Commentary Magazine put together a list of 30 novels “with the 9/11 attacks at their backs”. That got me thinking about what I had read and realizing I’ve not read many of them.
I wasn’t particularly interested in reading novels about September 11 in the first few years after the attacks. After watching hours of television of the attacks that week, I didn’t feel that I needed fiction to make sense of it. And over the past 10 years, the 9/11 novels I have read have been accidental readings where I didn’t know 9/11 was going to be a big part of the novel.
I did read Claire Messud’s novel, The Emperor’s Children.
The best novel to emerge from September 11, and perhaps the only real 9/11 novel on the list. A New York intellectual is caught in a lie and stranded in his adulterous lover’s apartment by the attacks, which change nothing for him and everything for her.
What’s strange is that, until I read this article I would never have remembered The Emperor’s Children as a 9/11 novel. I remember it as a typical novel about people who are not from New York but want to be intellectual so they move to New York and meet intellectual, people. And are still not happy. But now that I remember that it did involve 9/11, I remember that the most interesting 9/11 part was the character who used 9/11 to escape from New York and start a new life in Florida. Cruel to his family perhaps, but interesting. On the whole I didn’t find the novel added anything to my understanding of 9/11 or evoked any particular emotion from me.
I also read Joseph O’Neill’s, Netherland and it left me cold.
A family of three — Dutch-born market analyst, British wife, two-year-old son — are living in a Tribeca loft when the World Trade Center attacks oblige them to find living quarters uptown, where their marriage gradually pulls apart.
The most interesting part of that novel, for me, was the community of cricket players from former British Empire countries. But I was tired of the morose feel of the novel, especially because the main character could always escape New York in the months after 9/11 by going back to Europe. So why didn’t he? I found it a chore to read.
I did generally enjoy Ian McEwan’s, Saturday but that might be because it was a reflection of Europe after 9/11, not America.
A London neurosurgeon begins his day by watching a plane on fire — a bomb on board, he assumes — and navigates around an anti-Iraq War protest to encounter terrorism in his own home.
I still vividly remember the main character in his car trying to avoid the traffic jams from the anti-Iraq War protest. And I remember the home invasion. I remember thinking the ending required too much suspending of disbelief, but on the whole I liked it.
The only other book on the list that I’ve read is Jonathan Safran Foer’s, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and I loved it.
A nine year old searches all over New York for the key to his father, who died on September 11.
I remember thinking that Foer had captured something special in that novel: how grief over a death that happens from violence like 9/11 is unique but also completely ordinary. I loved the moment when Oskar blurts out that he wishes it had been his mother who had died and not his father. That moment was so hurtfully real. And it didn’t matter why his father had died. I loved how Foer intertwined into the novel the story of the bombing of Dresden and the nuclear bombing of Japan to show that no matter how bad 9/11 was, worse things have happened in history. And worse things have been inflicted by the U.S. And those events have repercussions through the years. I also liked how Foer mixed graphics, and photos and unique page layouts. I put this novel on a list of books that I wanted to read again in 10 years to see how it would age and if I would still feel the same way about it. Ironically I only read this novel because it was chosen by my reading group and I didn’t know what it was about. I would never have chosen it on my own.
And that’s it for the books on the list. I find that I don’t particularly want to read any of the other novels. Maybe DeLillo’s Falling Man. But not now.
One novel that was not on the list that left a vivid 9/11 impression on me was John Irving’s Last Night in Twisted River. I can see why it wouldn’t be on a list of 9/11 novels. It wasn’t about 9/11 or, really, its aftermath. But one of the events to which the novel builds dramatically happens on 9/11. As I said, when I blogged about it:
One of the emotional pinnacles of the story just happens to take place on September 11, 2001. When I first realized that Irving was doing this (which was after the first plane crashed into the tower and a character has the TV on in the kitchen), I was doubtful. But I think he made it work. And one reason it works is because the novel isn’t about 9/11, the novel didn’t lead up to 9/11 or away from it. It just” happened” to happen on the same day as other emotional things happened to the characters. So the characters had to react to it and they had to react in the context of all the other things that were going on in their lives.
Since that’s the way that many Americans experienced 9/11 it really rang true for me. Although the whole day remains vivid for me, in actuality I spent much of that day engaged in parts of my ordinary life doing things that had to get done even though a catastrophe had happened 1000 miles away from me. That’s what Irving captured.
It doesn’t explain 9/11. But it reflects how many people experienced 9/11.
The other novel that sticks in my mind that involved 9/11 was The Sorrows of an American, by Siri Hustvedt, which I loved so much I read in one sitting. It really isn’t about 9/11 but one of the characters is a little girl who saw the towers fall because she went to school nearby and she is suffering from a type of PTSD. All of the characters, however, have psychological issues in this novel so she doesn’t particularly stand out because of that.
In the end I don’t know that there ever will be a definitive 9/11 novel. But there will, I’m sure, be novels that try to make sense of the period that 9/11 will come to represent. That might be different for different groups of people. For me, 9/11 stands for the first day in a long slow succession of days in which the people of this country more and more questioned whether they really had enough in common with each other to want to continue to put up with each other. The day that question is answered is the day that novelists will start trying to make sense of the process using fiction.