Thursday, October 23, 2008

The 9/11 novel

In a post entitled “Arts and Inspiration in the Collapse” over at The Millions, C. Max Magee argues that

nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a ‘9/11 novel.’ Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world.This would be true if and only if the effect of 9/11 were universally acknowledged and its meaning a formula like “the slaughter of World War I.” But that is precisely what is at stake in post-9/11 writing.

In an Investors’ Business Daily editorial today, for example, Charles Krauthammer points out that Barack Obama “refers to the most deliberate act of war since Pearl Harbor as ‘the tragedy of 9/11,’ a term more appropriate for a bus accident.” I don’t intend to make a political comment. In literary terms, Senator Obama has the tendency to ascribe events to “the gods”—i.e., large impersonal unseen forces, some malevolent, some benign. (He also says that the Berlin Wall came down because of “a world that stands as one.”) There is small agency in Senator Obama’s historical thinking.

A similar tendency shows up in the American novels that have explicitly responded to 9/11. Except for John Updike’s Terrorist (2006), none has even tried to penetrate the world view of the Islamists who highjacked the airliners on September 11, 2001. Instead, the 9/11 novel has been exclusively a victim’s or bystander’s novel.

In even the best of them, 9/11 is little more than a novelty, a seasonal flavor of brand-name ice cream. In Claire Messud’s Emperor’s Children (2006), for instance, the attack on the World Trade Center strands an adulterous husband in the apartment of his much younger girlfriend. In order to spend the night with her, Murray Thwaite tells his wife Annabel that he has a speaking engagement in Chicago on September 10th, and will return to LaGuardia the next afternoon. He takes a limo to the airport and then a cab back to Manhattan.

The next morning his girlfriend is showering when she hears him cry out. “Look at that,” he says. “They’ve got some colossal fire going. It must be a bomb or something, so high up.”

But it is of course the North Tower. And as he watches the television coverage (“the whole world was seeing this, and the Pentagon, too, and this was how you knew that it was really true”), Murray learns that flights all over the country have been grounded.    “I’m in Chicago,” he said, in his shirt and undershorts and dark socks, sitting on the edge of the bed, looking not at [his girlfriend] but at the television screen. “Nobody’s moving. I’m supposed to be in Chicago.”
     “You can stay with me,” she said. “Until, you know, you can get home from Chicago.”
Here is a very promising moment—when the attacks of 9/11 force a man, against his will, into an ethical dilemma. Instead, though, Messud lets him off the hook. “I need to go home,” Murray announces. “And don’t ask me what I’m going to say [to Annabel] because I couldn’t tell you.” And the dilemma is resolved in the conventional style of the adultery novel, with a confession, the end of the affair, bitterness, etc.

“[I]t seems to me that we are at a particularly fruitful moment for the fiction writer," Magee concludes. But if the 9/11 novel is any example, this moment is unlikely to be fruitful unless novelists themselves are profoundly changed by events, which, given their literary training and habits—far more conservative than their politics—is very nearly an impossibility.

A partial list of 9/11 novels:

• Abbott, Shirley. The Future of Love. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008.
• DeLillo, Don. The Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2007.
• Foer, Jonathan Safran. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
• Glass, Julia. The Whole World Over. New York: Pantheon, 2006.
• Kalfus, Ken. A Disorder Peculiar to the Country. New York: Ecco, 2006.
• McPhee, Martha. L’America. Orlando: Harcourt, 2006.
• Messud, Claire. The Emperor’s Children. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
• Nissenson, Hugh. Days of Awe. Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2005.
• O’Neill, Joseph. Netherland. New York: Pantheon, 2008.
• Price, Reynolds. The Good Priest’s Son. New York: Scribner, 2005.
• Prose, Francine. Bullyville. New York: Harper Teen, 2007.
• Rinaldi, Nicholas. Between Two Rivers. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.
• Schulman, Helen. A Day at the Beach. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007.
• Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. The Writing on the Wall. New York: Counterpoint, 2005.
• See, Carolyn. There Will Never Be Another You. New York: Random House, 2006.
• Tristram, Claire. After. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2004.
• Updike, John. Terrorist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.
• Walter, Jess. The Zero. New York: Regan, 2006.