On this sad anniversary, USA Today trots out the now tired question, asking for, as if we’re all looking for it, the mythical novel that will explain and place into context the tragedy of six years ago. In this case, USA Today points out the uninspiring sales of “novels inspired by 9/11” as compared to their non-fiction counterparts, but 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?
I wrote about this several months ago, when the publication of Don Delillo’s Falling Man led several to seek the “9/11 novel” (Falling Man deemed to have failed in this respect), and I still believe what I wrote then.
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.
There may never be a so-called “defining 9/11 novel,” but there are already many 9/11 novels, some more explicitly about 9/11 than others but all internalizing that event to one degree or another. Still, since it seems likely that we will not satisfactorily settle on the one anointed 9/11 novel, writers will have a topic to dust off every year when this anniversary rolls around.