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It stands to reason that Eliot Weinberger, an old Borges hand, should be so adept at teasing out the nightmarish, nearly phantasmagoric dimensions of our country’s post- 9-11 situation—rich with ironies we might begin to enjoy, if we weren’t busy biting our nails to the quick. A report written on September 1 of last year concludes with a paragraph equipped with mirrors and memory:
A few days ago, a man listed as one of the Sept. 11 dead was discovered in a psychiatric hospital, a total amnesiac who has no idea what happened to him or what has happened since. On the same day, George W. Bush told an interviewer what the “saddest thing” has been about his presidency: He now only has time to jog three miles a day.
Weinberger, who edited Borges’s Selected Non-Fictions (1999) and whose elegant, often playful essays are at home with topics as diverse as Icelandic literature and the naked mole rat, penned the pieces in 9/12 for 16 publications abroad (most intriguingly something called Yang out of Flemish Belgium); they can be read as missives from some bizarre land, America-on-Tlön. 9/12 was written in real time (as were, to an extent, William Langewiesche’s Atlantic-serialized American Ground, about the alien geography and all-too-human culture attending the WTC site’s “unbuilding,” and Lewis Lapham’s astringent Harper’s essays, collected in Theater of War), and the datelines of these six short pieces—a day, four weeks, 16 months after the 9-11 attacks—flicker like a time code on a nervous monitor.
Weinberger discerns Chinese boxes apparently owned by Pandora, and his agile mind draws from a wealth of sources. He describes the strong-armed Florida election as a coup d’état, calls the conservative think tank PNAC’s Rebuilding America’s Defenses (2000) the “Hammurabic Code of the Bush Jr. Administration,” and compares the president to a Chinese emperor, whose “only source of information was what his ministers told him.” He drolly dubs “Homeland Security” a “bizarre Teutonic phrase” and Condi Rice the Bush team’s Xena. For Weinberger, the current administration is the country’s true sleeper cell, with Bush and bin Laden twinned not just by well-oiled family wealth but as men “cut off from the world, one in a cave and one on a ranch in the middle of nowhere; one who reads no books and the other who presumably reads one book.”
The last page of the impassioned, often brilliant 9/12 disappoints a bit, as Weinberger writes, “We no longer have the words to even think about what is happening.” But we do, and he does. In the fourscore pages preceding this contradictory admission of impotence, his acid Baedeker illustrates what Geoffrey O’Brien noted in The Browser’s Ecstasy: that close reading is mandatory in the fallen world.