Still no great 9/11 novel?
Not yet, says our critic. But while we wait for the standout still to come, here are a few near misses.
After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001 – while Martin Amis wrote that “all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation” – it seemed that, for many, that was the only story worth telling. The watch began: Who was going to write the great 9/11 novel?Skip to next paragraph
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From 2003 to 2007, most of the candidates for “greatest living writer” (except Thomas Pynchon, bless him) dutifully tried to make sense of the terrorist attacks and how they changed “us” as a society (the “us” in question was inevitably college-educated, upper-middle-class, white, and not a little shallow). Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, John Updike, and, yes, Amis were among the éminences grises, along with New York residents Jay McInerney and Jonathan Safran Foer. Most of the efforts were flawed but worthy (although the less said about Updike’s Terrorist, the better).
I dutifully read them and wished they hadn’t felt so duty-bound to say Something Important. None of those novels had that tuning-fork moment that comes when reading something great. And none seemed to grab the public imagination.
The only one of the early crop of 9/11 novels that I could recommend to friends was The Emperor’s Children, a smart comedy of manners by Claire Messud that looks at how empty lives of privilege felt in the immediate aftermath. (Then, of course, they got over it.) For a shorter, even more insightful take, try Deborah Eisenberg’s title story in her collection Twilight of the Superheroes. Some critics make the case for McEwan’s Saturday, an internal novel in which a surgeon grapples with a sudden intrusion of violence in his life.
Conventional wisdom has it that the first batch of novels arrived too soon. After all, Tim O’Brien wrote “The Things They Carried” – considered the first great Vietnam War novel – in 1990. That argument would hold up better if it weren’t for “Suite Francaise” by Irene Nemirovsky, who captured the occupation of France as it was happening to her. The Jewish Russian émigré only got to complete two novellas and a fragment of a third before she was arrested. She died in Auschwitz in 1942.