Fiction with 9/11 themes begins to fill US bookstores

On Sept. 11, 2001, Philip Beard was in the midst of writing a book. On Sept. 12, the fledgling novelist says, he didn't know how to write anymore.

From that day forward his novel was propelled toward the events of 9/11 because, says the lawyer-turned-novelist, he just couldn't ignore "the ultimate elephant sitting in the middle of the room."

"Dear Zoe," Mr. Beard's first novel, is Tess DeNunzio's story. An emotionally complex teen who lives far from New York, Tess grapples with the loss of her 3-year-old sister Zoe, who is hit by a car on Sept. 11. An epistolary novel, "Dear Zoe" documents Tess's struggle with guilt, her efforts to find herself, and the way her personal tragedy is lost in the tumult of that infamous day.

The emotional ruins of 9/11 are finally finding expression in the world of fiction. The tragedy is the backdrop for just over half a dozen novels, all published in the past year, and at least five more books are due out this spring and summer.

The debut of these fictional accounts of 9/11 - 3-1/2 years after that horribly memorable day - may be one indication of America's readiness to see the tragedy through a different lens. Historically, artists have felt compelled to paint, dramatize, and write about events of their day - and often, their work transcends their own generation and becomes an artistic benchmark of a historical event.

At least one of the 9/11 authors sees his new book as helping Americans work through their feelings about the attacks.

"First it was shock - how could this happen?" Jonathan Safran Foer says of America's reaction. "Then anger, and for a long time it didn't really advance from there. The whole conversation was lacking the emotional story. It's a novelist's job to capture that emotional picture."

When Mr. Foer, who lived at the time in the New York borough of Queens, first saw ground zero, "the tragedy became closer and closer," he recalls. His new novel, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," is the tale of precocious 9-year-old Oskar Schell and his quest to better understand the death of his father, who perished in the World Trade Center.

As writers begin to bridge the divide between the very real events of 9/11 and fictional narrative, some readers may ask, What took so long?

In some ways, the answer is simple: It's all about timing. Novels, like any labor of love, take time to write, edit, and print. But less obvious factors - such as emotional timing - are also at play. As 9/11 becomes more distant, broaching the subject in a less literal way may be timely and appropriate for healing grief, some say.

Mental-health experts who have dealt with those directly affected by 9/11 give conflicting views about the ability of fictional accounts of that day to help people recover from grief.

Readers of the novels can "process the experience for themselves" if they have an opportunity to translate fictional accounts into a mode for assuaging grief, says Spencer Eth, medical director of behavioral health services and associate chairman of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the St. Vincent Catholic Medical Centers in New York. He's one who believes it's appropriate for 9/11 to be "embraced creatively and artistically."

But can literary leaps of faith effectively decode the emotions of that day? And will readers be receptive to these sweeping, interpretational stories?

Some may be too receptive. Images of the attacks are so visceral and so integral to the nation's "collective consciousness" that fictionalized accounts may lead some readers to believe that the "realism of drama" is the truth, says Laurie Nadel, a psychologist at the WTC Family Center in Rockville Centre, N.Y., which provides counseling to people who lost family members in the World Trade Center attacks.

Still, there's a good chance that many people even now are trying to "metabolize the meaning" of life after 9/11, Dr. Nadel says. For them, she adds, fiction can allow them to explore that.

Beard acknowledges that, among novelists, there was some pent-up anxiety about that day. "We were sort of frozen for a period of time and didn't know what to write about in a world where something like that could happen."

Interestingly, neither Beard nor Foer set out to write a 9/11 story. As a result, both feel their narratives speak more to the smaller, seemingly insignificant tragedies of their characters than to the larger, parallel tragedy of 9/11. Beard calls his novel "anti-9/11," in fact, because it's these tiny tragedies that he hopes will stay with readers.

He says 9/11 "imposed" itself on his novel, much as it did on his grieving narrator, Tess. Through her anguish, Beard tries to transcend the cataclysmic chaos of that day and strike a smaller chord in readers' hearts: "On any day you could pick there are thousands and thousands of little deaths, tiny tragedies, and that all of them matter," Tess says.

As for Foer, the course of his novel was shaped by a suggestion from his younger brother, who noticed that the manuscript was almost brushing up against 9/11. From there, the narrative took a decisive shift and "veered" in that direction. To Foer, the novel is "only Oskar's story."

Now that the timeline of American history is marked as "pre-9/11" and "post-9/11," it's not surprising that the events of that day have begun to spill from novelists' hearts and minds onto the page. "Sometimes when you speak for yourself," says Foer, "you speak for other people as well."

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