. . . But Malcomson is also writing with the advantage of history, even the short span of nine years. His book takes you from the morning of September 11, through the anthrax attacks, the overthrow of the Taliban, the turn of the Bush Administration toward an aggressive new foreign policy, the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, and its aftermath, concluding with the bombing of United Nations headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003, and the death of Sergio Vieira de Mello, the U.N. envoy, who had been Scott Malcomson’s boss since his departure from the Times earlier that year. This period of not quite twenty-four months has the feel of a discrete chapter of the larger era, book-ended by two disasters for the writer and his world: the first unexpected and immense, the last a more foreseeable result of American actions. These two years contain all the decisions that would set in motion the larger era, and because it was possible to imagine things taking a different course, the story unfolds and deepens like a tragedy.
The act of looking back with the passage of time allows Malcomson to make these events immediate, and also to give them the significant glow of history. “Generation’s End” is both a memoir and a historical essay: it’s the second that separates this book from many other fine accounts of September 11. Malcomson’s organizing structural principle is, in addition to chronology, the workings of his own mind, and because it’s such a supple, self-questioning, idiosyncratic mind, the book becomes a page-turner: you want to know what happens next because you want to know what the writer thinks next. He takes a familiar occurrence—for example, a presidential speech—and uses it as a jumping-off point for an extended meditation, full of unexpected twists and turns and implications, on aspects of the book’s central theme, which is the American power of its subtitle.
Malcomson’s digressions are not detours but the point of the journey, and they are always welcome because he never stops being curious about the world and subjecting it to his patient interrogations. September 11 prompted a clamor of instant certitudes and flimsy generalizations—writers raced into the fray fully armed with explanations and exhortations, as if mental vulnerability were an intolerable state. But the horrors of the day led Malcomson to ask questions, and then deeper questions. He managed to think and act even amid uncertainty—Keats called it “negative capability”—and this serves him well as a writer. He had a powerful moral and emotional response to the attacks (the effects on his family make for some of the most compelling passages), and yet he didn’t allow it to settle easily into dogma. His account is faithful to the stages of unknowing that any intellectually honest person had to pass through, and these wear better and make for more truly lively reading than the louder, attention-grabbing voices of those who always knew the answer. Malcomson can be severe in his judgments, but his temper isn’t partisan or polemical. Instead, he guards his inwardness, his love of history and literature, and follows the backstreets of his own curiosity. His tolerance and openness remind me of certain liberal writers—E.M. Forster comes to mind—who wrote in a time before instant punditry made it unacceptable and even dangerous to scrutinize an object from more than one angle.
Not that Malcomson draws no conclusions. “Generation’s End” is, as its title suggests, an elegy—in some ways quite a bitter one—for members of his age group (and mine) who grew up thinking that America was, if not always a force for good, at least the indispensable center of the world, the standard by which other countries would be judged and to which they should aspire. In a few short years, the Bush Administration’s response to September 11 squandered this power and privilege, and it’s unlikely that future generations of Americans will be able to assume the same role for their country again. Malcomson arrives at this conclusion reluctantly, after an extended argument with himself—because, although he’s a cosmopolitan and well-travelled man, he also loves his country, critically but passionately. This book is the beautiful and sad record of a lover’s quarrel.