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?
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.
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.”
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.