If it is true that tragedy can fuel great art, then there would seem to be no bigger engine for contemporary fiction than September 11, 2001. By any measure, 9/11 is the defining event of our time, and any picture of our society is incomplete without it. Yet the writing that immediately followed the attacks seemed unwilling to address the tragedy head-on. As recently as a year ago, no less an authority than V. S. Naipaul could pronounce that “No novels have yet engaged the post-September 11 era in any meaningful way.” The soul-withering destruction of WWI sparked the stylistic experiments and moral anomie of the famous “Lost Generation”: a similarly strong literary response might well have been expected to be underway by now. The major novelists who have engaged the topic from a domestic point of view — specifically Jonathan Safran Foer, in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Ian McEwan, in Saturday — have not written novels that achieved lasting psychic resonance in our collective unconscious. The great 9/11 novel, it seems, remains to be written.
A number of reasons can be adduced for this curious inadequacy. For a time, the tragedy was considered, perhaps rightly, sacrosanct: a tacit and generally universal understanding that the events of that blue-sky Tuesday morning deserved a measure of historical perspective commensurate to their enormity. Writing in The New York Times Book Review this June, Rachel Donadio observed that “it may take some time for the novelistic accounts [of 9/11 and terrorism] to eclipse the journalistic ones.” More famously, Jay McInerney told Poets & Writers magazine that Norman Mailer had advised him “to wait at least ten years to write about it. He said I needed time to process, distance.” The novel that McInerney wrote in spite of Mailer’s warning, The Good Life, was generally conceded upon its publication in March to have some affecting passages but in the end to sink under the characters’, and by extension, the author’s, self-absorption. A novel featuring upper-class adulterers worrying that their affair is somehow inappropriate in light of the tragedy feels, well, inappropriate; although at least McInerney had the good sense to elide any blow-by-blow description of the actual day itself. Not so Kyle Smith, in whose novel Love Monkey the shared euphoria of survival is seized by the narrator as an opportunity to bed a hitherto recalcitrant woman whom he has been pursuing in counterpoint to his feckless girlfriend. As a post-9/11 artistic statement of lustful opportunism this is rivaled only by Canadian indie-pop band Sloan’s song ‘Dreaming of You,’ in which the singer wonders how long he is obliged to wait before hitting on that attractively morose 9/11 widow.
Thankfully, recent fiction seems more on point, with more nuanced perspectives following earlier, tentative efforts. Two recent novels bring a sharply urgent, innovative approach to the topic, heralding a thaw in the unspoken détente that at first put such a chill on literary considerations of 9/11. Ken Kalfus’ A Disorder Peculiar to the Country takes a brashly irreverent approach to the day’s events. His protagonists are a couple locked in a savage divorce negotiation; as the destruction erupts in front of them, each reacts in stifled joy, each presuming with reason the other dead in the conflagration. It’s a shocking, morbid ploy, yet the laughter it engenders feels fully earned and almost a relief: gallows humor as the last honest reaction to the disaster. Jess Walter’s novel The Zero, in contrast, employs a simple but drastic structural device: his narrator, a New York policeman who was present at the attacks, suffers from a debilitating chronic amnesia that continually jars the narrative out of place, lending the prose a fractured surreality. Both of these books eschew a straightforward approach for more oblique literary tactics, seeking to reach offbeat truths that were resistant to earlier, more literal-minded efforts.
Neither Disorder nor The Zero is the great 9/11 novel by a long stretch, but the freshness of their diverse approaches is a good sign. The dread and careful handling that the topic seemed to require initially have begun to wear off, to be replaced by a more robust and rigorous sense of common belonging. The essential problem of 9/11 fiction is one of ownership: the idea that using grief, individual or collective, as the raw material for a book, which, after all, is designed to be sold and to make money, is somehow exploitative. At what point does it become morally acceptable to pursue a public, if fictional, depiction of events that have caused many people incalculable anguish? Is the failure to deploy the iconic images of 9/11 and all their psychic overtones a sign of cowardice or respect? Kalfus’ novel demolishes such concerns through the force of its irreverence and morbid wit; Walter’s by way of structural innovation and deeply felt observation.
Nothing, of course, can change the sadness of 9/11, but careful reverence is not fertile ground for great fiction, nor does it do justice to the immensity and complexity of the tragedy’s scope. By looking at 9/11 as a whole, we understand ourselves. Anything less, anything smacking of polite self-censorship, is the true betrayal, because after all, this is New York City, and in what spirit would all those stone-tough firemen and hard-nosed cops, not to mention the men and women who showed up for work day after day in the nerve center of the greatest city on earth, expect to be remembered?
Near the end of The Zero, a grizzled ex-cop tells Remy — drunk, insomniac, battered, disoriented — that “this city, it doesn’t care about you. Or me. That’s the secret… what the crazy assholes will never get. You can’t tear this place apart. Not this city. The goddamned thing always grows back.” A grim, defiant valediction, but one we can carry with us, as we go our individual ways through a city shadowed by a very collective memory.