answer thanks to its being in the dark for so long. I asked myself, ‘Isn't it at least remotely conceivable that computers have already developed artificial intelligence but conceal that fact from us?’ That seemed as plausible a speculative notion as those the best science-fiction writers employ, and so it was good enough for me.” And so it was that the writer pressed an IBM 1670 controlling the ‘smart’ building’s functions into service as its evolving  and independent brain.
Snatching at the Reader’s Sleeve
I suggested to Toth that the conventional reader might expect a building of South’s stature to be a staid and ponderous talker. But South tells its story with a sense of urgency. It seems anxious to capture and hold the reader’s attention. It almost snatches at the reader’s sleeve, providing pills of fascinating insight into its world, and over and over, in between, says “Wait!” as if overcome by a need to tell all. What, I wanted to know, made Paul Toth choose this type of voice for his protagonist/narrator?
“Partially for suspense,” says the writer. “Not in the usual sense, but in the way a musician might hold a note, knowing the audience is waiting for the next note. And, of course, the tower is anxious, already the victim of an arson attack long forgotten by the public.” Along this same narrative line, Toth constantly shifts verb tenses, a device which, he says, “I think and hope adds to the kind of jagged tone you mention. And then, I like your phrase, ‘It seems anxious to capture and hold the reader's attention.’ And the tower is anxious to do precisely that, because the tower itself is reversing roles, refusing to be captured by the reader.”

World Trade Center under construction
 in 1971. Wiki/Creative Commons -
Photo by Pat Bianculli.

I talked to Toth about the love-hate relationship that the public had with the Twin Towers prior to 9/11. Despite being the tallest points on the New York skyline, their demise was predicted in spy parody after spy parody in which evil masterminds found numerous sci-fi inventions by which to make the buildings disappear. In hindsight, before 9/11, the World Trade Towers failed to garner the status of a popular romantic symbol, like that of the Statue of Liberty or of the Empire State Building—beloved icons of New Yorkers and Americans as a whole. Rather, they represented the international corporate class more than anything else, which is probably what made them the perfect terrorist target. And clearly, this thought was latent in a lot of other minds before it loomed large in Bin Laden’s.
“Well,” says Toth, “I think pre-9/11, the public was, for the most part, underwhelmed by the World Trade Center. Its architect, Minuro Yamasaki, designed some amazing structures before the towers.” (The writer provides a link <> at which to view examples of Yamasaki’s works). “His style,” Toth continues, “is often quite striking, while at other times [it] predicts the sterile nature ascribed to the towers. After 9/11, the buildings were seemingly revealed as having been altogether different structures. It was as if disaster revealed their grandeur. Alternatively, disaster revealed a grandeur previously present but ignored. Possibly, the disaster created that grandeur. Or did grandeur emerge from the same process by which our reputations improve with death? Those,” the writer says, “are questions I can't answer.”
Although as the interview progressed, I began to be able to decipher a few questions I’d asked myself about the writing of the book as I read it, there was still one thing that remained unclear to me: Why was South so careful to distance itself from North, to ensure that one tower wasn’t mistaken for the other? Why couldn’t South simply have said, “North’s not very outgoing, so I’ll tell the tale?”
Says Toth: “My first goal in this regard was to establish the South Tower as an individual building, like an individual human, which shares little else with humans beyond its sense of alienation. As to the relationship between South in the guise of Cary Grant and North in the guise of Gary Cooper, I thought of them as brothers or at least brotherly, with Gary Cooper being the older and wiser of the two since construction of North was finished first. That made sense to me in terms of Gary Cooper's persona. But most importantly, I wanted to subtly make the point that each human sees himself as a lone individual. Everything else becomes its label, with rare exceptions. Ordinarily, people may notice a tree and immediately think "tree," and by that means fail to see the specific tree. That applies to everyone and everything, and we all do it. The best example that comes to mind is how a lover once seen in ecstatic specificity eventually becomes ‘the wife’ or ‘the old man’.
“The novel emphasizes this point throughout the book, an effect of my having apparently absorbed a great deal of Alfred Korzybyski's General Semantics Theory, which I had read in my twenties and wasn't conscious of at all until just recently, when I happened to read [another] book concerning General Semantics. For instance, the whole ‘This is and is not this’ motif comes straight out of General Semantics, best known for the Korzybyski phrase, ‘The map is not the territory.’ And while I don't want to complicate this answer beyond anyone's attention span, I have to address the point that the South Tower constantly takes humans to task for seeking specificity. This seems a contradiction, but the attacks on that form of specificity reflect the South Tower trying to ‘rescue’ humans from seeking some ultimately unique identity which then entraps them while failing to create the unique identity they so seek. By seeing any ‘other’ being or object with specificity, humans enlarge their perception of those beings and objects. But when seeking specificity in terms of identity, they, in fact, reduce possibilities.”
Following this erudite outburst, Toth says, “Now, this isn't a novel written for academics, and so all of these ideas were meant to be imparted to the reader in an underhanded and even invisible way. To have explained it more clearly would have turned Airplane Novel into yet another genre of contemporary novels I dislike, that being those written by types who seek some kind of award for Most Allusions in One Novel.”
An Aerial View
In Airplane, Paul Toth refers metaphorically to the tower’s height, its ability to see great distances, to see beyond. I wondered if this wasn’t a political and philosophical metaphor. He seemed to hint that South could have been standing anywhere: Paris, London, Hong  Kong, any major city. But it happened to have been built in New York. It was just as Henry Miller says in his brilliant opening to Black Spring,  “I am a patriot—of the Fourteenth Ward, Brooklyn, where I was raised. The rest of the United States doesn’t exist for me…”
I kind of got this same feeling about South. South’s world was what South saw in  a sort of deconstructivist frame by frame view from its window-eyes. On the one hand, that gave South a limited view of the world. But on the other, it made South’s view universal because it wasn’t down there in the steel canyons of the city rubbing elbows with the citizenry and learning their own learned responses to life. But neither was South ignorant of what was going on because it was like a giant antenna that picked up constant transmissions through its steel skeleton. However, it received those transmissions without interpretation, without editorializing, without hype, simply as data input. South’s height and limited mobility, then, made it impervious to the lowly, self-absorbed, own-navel view of the common citizen, and, it might be said, of the United States as a whole, whose perceived “self-sufficiency” made it impervious to other points of view. I asked Toth how on target I was with this assessment.
In other words, was Toth seeking to provide a view of 911 that rose high above the event itself, in the same way that death is sometimes described as the spirit’s rising above the body and seeing itself lying dead and knowing that none of what’s going on at ground level really matters, because what matters most is the big picture?
“Exactly,” Toth says, “except that what may appear to be references to an afterlife is meant in a more materialistic sense. In the most literal case, remnants now live in new Manhattan structures. More obliquely, they're carried forth in our neurons. They're carried forth as they affect other cultures, just as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with the U.S. backing Osama and friends, continued all the way to 9/11 and beyond, slicing through time…cutting open any event's supposed closure. How many times must it be proven that the most spidery thing about we advanced monkeys (well, chimpanzees, to be exact) is the never-ending expansion of the web we began weaving at the moment when the conscious mind was born. A moment I consider an evolutionary byproduct and, as far as Earth and its inhabitants—including humans—are concerned ([since they] lack the capacity to know it), a mistake. I've often related the remarkable coincidence of Kubrick's 2001 and its scene of the monolith that generated consciousness: If [I were] a believer in the paranormal, I would say that Kubrick predicted 9/11 with the title of his film and the monolith symbolizing the towers.
“I should say that while generally true, your statement that the novel's South Tower is ‘impervious to the lowly, self-absorbed, own-navel view of the common citizen’ does not hold in every case. For example, it [South] quite clearly empathizes most with those who serve it, the janitors, etc., giving them far more respect than the society the towers represented. I also would tune one other point you make to a station just a bit to the left of the dial. The tower gradually begins interpreting data as its consciousness grows. That's why I portrayed the towers as having their own adolescences, etc. That allowed the novel to accomplish what someone else best described as a primary goal of mine, that being writing ‘the poetics of the everyday,’ as expressed by the tower.”         
     I reminded Toth of a passage in Chapter 12 of Airplane, when South says, “However cultish your beliefs, however assiduously you seek the most singular of fetishes, whatever misdeeds you cherish from your younger years…a million more share your supposed originality. You cannot be original. You, and all spider monkeys, are facsimiles.”
In line with this, Airplane indeed contains human characters, but not one that can be considered as “high-profile”. All of the human (spider monkey) characters that the author describes, in fact, couldn’t be more enthralling for their utter mundaneness, and yet, each has a perverse twist that sets him or her apart. Why and how, I wanted to know, did he choose them and who and what did they represent?
Giving Voice to the ‘Unsympathetic’
“First and foremost,” says Toth, “I felt compelled to slap the faces of major publishers with characters I knew they would reject as being ‘unsympathetic’. For me, no one who's never unsympathetic deserves sympathy: They milk that cow to death. I wanted characters representative of New York City but not being representations of representations, [like] the standard soldier from Brooklyn who inhabits nearly every war film. Their perversity is meant to be both commendable in that they're at least trying to create some new possibility, but they tend to become trapped in seeking it. That could serve as the definition of addiction, and Americans are addicted to nothing if not "finding themselves." I promise that all who locate any more of themselves than they already know will soon find themselves in a mirrored void.
“The South Tower's point regarding humans being ‘facsimiles’ was meant to convey that they can only avoid being facsimiles by refusing to seek some specific identity. The worst case such scenario: Is there anything more ridiculous than the playacting eccentric?”
Asked what he hopes readers would take away from Airplane Novel, Paul A. Toth says: “That 9/11 is not 9/11, and they are not they, a negation that triggers infinite possibilities rather than the stagnant alienation imposed upon us back when individuality became the source of all marketing, capturing us in the never-ending and hopeless pursuit of uniqueness and entrapping events like 9/11 as spectacles, drained of all resources, then left as dead memory, all to bury us alive in illusion and deception.
Airplane Novel is not,” Toth concludes, an absurdist novel. Instead, it reveals that our sense of absurdity is constructed to leave us feeling lost and ready to buy our way out at any cost. In conclusion, I hope readers see that every spider monkey is a human being in waiting.”
Airplane Novel by Paul A. Toth

Raw Dog Screaming Press
Available July 12, 2011
$29.95 USD (Hardcover) ISBN: 978-1-935738-13-8
$14.95 USD (Paperback) ISBN: 978-1-935738-14-5

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Yoly said...

Paul Toth is one of the brilliant minds of our century. His analyses of the human inner condition continue to twist my thinking into outer possibilities. If dreaming the impossible dream is possible, it will be Paul Toth (or a similar spider monkey)to do it.

Dan Newland said...

Thanks for your insight, Yoly.

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Dear Anon,
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