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.
(Page 2 of 2)
But here’s the thing: Ernest Hemingway wasn’t a Nobel Prize winner when he based “A Farewell to Arms” on his experiences as an ambulance driver in World War I. Erich Maria Remarque (“All Quiet on the Western Front”) was still recovering from his wounds when he wrote his first novel. Kurt Vonnegut was a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany, when he hid from US bombs in an underground meat locker called “Slaughterhouse-Five.”Skip to next paragraph
End to an era at legendary Paris bookshop Shakespeare and Company
'Daughter of Smoke and Bone' film rights acquired by Universal
Better World Books' bestseller list: more classics than new titles
More books, more choices: why America needs its indies
Is Slate's Amazon-defending blogger really a 'moron'?
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
These authors weren’t intellectualizing from a distance or diagnosing the culture. They were wrestling with events that changed their lives in concrete and terrible ways. That visceral knowledge and raw understanding powers their books.
Yes, imagination is vital, and of course you can write vividly and well about things you’ve never experienced. But the novels considered the defining works of World Wars I and II do seem to share an eyewitness quality.
That’s not to say that there aren’t 9/11 novels worth reading. Around 2007, the pressure seemed to loosen up a bit, and the results, predictably, improved. Many of the most memorable approach the tragedy obliquely. Lorrie Moore sneaked the tragedy into a A Gate at the Stairs while readers thought they were reading a coming-of-age story and brilliantly walloped them upside the head. Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, combined cricket and fury to great and humorous effect. In Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil, a young immigrant from Qatar takes a job on Wall Street in 1999, where he creates a computer program that models oil futures on political instability. Colum McCann’s National Book Award-winning Let the Great World Spin isn’t obviously a 9/11 novel. It’s set 27 years before 2001, on the day Philippe Petit walked on a wire between the just-completed towers. But a reader doesn’t need McCann’s epilogue to understand the tragedy that there’s nothing but air now where Petit once stood 1,300 feet in the sky.
We all witnessed Sept. 11, but for most of us, it was through a screen. Somewhere out there, I have no doubt, is a writer who lived that day intensely – a writer who will someday shape that experience into something great.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.