My twelve year old son loves a good conspiracy theory and, whilst I like to listen to him share whatever ‘story’ he has found online or heard at school, I suppose that I have always been pretty dismissive of such things and the adults who propound them. The events of 9/11 are never far from the news, even all these years later and, whilst I remember hearing many theories about ‘what really happened’ at the time, I didn’t give such theories much credence. It wasn’t that I didn’t care, it was just that everything was suddenly more frightening and living with the new reality of terrorism on a scale hitherto unprecedented, seemed like plenty to worry about in it’s own right. The threat was al -Qaeda surely, not the US government?
Nineteen years down the line and I find myself picking up Christopher Priest’s intensely thought provoking An American Story. The novel deals with the events of that day through the memory of Ben Matson, who is now a happily married father of two, living in remote Scotland in an environment a thousand miles away from the horror of 9/11.
In 2001 Ben was in America and in love with Lil. Busy with their lives, both were in the skies that day. While Ben’s flight was diverted to Columbus, Ohio, Lil’s crashed into the Pentagon. Like so many others, Ben lacked closure. Lil’s name did not appear on the roster of American Airlines Flight 77, but did this mean that she didn’t board or that her ex-husband, a suspicious character with links to the Pentagon, had booked her ticket under an alternate name? How did American Airlines Flight 77 actually crash, when all the information would suggest that it would be an impossibility? So began Ben’s obsession with trying to unravel the confusion of events and details surrounding the terrorist attack.
Priest’s writing has a lovely, gentle way about it. There’s no sensationalism here, after all Ben isn’t glamorous in any way. Yes he’s a journalist, but he’s also a father of two, who has built an entirely new life and one in which his past with Lil plays no part. He ends up reexamining the details of the crash by chance rather than device and ever so gently, we the readers are asked in the most level-headed of ways to consider what might have happened. Is it really possible that what we now accept as the narrative of 9/11, simply conceals a truth that is so much harder to understand, that the global population could not comprehend it at the time?
This is not the kind of novel that I usually enjoy, but I couldn’t put it down. I think every day that I read it, I went to bed, thinking back, wondering about government involvement, reminding myself that this is just a novel. Nearly twenty years on and having read through a number of theories that I previously wouldn’t have wanted to even consider, all I can hope is that the story that Christopher Priest has devised is just that, a story, because if it’s not, what would we ever do about it?