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The Stubborn, Inward Gaze of the Post-9/11 Novel

Every critic, I’d venture, has written something that he or she would like to take back. For me, it’s my expression of astonishment, in a column written on the third anniversary of September 11, that no important fiction dealing with that day had yet appeared. Blame it on the fever for documentation that arose in the wake of the attacks, perhaps, or on my naïveté about the amount of time required to write a book—not to mention to sell and publish it. But somehow I failed to grasp that serious fiction takes years, if not decades.

By now, so many 9/11 novels have been published that they easily constitute a distinct genre, despite their diversity. We have novels focused on the day itself, like Helen Schulman’s A Day at the Beach and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud—the most widely read of the group—and the underappreciated The Whole World Over, by Julia Glass, examine the lives of New Yorkers just before the catastrophe. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to the Country take place in its immediate aftermath. In The Submission, published this month, Amy Waldman cleverly imagines the political circus that might have ensued if the jury chosen to select a design for the 9/11 memorial had chosen one by a Muslim architect.

If we expand the list to include all the novels in which the terrorist attacks appear but do not play a central role (such as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, two of the most celebrated books of last year), as well as those that merely allude to the day itself but are dominated by its shadow (among them Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill, and Open City, by Teju Cole), it becomes clear that 9/11 was the catalyst for some of the most intriguing American fiction of the last ten years. While the “9/11 novel,” narrowly defined, is an uneven and somewhat unsatisfying creation, the post-9/11 novel was the essential form of the last decade. Yet even the post-9/11 novel functions more as a window into the cultural miasma still swirling in the wake of the attacks than as a route to making sense of what happened to us.

THIS EXPLOSION of fiction wasn’t necessarily to have been expected. A few days after the attacks, the novelist Jonathan Lethem was already worrying about the propriety of writing about the fall of the World Trade Center, which he had watched from his “helpless window” in Brooklyn. “Can I bear to narrate this into normality?” he wondered publicly in The New York Times Magazine. (Lethem’s own post-9/11 novel was Chronic City, which came out two years ago and imagined a wildly fantastic Manhattan menaced by an elusive beast.) Lethem’s bewilderment is familiar: It appears in all literatures of disaster. Writers who survived various kinds of catastrophes—the Holocaust, Hiroshima, the Vietnam war—have been stymied by the tension between their desire to communicate accurately what they saw and their fear of obscuring the horror with phrases too nicely turned. (“Art takes the sting out of suffering,” the theologian Michael Wyschogrod once remarked regarding the Holocaust.) If the very nature of narrative imposes a false coherence upon events that by definition resist understanding, the novelist is caught in a terrible bind.

In the immediate wake of 9/11, there was something superfluous about the all-too-deliberate search by some writers for new ways to describe an event that the vast majority of Americans had already seen for themselves on television. Lethem self-consciously tried on a few different styles—modernist stream-of-consciousness, post-industrial cool—and rejected them all as unsuited to the current situation: “I’d entered—we’d all entered—a world containing a fresh category of phenomena: the unimaginable fact.” It was already obvious that the purpose of the 9/11 novel and the post-9/11 novel would not be to tell us what happened on that day: The details did not require rehearsal. Their purpose, rather, would be—or ought to be—to tell us what 9/11 means.

The first crop of novels, still reeling from the day’s immediacy, emphasized the aberrational quality of 9/11. (Never mind that the “unimaginable fact” turned out not to have been quite as unimaginable—or unpredictable—as it first appeared to be.) The disaster literally falls from the sky. In A Day at the Beach, in which Gerhard and Suzannah Falktopf witness the attack from the window of their stylish Tribeca apartment, Schulman dwells on the details of the couple’s sheltered, privileged life: the duck eggs and fresh raspberries at the breakfast table, the brand-name espresso machine humming on the counter. At the moment “the world changed,” Suzannah is in the middle of taking a shower—an apt image of how vulnerable and unprepared we all were on that morning.

But was that day truly the rupture in time that it first seemed to be? Messud also presents it as such in her elegant, urbane novel, an acid depiction of New York elite society in the spring and summer of 2001. “I am living, we are all living, a complete farce,” muses one of the book’s most self-aware characters, a misfit searching for an honest route to the intellectual life. But 9/11 works mainly as a plot device, and there’s something manipulative about the way the novel uses the reader’s awareness of what is coming to build tension. As the months glide by, we await the imminent catastrophe with a mixture of dread and glee: Something will finally awaken these dreamers from their stupor! David Foster Wallace creates a similar effect in his story “The Suffering Channel,” an even more acerbic condemnation of New York media that takes place entirely in the weeks before 9/11. We all know what it means that the editorial offices of the glossy magazine Wallace parodies—where every story must have a “UBA” (upbeat angle) and the latest feature is on a man who emits excrement in the shape of artwork—happen to be located in the World Trade Center.

The event crashes down on Messud’s characters like a tsunami, irreparably altering their course. By 2006, when the novel appeared, this felt a little wishful, because it had already become clear that 9/11 had not remade the contours of American life in any important way. The consumerist excesses, the all-knowingness of the media, and the other contemporary plagues that the attacks were supposed to have swept away were back within a few years. There is no more damning evidence of this than the fact that “The Suffering Channel” still feels as fresh a parody of celebrity culture and reality television today as it did in 2004, when it first appeared in Oblivion, Wallace’s last collection of short stories. Wallace chose to leave his characters in suspended animation: The story ends shortly before the attacks. Perhaps he was acknowledging his own bewilderment in the face of the aftermath.

OUR WORLD has changed, but we don’t quite know how. This unresolved question nags at the post-9/11 novelists, whose characters are often in thrall to forces they don’t understand. In Franzen’s Freedom, Walter and Patty Berglund are tormented by the fear that they might not be as free as they think they are—a quintessentially post-9/11 confusion that stands in sharp contrast to the glibness of the Lambert family in The Corrections. In Franzen’s earlier novel—which came out (as it happens) on September 1, 2001—both the older and younger generations are spinning their wheels: the children overwhelmed by too much possibility, the parents having already used theirs up. In search of outlets for their frustration, they commit crimes that inevitably result in recrimination. But the problems of Freedom, from the corruptly managed war in Iraq to the Berglunds’ sullied marriage, are the result of a convoluted tangle of actions and reactions that have no definable origin. The novel’s catchphrase is “Mistakes were made,” the infamous apology-without-responsibility that became a mantra of the Bush years. Things are messed up, and no one knows just how they got that way.

This mood of uncertainty is even stronger in the post-9/11 novels set in New York. In O’Neill’s Netherland and Cole’s Open City, the protagonists—both immigrants to the United States, both suffering personal losses—wander the city, encountering an obscure cast of characters who flicker through the margins of both the city and the narrative. Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which weaves in and out of New York, is constructed out of a series of stories linking a group of scattered characters whose paths intersect and diverge again like lines on the subway map. Beneath their fragmentation, these books are all fundamentally elegiac—for a person, a place, or just a time gone by.

This is all quite moving and evocative; but it is not entirely satisfying as an answer to the most urgent questions of the day. Ten years later, do we still helplessly regard 9/11 as an “unimaginable fact,” a deus ex machina of indeterminable cause, rather than the product of a toxic swirl of historical, religious, and political forces? If we do, it could well be because our novelists continue stubbornly to insist on turning their gaze inward, bizarrely searching for the answer to the question of 9/11 in America rather than at its global source. (The best fictional portrait of a Muslim in post-9/11 America is to be found, unsurprisingly, not in John Updike’s Terrorist but in The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid.) It’s tempting to blame the peculiar insularity of recent American fiction on the write-what-you-know philosophy of the MFA workshop. But it’s more likely just another example of the inward turn that our society has taken in the post-9/11 era.

Our writers were once more far-sighted. The two most important novels of the 1990s—Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Don DeLillo’s Underworld—both eerily prefigure the terrorist attacks. The cover of Underworld shows the Twin Towers dissolving into mist; a subplot centers around an art installation involving, of all things, airplanes. In American Pastoral, a keenly targeted bomb shatters the complacency of a family and a community, resulting in “the total vandalization of their world.” More fundamentally, both books are suffused with an existential anxiety about America and its place in the world, an anxiety that hums with an ominous note of gathering menace. Things can’t go on like this, Roth and DeLillo told us. Our arrogance and our complacency must founder. The breaking point is in sight. Unfortunately, no one believed that the sky might really be falling. 

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the September 15, 2011, issue of the magazine.