Category Archives: 9/11 Novels

Stalking the 9/11 Beast

A couple of older posts here might be of interest for those discussing 9/11 and literature in the next week or so:

A Q&A with Wheaton College professor James Mulholland and students who took his class on the 9/11 novel in 2009.

A Q&A with scholar Kristiaan Versluys on his book Out of the Blue, a critical study of 9/11 fiction.

Both were interesting to revisit, because they’re counterweights to some recent judgments that post-9/11 fiction has fallen down on the job. Think pieces, reportage, and lists all generally agree that no novelist has successfully gotten his or her hands around the event. “Very few can be considered successes (with either critics or readers),” an English professor tells the Philadelphia Inquirer. “We’re still waiting for the ‘definitive’ 9/11 novel to be written. Who knows if it ever will be?”

Are we waiting? Why? In ten years, the hope that one novelist can encapsulate the variety of emotions, politics, and aftereffects of the attacks has gone from overheated (did Foer do it?) to grumpy (why couldn’t DeLillo do it?) to resigned (Waldman couldn’t do it, but close enough). But that process is revealing—the aggregate sense of disappointment that these novels didn’t “do enough” says more about where the country was and is culturally than any one novel ever could. We’re obsessed with the work that would bring closure to the attacks, though we’d likely just resent any book that attempted to do so, however skillfully made. “The event seems so prevalent in art and culture that we seem to be ‘holding onto’ the event, without judgment of how we do so,” as Mulholland’s students put it.

Holding onto the event doesn’t exclusively mean writing about the event itself. I’ve written before that discussions of the “9/11 novel” should include Lost City Radio, Matterhorn, and The Vagrants*, because even if they don’t deal with current wars and repressive regimes, they’re products of the past ten years of concern about them. Regarding the attacks themselves, “the unsayable remains unsaid,” as Versluys put it. But there’s been plenty of talking in the meantime; 20 years from now, I suspect we’ll look back at this decade as a time of strange despair, when people wanted something definitive without recognizing that such a thing was impossible to deliver. And we’ll also take notice body of good (if not great) novels that captured the breadth of that despair, that sublimated it into domestic dramas and kid-speak and comedy and terrorist thrillers and stories about juntas and Vietnam; for the event itself, we have the raw footage, the documentaries, the nonfiction books.

* And sure, probably Freedom too, in part because it deals with an atomized post-9/11 America, but because the critical response to the book exposed the need for a definitive statement about “us” in a way no other novel in the past 10 years has. Subjects for further research: Whether the end of World War II or Vietnam produced similar urges for a novelist to sum it all up, and why the tail end of the Cold War produced that urge, as in the essay that inspired this post’s title.

Last of the Summer Reading

Four books I’ve reviewed in the past month, each recommendable to some degree:

Amy Waldman, The Submission (Minneapolis Star-Tribune): Waldman’s debut has been eagerly covered as a “9/11 novel” because the plot’s driver is a competition for a 9/11 memorial. But the attacks are covered only glancingly here, and The Submission is more a media critique than anything—Waldman is at her best when she focuses on the ways that cable news and partisan newspapers steer public opinion, and the ways that nonpartisan coverage gets manipulated for its own ends.

Steven Millhauser, We Others: New and Selected Stories (Minneapolis Star-Tribune): It’s been a good year for victory-lap short-story collections, including Charles Baxter‘s Gryphon, Edith Pearlman‘s Binocular Vision, and this one from Millhauser. Certain themes emerge when his stories are placed in such close proximity—the uncertainty of childhood, the power magic both real and conjured, the authority of collective voices (“we” is the protagonist in a number of these stories). But it’s his precision that’s most impressive, particularly in “August Eschenberg,” which, fittingly, is about a young man obsessed with clockwork automatons.

Amor Towles, Rules of Civility (AARP.org): Gatsby-esque, as a few critics have said, but not just because it’s about the high life in pre-World War II New York. Like Gatsby, Towles’ debut chronicles one man’s hubris from a certain remove, filtered through an outsider’s impressions. Katey Kontent’s voice emphasizes sass and attitude, and Towles’ plot always seems to be busily up to something (now we’re skeet shooting with the gentry! now we’re launching a dishy magazine! now we’re changing the subject when somebody mentions the Anschluss!). But when Towles lets Katey stop and breathe a little, she’s a fine observer of the ways that money, or the need to accrue lots of it, shade character.

George Pelecanos, The Cut (Barnes & Noble Review): Following a string of standalone novels that have ranged from excellent (2006′s The Night Gardener) to rote (2009′s The Way Home), The Cut reads like Pelecanos has finally found a comfortable groove. In Spero Lucas he has a young PI he can work with for a while, and he allows himself more room to discuss how Washington, D.C., has changed since he began chronicling the city in the early 90s. (Though as USA Today reports, his next novel is set in 1972.)

Links: Discussion Group

A local programming note: If you happen to be in the greater D.C. area tomorrow, I’ll be at the Annapolis Book Festival, moderating a panel of three fine local novelists: Howard Norman (The Bird Artist, Devotion, What Is Left the Daughter), Eugenia Kim (The Calligrapher’s Daughter), and Tania James (Atlas of Unknowns). The entire lineup is pretty impressive, and I’m told that the Key School is a great venue for the fest.

In the letters page of the latest n+1, Paul Maliszewski pushes back against the clean delineations of the magazine’s “MFA vs. NYC” essay:

MFA programs long ago discovered that the surest way to compete for the best students is by hiring big-name writers from, that’s right, NYC. Just look at any advertisement for an MFA program, with its obligatory roll call of bold-faced names, those literary luminaries whom applicants might one day work with. Just a few years ago, when a writer at one of the top creative writing programs retired, the department sought to woo a young bestselling author who had no MFA and no experience teaching. In the end, the author wasn’t interested even in applying, but I doubt that stopped the school from gazing longingly over the hedges, to NYC.

Related: The Iowa Writers Workshop turns 75 this year.

Maybe Terry Castle‘s critique of Susan Sontag was more on-point than she was given credit for.

Porochista Khakpour on her anxiety as she finished her first novel. And an equally good essay on her discovery of James Salter‘s Light Years.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the novel he’s working on, set in antebellum Virginia: “Black history is so often rendered as series of episodes of suffering, stunning triumphs, and painful disappointments. I don’t have much interest in any of that. There’s a basic black narrative that goes something like this: Chains!–Whips!–Rape!–Lincoln!–Free!–Lynching!–King–March.–Dream–Free!–Crack!–Murder!–Obama!–Free!! Or some such. I want something different.”

Louis Menand on the death of monoculture as a boon for criticism: “[Y]ou want to have available to people lots of opportunities to experience literature, art, movies, whatever it is, without feeling that there’s some moral question that’s involved in that appreciation. Sometimes there is, sometimes it’s important to engage it, but I don’t think that taste should be the decider of moral issues.”

A passage from Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian as an accidental commentary on our primal need for videogames. (Or games, at least.)

John Steinbeck played fast and loose with the facts in Travels With Charley. Frank Wilson doesn’t feel that automatically diminishes the book; D.G. Myers considers the book “silly and forgettable” but doesn’t think much of the squabbling over its “authenticity” either.

Smelling dirt with William Faulkner.

Mary Karr isn’t going back to read her old poetry: “It feels scatological to me, like a turd you just left. It’s none of my business if it’s any good. I’ve thought about it all I can think of it, and if I’m not actively engaged in thinking of something, I move on.”

Madison Smartt Bell on his forthcoming novel, The Color of Night, which deals with 9/11 (or at least footage of it): “The 9/11 sequence of events, after briefly bringing the country together, seems to me to have deepened a rift which existed before, this one regional and cultural. We all abhor the idea of Islamic fundamentalist theocracy, but there’s a significant minority of our citizens who would embrace a Christian version of that. We are fortunate that, since the blue states surround the red states (I should mention that I divide my time between the two regions), civil war is geographically unfeasible.”

Links: Dead Tongues

Marilynne Robinson: “If you want your prose to be good, studying Latin is good for you.”

Pushcart Prize founder Bill Henderson remains optimistic about small presses and literary magazine.

Paul Auster: “I believe that the whole idea of the consumer society is tottering. We’ve kept ourselves going by producing more and more goods, most of which people don’t need. I’m anti-consumerism; I own four pairs of black Levis and that’s it.”

However outdated its notions about psychotherapy might be, Millen Brand‘s 1937 novel, The Outward Room, is worth revisiting.

“I don’t think [Jonathan Franzen] was literally saying that America invaded Afghanistan so that Americans could continue to drive SUVs. I think he was trying to trace a connection between American foreign policy and Americans’ own understandings of freedom, which is both a value and an emotional imperative that they understand in particular ways and struggle to achieve in their personal lives.”

This nonsense about how “[dead writer] would never use Twitter and Facebook” needs to stop.

Rick Moody on parenthood and home.

“Twenty-five years since its initial publication, White Noise feels like an important and ongoing philosophical experiment…”

In praise of Leonard Michaels‘ Nachman stories.

An excellent interview with Boston Globe literary critic Katherine A. Powers (J.F. Powers‘ daughter), covering Charles Portis, rereading, short stories, fiction in translation, and her admirably simple metric for a book’s success: “When I think of the novels I really like, I can think of only one thing that unites them: their authors proved trustworthy, that is, my suspension of disbelief was not betrayed.”

“The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it.”

Lastly, it’s off this blog’s chosen beat, but I had run catching up with Salman Rushdie‘s work while working on my review of his new children’s book, Luka and the Fire of Life, for the New York Times Book Review. Being a new father may have more kindly attuned me to it, but I suspect I’d recommend it regardless.

Is/Is Not 9/11

Last week the website Creative Writing Now invited me to answer a few questions about books and book reviewing. The first question was about my take on the past decade in American fiction—a subject way too broad for me to address without appearing presumptuous and/or arrogant, but it was a chance for me to bring up something I’ve been thinking about for a while:

Though there are a fairly small number of novels that address 9/11 head-on, there seem to be plenty of novels that’ve sublimated the past eight years or so of military adventures into other settings, imagining oppressed states (as in Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio) or recalling repressive regimes (as in Nathan Englander’s The Ministry of Special Cases and Yiyun Li‘s The Vagrants). It may be meaningful that in the past few years there have been two prominent big books of literary fiction about the Vietnam War, Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Karl MarlantesMatterhorn. Weren’t we supposed to be past these books? Aren’t literary readers supposed to be more interested in The Way We Live Now? It’s almost as if we’re clinging hard to old war stories in spite of their irrelevance to our current state of affairs, as if the Vietnam era is now “the good old days.”

It’d require a lot more research, but there seems to be a category of novel that couldn’t exist after 9/11, is informed by 9/11, but isn’t explicitly about 9/11—where the concerns about war and repression and individual security are very much there but thrust into some other, non-9/11 setting. Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin might qualify; so might Jonathan Franzen‘s Freedom, though post-9/11 anxieties are very much present in that novel even if it doesn’t dwell on the event itself. When I interviewed Kristiaan Versluys last year about his study of 9/11 novels, Out of the Blue, he mentioned a few more candidates, and suggested that we’re probably due for more novels that address that event only abstractedly:

I made the decision early on to deal only with novels in which 9/11 is not just a background event, but in which it plays an essential role in the plot development. Apart from the two novels you mention [Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Ken KalfusA Disorder Peculiar to the Country], there are more novels of merit in which 9/11 is part of the background: Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, to mention only a few. I deal with two such novels (Anita Shreve’s A Wedding in December and Ian McEwan’s Saturday) in the epilogue to indicate that, as time goes by and the first shock wears off, 9/11 is bound to become “spectralized.” Its presence will become less and less visible, but for that reason all the more haunting. The direct treatment of the events on September 11 is bound to be replaced in the collective imagination by the indirect treatment.

I don’t think American literature would be diminished if it failed to produce a quintessential 9/11 novel that was very much about 9/11. (Maybe Keith Gessen is right and we’ve still got a long wait.) But its relative absence is still curious and, in its own way, revealing—after all, it says something that fiction writers are more comfortable addressing 9/11 by, as Versluys put it, spectralizing it, making it a ghost. Maybe that’s more an intention than a side effect.