The 9/11 Novel Now

The Panorama Book Review, part of Dave Eggers‘ effort to show what can be improved in the newspaper in general and the book review in particular*, includes an essay by Juliet Litman considering the evolution of the 9/11 novel. To perhaps overly reduce her thesis, novels like Jonathan Safran Foer‘s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man used the image of a man falling from one of the Twin Towers to evoke the pain of the day’s events—they are “artifacts of the aftershock.” By contrast, novels like Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin, which uses Philippe Petit’s 1974 wirewalk between the tops of the Twin Towers as a thematic device, and Joseph O’Neill‘s Netherland, suggest how much we’ve healed in the past few years. Litman writes:

Like Falling Man, [Let the Great World Spin] forces its readers to relive and rewatch the fall over and over again—but here, the man does not fall. With each vignette, we meet someone who is somehow wounded, a character who is destined for or has already experienced an untimely descent, and we feel their disquiet as they ponder the tightrope walker. Their falls have occurred all over New York, not necessarily at the site of the Twin Towers, and so much grief suffuses the story that reader can can hardly revel in Petit’s achievement. Thus, in one swift narrative, readers experience both the sadness of those already wounded and the safety of certain survival.

Positioning McCann’s book as a 9/11 novel requires a little fancy footwork; with the exception of the epilogue, all the action takes place well before the terrorist attacks. Of course, McCann knew what he was doing in writing a story that prominently featured the World Trade Center in this day and age—his passages on Petit’s walk focus on feelings of fear and helpless spectatorship among the folks on the ground. And Litman’s on to something: If the novel says something about the post-9/11 mood, it may be more about an eagerness to get past it—McCann overstuffs the narrative with character after character as if to reclaim New York as a place full of life. Netherland has a similar strategy—to focus on the living instead of the dead, and even to avoid the trauma of the day head-on. (For all its cricket chatter, the book could be considered a sports novel as easily as a 9/11 one.)

“The synecdochic falling man—the symbol for the larger, brutal aftershocks of the attacks—has given way to McCann’s metonymic, never-falling tightrope walker and to the open-to-everything eye of O’Neill,” Litman writes. In some ways that marks a reversal of critical expectations from the 9/11 novel—not so long ago Keith Gessen told NPR that he thought it would be 50 years before 9/11 was the subject of a great novel. Great or not, it may be that the project of writing novels about that day is wrapping up—moving from shock to healing in less than a decade.

* In that regard, it’s hit-and-miss. I like the idea of including original fiction in a book review, and George Saunders‘ “Fox 8” is clever. The reviews themselves introduce two good ideas: a replication of the first page of the book under consideration, which gives you a sense of the writing as well as the look of the words of the page (that’s not entirely unimportant), and a sidebar listing data about the book’s author, which keeps the boilerplate biographical stuff from clotting the review proper. A feature on male cover models for romance novels seems in concept a nice way to integrate reported stories (haven’t read it); charticles on bookstore economics and commonly mispronounced author names have good information and can be processed quickly. But if the book review of the future has to include things like James Franco and Miranda July talking at each other about the pleasures and frustrations of being actors and writers at the same time, count me out. I happily let my subscription to Interview lapse a while back; at $18 for 12 issues, it counted among the dumbest things I’ve spent money on.

3 thoughts on “The 9/11 Novel Now

  1. I don’t agree that McCann overstuffs his narrative with characters. Of course, it depends on your critical criteria, and perhaps even on your definition of the novel.

  2. Litman’s analysis seems to look at the trauma that 9/11 novels either re-evoke or assuage. And certainly trauma is a large part of many of these novels. But it also seems that these novels are also coping with a spectral aspect of the trauma, the “as-seen-on-tv” quality of the event, or the way the replaying of the event has become a spectacle in and of itself. DeLillo’s performance artist – the Falling Man – while he does indeed embody the trauma of 9/11, also reproduces the spectacle/spectatorship of the catastrophe. His performance as performance also says something important about 9/11, I think.

    In fact, many who lived the events first-hand talk about a sense of spectacle surrounding 9/11: “Many witnesses to the collapse of the towers reported a sense of unreality. They felt like they were watching a movie they had seen before” (Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, 16). An aura of unreality or even superficiality were part of the events of 9/11.

    Thanks for your discussion; I found it to be really interesting.

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