The shelf holding novels about Sept. 11 has grown full. Among the authors now vying for your attention are fiction’s eminences grises (John Updike, Terrorist; Martin Amis, The Second Plane; Don DeLillo, Falling Man), a middle-aged blockbuster (Jay McInerney, The Good Life), some of the Aughts' most noteworthy arrivals (Benjamin Kunkel, Indecision; Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), and at least one Frenchman (Frederic Beigbeder, Windows on the World).
But which of these books holds up eight years on?
With each publication and each passing anniversary, critics have felt all previous efforts were lacking. In 2005, Slate’s Meghan O’Rourke wrote that in the four intervening years, “a significant 9/11 novel had yet to appear.” Two years later, USA Today declared in a headline, “Novels about 9/11 can’t stack up to nonfiction." The article’s author claimed that of the approximately 30 novels published to that point, “none has seized the public imagination.” Last spring, an editor for The New York Times Book Review said that the search for a 9/11 novel that seizes the imagination goes on: “It’s impossible, though, to stop scanning the horizon for something else—the bracing, wide-screen, many-angled novel that will leave a larger, more definitive intellectual and moral footprint on the new age of terror.”
The Daily Beast offers three candidates for top position in the Sept. 11, 2001, syllabus: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008), Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (2006), and Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005).
Netherland is the story of a foreign-born equities analyst and his wife and son, who are living in the Chelsea Hotel, after fleeing their apartment in the former shadow of the World Trade Center towers. It is also about cricket and the game’s lively existence among immigrants in New York City’s scruffy parks and hinterlands.
Speaking to The Atlantic last spring, the Irish-born O’Neill said he wasn’t intimidated by the subject—or others who have taken it on. “I also sort of feel I’ve reached the stage in my life and career where I can take possession of a current event without looking over my shoulder. It’s not as if the landscape is chock-a-block with terrific writers at the moment, I don’t think,” O’Neill said.
The New York Times agreed, calling Netherland “the wittiest, angriest, most exacting and most desolate work of fiction we’ve yet had about life in New York and London after the World Trade Center fell.”
President Barack Obama added luster to the book when he mentioned it was on his nightstand.
With his customary precision, McEwan wrote about one day—February 15, 2003—in the life of a London neurosurgeon with the threat of the Iraq War and the anxiety caused by the terror attacks thrumming in the background. It was an interior work, like O’Neill’s Netherland, but reviewers thought McEwan was able to avoid getting lost staring inward. “ Saturday catalogues the local only in order to focus on the global,” Mark Lawson wrote in The Guardian.
Indeed, Lawson found Saturday to be a clear rebuke to the challenge that fiction had no place after Sept. 11. The book was “one of the most oblique but also most serious contributions to the post-9/11, post-Iraq War literature, it succeeds in ridiculing on every page the view of its hero that fiction is useless to the modern world.”
The British novelist's minimalist focus on one individual had a maximum effect, showing what it was like to be a member of what he called the “community of anxiety.”
The book was so cheered upon publication that a writer for The Daily Telegraph wondered aloud, “Will anyone say anything bad about Ian McEwan’s novel?”
The Emperor’s Children
Messud’s subject was one that seems a perennial: a coming-of-age story, based in New York City. But hers gained special resonance, released on the attacks’ fifth anniversary, as the characters’ post-adolescent apprehension perfectly rhymed with the city’s own sense of uncertainty after Sept. 11. “Ultimately,” Kate Levin wrote in The Nation, “most impressive is the way Messud relates 9/11 to her characters' lives: The public tragedy doesn't eclipse but rather seeps into and amplifies their private sorrows.”
Although there was some tsk-tsking from Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times warmly welcomed The Emperor’s Children, calling it “an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11.”
On the surface, a comedy of manners like the American Messud’s does not seem the best marker of the era’s tragedy, but the book had dark undercurrents about the distance between the world as it is and the world as we see it. Or, as Anthony Powell put it, in Messud’s choice for an epigraph: “It is not what happens to people that is significant, but what they think happens to them.”
Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.