Many American novelists have tried their hand at what is now widely referred to as “9/11 fiction,” more often than not, to mixed reviews. Often novels by writers from other countries are cited as the most successful books on the matter. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, who was born in Ireland and schooled in The Netherlands, is often said to be the best novel about September 11, 2001.
This, too, is the conclusion reached by Adam Kirsch in “In the shadow of the twin towers” (Prospect, June 2011). Naming the (in Krisch’s view) failed attempts by some of America’s heavy weights, like Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (“But style defeats itself in these cool, hypnotic sentences, precisely because DeLillo knows that he is wagering everything on style.”) and John Updike’s Terrorist (“Sex, not God, is Updike’s God, which is why he overdetermines Ahmad’s rage by giving him a clear Freudian grievance…”), Krisch is left to conclude that American writers may just be “ill-suited to a subject that, like the sun, does not bear looking at directly.” This conclusion seems a bit simplistic to me, as do others in this article, like when Krisch uses a description from a nonfiction book about one man’s descent from the south tower on September 11 to criticize a novelist’s decision to devote “the last ten pages of his novel to the thoughts of his protagonist, Kevin, while he plunges to his death from the 52nd story of a burning building.” In fact, as we learn from the nonfiction writer, nothing enters the mind, much less ten pages worth of thoughts: “My mind switched off. I didn’t start praying. I didn’t have visions of childhood. My life didn’t flash before my eyes. It was a puzzling feeling.” Putting aside the discussion of how the thoughts of someone falling to his death from a skyscraper might differ from those of someone trying to run for his life from one, no matter what appears on those last ten pages of a novel, it is unfair to compare them to a work of nonfiction. I am not one to claim that there is no imagination in nonfiction—that it’s a simple task of retelling—but surely there is a distinction between someone trying to relay their experience in a book and someone trying to possess “the imagination of disaster” (a term coined by Henry James and used by Kirsch) and fictively tell the story of a character falling through the sky. Now, if the thoughts of the falling character are unbelievable, that’s another story, but comparing them to a work of nonfiction seems arbitrary to me.
Kirsch’s argument also falls short for me when he addresses attempts by writers to focus on the perpetrators of the attacks:
There is something admirable about the dogged attempts of American writers to inhabit the minds of the hijackers. After all, the terrorist act involves a radical refusal to imagine the experience of the victim. By contrast, the novelist’s insistence on his obligation to inhabit the mind of the terrorist can be seen as an exemplary liberal response.
In practice, however, this kind of liberal imagination depends on a psychological and materialist understanding of character, which leaves the novelist ill-equipped to understand religious fanatics whose deepest motives are theological and absolute.
Couldn’t the same be said about any individual throughout time whose “deepest motives” were “absolute”? Isn’t this and the “radical refusal to imagine the experience of the victim” what make up any number of novels about murder?
While I disagree with much of Kirsch’s reasoning, I appreciate his attempt to address these books, writers , and topic with a level of respect. Kirsch reminds us that after a brief moment of a new national “sobriety and sternness of purpose,” most of the country went back to business as usual. The fact that so many American writers to this day are wrestling seriously with this subject matter shows Kirsch that at least that demographic has remained steadfast toward that sobriety and sternness. “American writers, to their credit,” Kirsch writes, “have taken the exhortation to seriousness quite seriously.” And who am I to say that his ultimate conclusion is not correct? Maybe “there is no need for the novelist to re-imagine 9/11 when, on some level, Americans have never stopped thinking about it.”
(Note: The online version of this article includes interesting responses from three American novelists, Siri Hustvedt, Stefan Merrill Block and Teddy Wayne.)