Still Waiting for the Definitive 9/11 Novel?
Posted by: Keir Graff
In a brief article in USA Today (“Novels about 9/11 can’t stack up to non-fiction“), Bob Minzesheimer notes that nonfiction about 9/11 outnumbers novels by a staggering ratio:
Six years after the twin towers fell, enough non-fiction has been published about Sept. 11, 2001, to fill an entire section of a bookstore: 1,036 titles, according to Books in Print.
But novels inspired by 9/11 could fit on one shelf. There are only about 30, and none has seized the public imagination.
There have been, of course, some well-respected and well-reviewed 9/11 novels. (I gave Jay McInerney’s The Good Life high praise, and other Booklist reviewers have starred reviews of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Jess Walter’s The Zero, and John Updike’s Terrorist.) Yet there seems to be this assumption out there that the 9/11 novel hasn’t been written. Will it be? Do we need it to be?
C. Max Magee makes some good points at The Millions:
…the subtext of these articles, and there have been many in many venues over the years, is twofold.
First is that the serious novel’s driving function is to make sense of our complicated world, to distill it to its essence so that years from now, when a young man asks how 9/11 felt, an old man can wordlessly slip a book into his hand. Second is this idea that every major event requires the culture to produce innumerable artifacts that are explicitly about that event. There are hundreds of films and TV shows that are primarily about 9/11, but where, the culture watchers ask, are all the novels?
Linking to an earlier post, he cites his own previous answer to the question:
I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a “9/11 novel.” Writers, artists, and filmmakers, consciously or subconsciously, react to the world around them some way, and 9/11, from many angles, is incontrovertibly a part of our world. For example, even Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, which is set in an alternate universe in which a temporary Jewish homeland has been set up in Alaska, is a “9/11 novel” in that it has internalized the post-9/11 sensibilities of shadowy government meddling in the Middle East and the feeling of an impending global and religiously motivated conflict. To expect a novel to explicitly place 9/11 into a context that offers us all some greater understanding of it is to misunderstand how fiction works, as Jerome Weeks implies. What we are really looking for (as ever) is a defining novel of our time.