Books

09.11.13

Reading the Best 9/11 Novels

Why do the best 9/11 novels only deal with 9/11 in oblique ways? Jimmy So looks at how writers have contended with the legacy of the Al Qaeda attacks.

“For those in the immediate vicinity, the horror was of course immediate and unmistakable,” columnist Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in the first issue of The New Yorker published after Sept. 11, 2001, in what must have been a somewhat agonizing session of chiseling in the stone a first draft of the emotional response to the attacks that killed some 3,000 people. For their families and friends, the acts of violence were personal. But for those who witnessed the events from far away, “it will take months—or years—to measure their impact and meaning.”

We have had years to do just that. Twelve years on, however, there is a sense that we are no better at measuring the meaning of 9/11 than we were on that day. Most of us assess the impact of the catastrophe by our response to international terrorism and the reverberations in domestic security. We have gone through Afghanistan, Iraq, the Patriot Act, wiretapping, and the Arab Spring, yet we emerge conflicted as ever about issues of civil liberties and foreign intervention—what are we to do with Edward Snowden? With Syria? We appraise the legacy of 9/11 through politics and the news, but side effects include numbness.

And that is why we turn to fiction—to reanimate reality. We want to draw ourselves back into the orbit of the life we have become apathetic to, or simply confused about. Thus, every year in early autumn, we wonder where the great 9/11 novel is, and why the whale doesn’t want to be spotted. Mostly, we seem to have come to the conclusion that it doesn’t exist, that there is no great 9/11 novel yet. We even seem to have decided that Sept. 11 was such an abrupt, transformative event that fiction dealing with the tragedy squarely cannot possibly come close to measuring its vibrations.

This is a valid reading, especially since sentimentality (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, superficial attachment (Jay McInerney’s The Good Life), and stylized luster (John Updike’s Terrorist, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man) do trivialize the reality. Sept. 11 is a black hole that can’t be approached directly. The problem, according to the critic Laura Miller of Salon, is that at its heart, 9/11 was meaningless. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would modify that: if you scramble to read too deeply into what the terror acts “mean” for your life, you’re giving the terrorists a little too much credit. It’s not as if their violence benevolently afforded you the opportunity to reflect on your blunders—that opportunity was there all along, and we ought to have taken advantage long ago. They committed murder in cold blood, and we are all in the process of coming to terms with the possibility of this abhorrent reality.

The truth is that 9/11 was so unanticipated and traumatizing that when we peer into almost any novel written after 2001, we see 9/11 staring back. (Even Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad make the required gestures.) The public cataclysm has been woven into much of our lives, and some of the best social and political novels of the past 12 years have met 9/11 at an angle. They are about much more than 9/11—they are about a great many things in life—but let us offer five novels that do deal with 9/11 in significant if oblique ways. When we visited this subject four years ago, we picked Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children. In our update, we can now add Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Amy Waldman’s The Submission. (Waldman also picked her favorite 9/11 books for us two years ago.)

Netherland
By Joseph O’Neill

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‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill. 256 p. Vintage. $26.36 ()

Netherland is a gaunt novel that begins with a Dutch banker, named Hans van den Broek, who fled his Tribeca loft and lived with his family in the Chelsea Hotel after the World Trade Center fell. O’Neill’s prose is precise and whisperingly rich throughout, and offers perhaps the best sensory report on New York in the days after 9/11: “Around the clock, ambulances sped eastward on West Twenty-third Street with a sobbing escort of police motorcycles,” Hans observes. “Sometimes I confused the cries of the sirens with my son’s nighttime cries.” The attacks puts him in a kind of paralysis, and his wife leaves him for London, freeing him to turn to a game that, although you wouldn’t likely think of it that way, O’Neill somehow makes into a symbol of the American dream: cricket. The book is lovingly careful with its symbolism, so when Hans experiences his rebirth from sluggishness and embraces the vibrant sport, which has a healthy subculture among West Indian immigrants in the city’s ungroomed public parks, the emotional sonority fits, taking us on Hans’s redemptive arc without being overwrought.

Saturday
By Ian McEwan

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‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan. 304 9. Anchor. $12.06 ()

The arc of Saturday is also what establishes Ian McEwan’s eighth novel in readers’ minds, particularly a reader who has read James Joyce’s Ulysses, since the book features a man’s journey about town and back home in a 24-hour period—February 15, 2003, the day of Britain’s largest demonstration against the Iraq War. In the morning, 49-year-old neurosurgeon Henry Perowne sees a burning plane smoking across the sky, and this image sets the tone for the entire day. Henry goes out to play squash, but his path gets diverted by anti-war protests, at which point he gets into a car accident. Later he buys fish before visiting his mother, and returns home to cook a family dinner, which is interrupted by two knife-wielding assailants. The book ends at around 5:15 in the morning, the beginning of a new day but the end of an era.

The Emperor’s Children
By Claire Messud

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‘The Emperor's Children’ by Claire Messud. 496 p. Vintage. $11.46 ()

The Emperor’s Children follows the lives of three 30-year-olds—Danielle Minkoff, Marina Thwaite, and Julius Clarke—who are Brown University friends, all three of whom moved to New York to fulfill the intellectual celebration of their bourgeois precocity. Life in the city, however, is not as rewarding as it should be, particularly when a bummer in the form of 9/11 arrives partway through the book, which means that in the months after you’d better be well-equipped with dismal outrage for dinner party conversations. The initial approach might be to observe a shallow sect, but who’s to say their response to life post 9/11 is any less genuine than others’? Messud never made that judgment, and the tragedy rhymes with the struggles of the chattering class in an attentive, fresh way.

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
By Mohsin Hamid

A young Pakistani named Changez tells an American the story of his life in America in the months before and after 9/11. Changez went to Princeton, was hired as a business appraiser by a New York firm, and falls in love with Erica, an aspiring writer and daughter of an Upper East Side family, whose friends blindly assert their cultural superiority, which rubs off on Changez, much to his own disgust. This might seem a set piece for preaching ambivalent values, but it is precisely the complexity of the immigrant ambivalence that makes the substance of the confession so deft and troubling. Mira Nair directed a film adaptation last year.

The Submission
By Amy Waldman

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‘The Submission: A Novel’ by Amy Waldman. 352 p. Picador. $10.40 ()

In The Submission, a jury unwittingly chooses the design of a Muslim architect for a 9/11-like memorial. The uproar over the award consumes the whole country, feeding a frenzied media and hungry politicians. Everyone wants his or her say. This, too, sounds like a set piece, but Waldman’s concept was conceived before the Park51 “Ground-Zero mosque” debacle in 2009. The result is a prescient political indictment that came after a real-life political indictment. Life imitates art imitates life.