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.