Category Archives: Nathan Englander

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.

Links: Status Symbols

Ray Bradbury: “Do you know why teachers use me? Because I speak in tongues. I write metaphors. Every one of my stories is a metaphor you can remember. The great religions are all metaphor.”

Nathan Englander on his relative disinterest in historical accuracy in fiction: “So if a reader wants to write in and say, ‘There’s no way that an Egyptian soldier ever accidentally sat down with an Israeli soldier because they were wearing identical French-supplied uniforms,’ I’d feel comfortable responding, ‘That may generally be true, but it definitely happened once—because it happened to Shimmy Gezer. It says so right there in paragraph two.’”

Parsing the strangeness of Walker Percy‘s Lost in the Cosmos.

Gerald Early discusses jazz in literature the upsides of urban fiction with the Bad Plus’ Ethan Iverson. (via)

An in-progress illustrated version of Cormac McCarthy‘s Blood Meridian (via).

Given a sizable enough advance, Michael Chabon would write a nonfiction book on baseball.

A new book of scholarship on Ralph Ellison reveals that the hero of Invisible Man had a wife in early drafts of the novel.

Yiyun Li on why her books haven’t been translated into Chinese: “Just from a literary point of view, my stories rely on space: what you say and what you don’t. It doesn’t work to translate them. I would have to rewrite a lot, which I don’t want to do. I’m not going to rush into that.”

It’s been years since I thought to track down a copy of Cometbus, then a Berkeley-centric fanzine dedicated to the personal essays and fiction by its author, Aaron Cometbus; once upon a time I was in a mood to overstate things and called him the Great Bay Area Writer. Not quite, but I’m happy to hear he’s still writing.

I’m working on a series of Q&As with literary websites for Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle. The latest one, with C. Max Magee of The Millions, is now up.

Matterhorn author Karl Marlantes on Eudora Welty‘s influence: “When I read her book, Delta Wedding, about 30 years ago it taught me the power of literature. She said to me, through that book, ‘Karl, this is worth doing.’ “

A blogger, perhaps having lost a bar bet, is spending 117 days reading James Patterson: “[W]hen I was timing how long it took me to read each chapter, I realized that they were all readable in under 2 minutes, placing them conveniently within the space of a 2-minute commercial break on television. Coincidence? Maybe.” (via)