Dread, War and Ambivalence: Literature Since the Towers Fell
Credit…The New York TimesThe events of 9/11 irrevocably changed the course of global affairs. They also changed culture. It will likely be …
Credit…The New York Times
The events of 9/11 irrevocably changed the course of global affairs. They also changed culture. It will likely be easier to say how a century from now. But with 20 years’ hindsight, The Times’s book critics reflect below on some of the influence of that day on the writing that has followed.
A Sense of Dread
By Dwight Garner
Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man,” published in 2007, caught something fundamental about the morning of Sept. 11. “By the time the second plane appears,” a character says while watching replays on television, “we’re all a little older and wiser.”
When the jets struck, as if emerging from our subconsciousness, the midnight side of our minds, we were already living in a splintered world, one without the critical consensus that gave older novels, including many of DeLillo’s, their wide audiences. The idea that a single novel might capture America — did we ever really believe that? — already seemed as dated as a room-size IBM computer.
The so-called American Century had ended in chaos, trauma and rubble. Never again would a major artist proclaim as guilelessly as John Updike did, nearly three-quarters of the way through the century, in a poetry collection titled “Midpoint” (1969):
Don’t read your reviews,
you are the only land.
Writers are still metabolizing 9/11 and its aftershocks; they’ll do so for decades. “War and Peace” wasn’t written until some 50 years after Russia was invaded by France.
Yet it’s not too soon to venture some short remarks about recent fiction in, and about, what Rita Dove has called “this shining, blistered republic.”
A certain American cockiness, already fading on the page and off, was put to rout.
Sept. 11 accelerated a trend, already long in motion, toward opening American fiction to formerly marginalized voices. The critic Alfred Kazin, in his masterpiece “On Native Grounds” (1942), wrote that each new generation must still “cry America! America! As if we had never known America.”
Sept. 11 accelerated a trend, already long in motion, toward opening American fiction to formerly marginalized voices.
Kazin was the son of Jewish immigrants. He would have admired the complex, wary yet fundamentally patriotic visions of America witnessed in the eyes of so many gifted young writers bent on re-examining places in this country that many readers thought they knew but did not: Jesmyn Ward’s Mississippi; Ocean Vuong’s Hartford; Bryan Washington’s Houston; Anthony Veasna So’s Central Valley.
When Vuong wrote, in his novel “On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous,” that “the one good thing about national anthems is that we’re already on our feet, and therefore ready to run,” he was restating something Philip Roth wrote in “The Counterlife” (1986): “Disillusionment is a way of caring for one’s country too.”
We could speak here of semi- or autofiction. We could speak of the rise of parodists and tinkerers such as George Saunders, Colson Whitehead in “The Underground Railroad,” Ottessa Moshfegh, Karen Russell and Ben Lerner.
We could speak of the less happy trend toward critics and audiences desiring bland novels that adhere to their idea of how the world should be, not how it is. Or the rise of the killing notion that a novelist cannot imagine himself or herself into any situation.
Who’s to blame? There’s a telling moment in Zadie Smith’s recent essay collection, “Feel Free,” in which she and some friends, over dinner, bemoan “the strange tendency of the younger lefty generation to censor or silence speech or opinions they consider in some way wrong.” Then someone else at the table says, brutally, about their older cohort: “Well, they got that habit from us. We always wanted to be seen to be right. To be on the right side of an issue. More even so than doing anything.”
We could speak of dread, hardly a new theme in our fiction, which flowered anew, along with a sense that while we were visible, our enemy (or enemies) was not. The English novelist Ian McEwan, the author of “Saturday,” one of the better novels about life in the years following 9/11, commented in the aftermath that “American reality always outstrips the imagination. And even the best minds, the best or darkest dreamers of disaster on a gigantic scale, from Tolstoy and Wells to Don DeLillo, could not have delivered us into the nightmare available on television news channels yesterday afternoon.”
Cormac McCarthy’s postapocalyptic novel “The Road,” he has said, was directly inspired by 9/11. Novels like Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” in which a fictional flu epidemic has devastated the world, and even Whitehead’s zombie novel “Zone One,” landed with fresh force. (Zombies became, in novels, film and television, something like national mascots.) There was a sharpened sense that the unease would never end.
The American century: It makes a kind of sense that the last “Peanuts” strip was published in 2000.
Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections” was published only a few days before Sept. 11. Its first two sentences feel like the last dispatch written from a dead world: “The madness of an autumn prairie cold front coming through. You could feel it: Something terrible was going to happen.”
By Jennifer Szalai
In August 2003, nearly two years after the 9/11 attacks, the literary critic Edward Said was traveling back to New York City from Portugal, his body already ravaged by the leukemia that would kill him a month later. When he got to the airport for his departure, he was put in a wheelchair and escorted to the gate, where he was told that he wouldn’t be allowed to board because his name had triggered some sort of warning. Security proceeded to rummage through the bag of medications and books he kept on his lap. The author of “Orientalism” and “Culture and Imperialism” insistently told the staff that he had been born an American citizen and had lived in the United States for half a century. They finally relented, but the humiliation was complete.
The navigation of proliferating and degrading travel restrictions was just one of any number of post-9/11 experiences to be refracted in fiction — an ordeal so commonplace that, a decade later, it constituted just part of the backdrop in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel “Americanah.” In that book, Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who leaves Africa to study in America, can’t have her first love join her because his visa application was rejected. But the central preoccupation of the novel is also one that Said might have recognized. Ifemelu finds that leaving Nigeria, “a country where race was not an issue,” changes her understanding of who she is: “I did not think of myself as Black and only became Black when I came to America.” Adichie’s exploration of identity and belonging enacted what Said once called a “plurality of vision” — an awareness that “the very idea of identity itself involves fantasy, manipulation, invention, construction.”
This idea seemed wholly unfathomable to some writers, who reacted to 9/11 by conjuring implausible versions of an exoticized other. John Updike’s “Terrorist” (2006) was a particularly awkward bid to depict extreme alienation. His protagonist, an Egyptian-Irish American teenager, is presented as a robotic fanatic who begins to question his violent fantasies after the “convulsive transformation” of (this being an Updike novel) an orgasm. Martin Amis exhibited a similar sort of bodily fixation in his story “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta” (2006) — insinuating that at least one of the 9/11 hijackers was partly spurred by “the ungainsayable anger of his bowels.”
But such efforts were easily (and thankfully) eclipsed by fictional treatments of identity that had to do with uncertainty, instability, precariousness — depicting ambivalence as an irreducible part of the human condition.
Mohsin Hamid’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (2007) is constructed around encounters that take place in Lahore, between an American stranger and a Pakistani man named Changez — that very name alluding to his own shifting identity and the narrative’s unreliability. Julius, the Nigerian-German narrator of Teju Cole’s “Open City” (2011), meets a Moroccan living in Brussels who was “in the grip of rage and rhetoric” and decides that the only way to resist such profound disillusionment “was by having no causes, by being magnificently isolated from all loyalties”; yet Julius also recognizes that in the face of anti-immigrant hostility, such pristine detachment might not be sustainable either. “Was that not an ethical lapse graver than rage itself?”
Such questions don’t lend themselves to obvious answers. In “Homeland Elegies” (2020), which is pointedly subtitled “A Novel,” Ayad Akhtar writes about a Trump-loving immigrant father who has jumped feet-first into a fanciful idea of the American dream; an immigrant mother who detects a “murderous cynicism” in American foreign policy; and an American-born playwright son named Ayad Akhtar who empathizes with his Pakistani parents but can’t fully identify with either of them.
Experience isn’t static; it exists through time, absorbing and responding to the world in which it moves.
The novel version of Ayad insists on staying open to his own doubts, as uncomfortable as they are. He seems both charmed and discomfited by the certainty performed by others, detecting a cloud of disillusionment roiling beneath the caustic directness of a friend who acts as if he has figured it all out, spouting off “charged racial views without judgment or apology” that purport to just tell it like it is. “Cheery pessimism. Or weary idealism. Take your pick.”
Or not. Part of what Akhtar gestures at in his book — this novel-as-memoir, or memoir-as-novel, which gently skirts the demand to take your pick — is that one’s identity isn’t a matter of argument but experience. That experience isn’t static; it exists through time, absorbing and responding to the world in which it moves.
Among the legacies of Orientalism observed by Said was a compulsion to draw invidious distinctions. We are this; we are not that. They are this; they are not that. But in “Homeland Elegies,” Akhtar slips between identities, between ideas, between worlds. Like Julius in “Open City,” he bristles at those who try to lay claims on him. “It was why I only ever voiced my thoughts indirectly,” Akhtar writes, “through that particular prevarication called art.”
In the six pieces below, the critics choose additional works and themes to help parse everything from the immediate reaction to 9/11 to more long-term changes in literary culture.
The Wars That Followed
Robert Stone called the Vietnam War “a mistake 10,000 miles long.” The fiction that’s emerged from America’s post-Sept. 11 misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan has largely taken a similar tone. It took Denis Johnson three decades to give us, in “Tree of Smoke,” the kaleidoscopic novel that Vietnam deserved. We don’t yet have that novel about more recent wars. What we do have are Kevin Powers’s novel “The Yellow Birds” and Phil Klay’s stories in “Redeployment,” both about life on the ground in Iraq, both sensitive and pulverizing. We have Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” a sardonic and disillusioned portrait of a wartime hero come too briefly back home. Two outliers stick with me. One is the Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” a bitterly funny fable about a junk peddler who unwittingly creates a sentient monster out of the body parts strewn in the streets by explosions. The other is John Wray’s “Godsend,” about a young American woman who, disguising herself as a boy, becomes a Muslim and works her way to the front lines in Afghanistan. Fountain said it in his novel: “Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.” —DG
A Story Captures It All
Deborah Eisenberg’s story “Twilight of the Superheroes” is one fictional response to 9/11 that I keep rereading now and again. There’s a compressed intensity to it — a channeling of the larger world that she conveys in the amount of space that a full-length novel usually takes just to warm up. The story starts out funny and intimate, set in a New York City where everyone is fixated on the looming Y2K apocalypse. With the 9/11 attacks, it radiates outward, as the bloodshed moves offshore and what happened on that Tuesday morning becomes a source of both unresolved trauma and background noise.
“Things, in a grotesque sense, are back to normal,” one character thinks. But normal isn’t the same thing as real. Even if all the levity (“good-hearted, casually wasteful”) may resemble the New York that existed before the attacks, that old reality was itself a fantasy: “You can’t help sort of knowing that what you’re seeing is only the curtain. And you can’t help guessing what might be going on behind it.” —JS
Tech Takes Over
Mario Puzo, the author of “The Godfather,” died in 1999. Among his last words, according to a friend, were: “Thank God I won’t have to deal with the internet.” Sept. 11 was the first world event experienced communally online; it changed how technology threads through our lives. The next morning, everyone who didn’t have a cellphone bought one. As Joshua Cohen wrote in “The Book of Numbers,” “Suddenly, to lose touch was to die.” Luddite semi-holdouts like Shirley Hazzard (“the audible nightmare of the cellphone”), Stephen King (who wrote a novel about zombies set loose by bad cell signals), Jonathan Lethem and some of the characters in Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” who worried that cellphones were vulgar, fell by the wayside. Crime novelists were affected: It became harder to get people alone. A new kind of anomie was detected and appraised. In “Motherhood,” Sheila Heti described “the empty-internet feeling inside me.” Jennifer Egan, in “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” noted how “everybody sounds stoned, because they’re emailing people the whole time they’re talking to you.” Yet there were new forms of connection, too. In Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland,” a father who’d had his son taken from him hovers over his son’s house nightly, “flying on Google’s satellite function,” searching the “depthless” pixels for anything, from thousands of miles away, he can cling to. It’s unbearably moving. —DG
Sontag Sparks Outrage
In the Sept. 24, 2001, issue of The New Yorker, Susan Sontag’s response to 9/11 was one of the shorter ones. Longer reflections by other writers conveyed a roiling sense of bewilderment, confessions of how the attacks, for all of the fire and rubble and death, felt almost unreal. By contrast, Sontag pointedly called the attack a “monstrous dose of reality,” and enjoined Americans to be wary of the violence that was probably going to be perpetrated in their name.
Sontag was furiously denounced from all quarters. She admitted privately to her son that she felt the piece was “defective,” having been dashed off while she was in a Berlin hotel room, listening to what the talking heads were saying on CNN. In his biography of Sontag, Benjamin Moser notes that the substance of her critique proved to be correct, even if the piece as a whole betrayed a dearth of empathy that coursed through her life and her work. To a traumatized public, her admonishment sounded unfeeling and accusatory. But the vituperation leveled at her was so extreme that you would think she had started a war. —JS
A Critical Ceasefire
What was it like working in the worlds of writing, publishing and criticism in the wake of Sept. 11? Well, as Martin Amis wrote: “After a couple of hours at their desks, on Sept. 12, 2001, all the writers on earth were reluctantly considering a change of occupation.” I was an editor at The Times Book Review on 9/11, and many critics felt the same way. Criticism may be a form of love, but it didn’t seem so in the direct aftermath. No one felt like lowering the boom; criticizing a novel felt, briefly, like clubbing a baby seal. (We’re in a similar moment with restaurants, which have been hurt by Covid; The Times has stopped bestowing, or removing, stars.) It may not be a coincidence that in the decade and a half after 9/11, there began to be a rise in publications (The Believer, Buzzfeed) whose book sections refused to run negative reviews at all, and were thus essentially unreadable. Writers found their way back. So did critics, who wrote again in the spirit of Wilfrid Sheed’s dictum that “mushy reviews are a breach of faith.” —DG
When Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man” was published in 2007, it wasn’t quite the 9/11 novel some of us were expecting — not from him, anyway, a writer who had been circling the big themes of power and terrorism for decades. “Falling Man” was mostly an intimate book, about relationships that were frayed and forged in the aftermath of the attacks.
I can recall my disappointment. At the time, the novel felt diffuse and impressionistic. DeLillo had written the World Trade Center into his fiction before, describing its construction (“Underworld”), gesturing at its “dark spirit” (“Mao II”) — even having a character work there in “grief management” who observes how “the towers didn’t seem permanent” (“Players”).
I still can’t bring myself to call “Falling Man” one of DeLillo’s better books, but there’s a tenderness to it that I didn’t entirely appreciate at the time — love and memory and aging being varieties of the American experience, too. As DeLillo wrote in “Underworld,” “Everything is connected in the end.” —JS