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Tempering Expectations for the Great 9/11 Novel

By posted at 1:22 pm on May 13, 2007 3

coverJerome Weeks has published a long, thoughtful essay asking why all the talk about our culture needing a great “9/11 novel.” Don Delillo has this discussion back in the book pages with his new book, Falling Man, though Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Deborah Eisenberg’s collection Twilight of the Superheroes among several others are examples of so-called “9/11 fiction.” Weeks writes:

Why do we expect our writers to produce the “Great 9/11 novel” anyway? Has there ever been a “great” Pearl Harbor novel — the event most often compared to the Towers’ collapse? From Here to Eternity is about all that memory can conjure up, and it surely doesn’t qualify as great.

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.





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3 Responses to “Tempering Expectations for the Great 9/11 Novel”

  1. Seth Christenfeld
    at 10:38 pm on May 13, 2007

    I wonder if part of it is the essential insularity of these events. While large events–wars, say–involve a great many people, some of whom will go on to put their experiences into writing as fiction, 9/11 and Pearl Harbor were both comparatively "small" events, and in both cases the bulk of the people directly involved in them did not survive.

    So, while we can have a Great WWI Novel (All Quiet on the Western Front?), or a Great Vietnam Novel (The Things They Carried?), I don't know that there will ever be a Great 9/11 Novel. There may be good and even great novels about the residual effects of the moment and the surrounding era, but I think that that will be the extent, at least until there's enough distance from the events for someone to be able to imagine himself inside the moment.

  2. Sean Ferrell
    at 12:16 pm on May 14, 2007

    "I would argue that nearly every serious novel written since 9/11 is a "9/11 novel.""

    I second that.

    To expect that only explicit references to an event can make an artistic work "about" an event is to miss how art is created. Pynchon's
    "Mason & Dixon" is "about" slavery and the growth of the US as a bipolar dream destined to commit the self-destructive attrocities which were the Civil War. That doesn't mean the Civil War had to make an appearance.

  3. Czobit
    at 7:11 am on May 15, 2007

    I've only read two 9/11 novels– Claire Messud's "The Emperor's Children" and "Falling Man." Messud's novel is stronger.

    In "Falling Man," the characters are DeLillo characters, which can come off as unbelievable. Beyond that, the plot lacks coherence (in the final section of the novel, DeLillo fast forwards three years after Sept. 11 without much explanation of what happened in between).

    The other problem I had with "Falling Man" is the predictability of the final scene. DeLillo is capable of better.

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