Don’t Call It Chi-Town (And Other Things to Learn in Chicago Books)

It makes little sense to come up with another list of “best” Chicago books. To select a “top” 10 (or 20 or 1,000) has always seemed arbitrary and destined for accusations of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole, even in a city built on a foundation of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole. Fairly or unfairly, Chicago often serves as a general proxy for American cities. Love or hate this idea of ostensible representativeness (most Chicagoans kind of just roll their eyes), to embrace it can prove helpful in one respect: looking at ambition, failed policies, immigration, founding myths, and contemporary life in Chicago, you find resonance elsewhere in America. When thinking through issues confronted by American cities today (and maybe always) -- unequal distribution of resources, violent policing, persistent de facto segregation, administrative corruption, privatization of public services, neoliberal coddling of gentrification, fallout from decades of environmental degradation, and others -- Chicago serves as a vital case study. The local commentariat here works itself into spitting rages whenever any outsider -- especially if that outsider bears a New York Times business card -- parachutes into the Loop for 36 hours to explain Chi-Town (seriously, stop it: no one here calls it that) to the rest of the world. So, designed as a “Chicago 101” syllabus, these books serve as starting points rather than final judgments. They place Chicago at the center of ideas about city life, in some case pressing back on prevailing narratives about American urbanism. Instead of best Chicago books, this selection focuses on books that use a Chicago-centric perspective to address challenges that other places similarly confront. And given that I’m leaving town this fall and casting my lot with the outsiders when I transplant to -- I cringe, really, it feels like betrayal -- Brooklyn, I wanted to get this thing together before the movers arrive. Much is missing: I chose not to focus on novels because so many others have done so, and poetry is almost entirely absent. Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg were not on this list because they are prerequisites for the list. But with the excuses that I don’t intend on completeness and the movers at the gates, I hope it’s acceptable to leave gaps that conversation might fill. 1. “It Really Wasn’t Much of a Place at All.” Dominic A. Pacyga opens Chicago: A Biography, his sweeping history of the Midwest’s largest city, with Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. The priest and explorer first came upon a portage between the Chicago and Illinois Rivers in 1673. To build a canal here would be to connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, creating the largest inland waterway in the world and facilitating transportation from New York Harbor to the Mississippi along the entire midsection of the continent. There’s a lot in between and after, and the last page of Pacyga’s book makes it to Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. That Pacyga covers so much -- from the fire that destroyed one third of Chicago in 1871, to the city’s subsequent explosive growth (Chicago had a 1.7 million residents by 1900), to the Haymarket riot, to the 1968 DNC -- should give a sense of the book’s scope. With so much terrain to cover, it comes as little surprise that even major events get relatively little space. Pacyga does, however, provide an especially detailed account of labor upheavals that characterized Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, providing context for understanding the city’s pushback against the rampant capitalism for which it earned its reputation. Chicago: A Biography represents an essential starting point, primarily because it tracks the evolution of the city from a mucky swamp to a “global city.” 2. “Natural Advantages”  William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Donald Miller’s City of the Century both present meticulously detailed and conceptually riveting pictures of Chicago in the 1800’s -- a century of incredible expansion. Chicago’s founding hustlers (to borrow Nelson Algren’s term for his fellow Chicagoans) proclaimed as early as the 1830’s that a marsh named for stinking onions by indigenous people, seated aside gloriously fertile grasslands on the shores of an inland ocean, would one day represent “the most important point in the great west.” By the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the climax of Chicago’s ascendant century, that destiny had been realized. Cronon and Miller interrogate the stakes of this transformation, asking about the lives it altered and about the enduring epistemic shifts that Chicago’s rise implied for the United States. Chicago transformed America’s relationship with the West and with capital itself, producing not only a vast urban expanse but also structuring what we would come to understand as “rural,” “suburban,” and “hinterland.” Cronon helps us understand how the city transformed goods into abstract commodities, reshaping our relationship to the food we buy and the environment we consume. He shows how rail transit didn’t just connect distant places, but rather restructured our very understanding of space and time. In notable contrast, Miller’s history dives into the enormous cast of characters that built Chicago and chronicled its rise. City of the Century’s meticulous characterization of the “hustlers” that poured concrete into Chicago’s foundations provides singular descriptions of this cast’s influence on the city’s trajectory. 3.“High Strung, Contagious Enthusiasm” Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City has become standard literary fare for newcomers to Chicago, and one will often find multiple copies in a transplant’s household. Larson dramatizes the planning of the aforementioned World’s Columbian Exposition, which marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. Planning required construction of an enormous classical-inspired city in Jackson Park on the South Side, involving many of the city’s (and nation’s) architectural and economic leaders, and marking Chicago’s global coming-out party. Lurking in the crowds, H.H. Holmes -- the book’s eponymous devil -- became one of America’s first serial killers. He committed scores of murders silently throughout the fair, the urban anonymity afforded him by the crowds facilitating his crimes. Larson’s book has become important, not just as a document that depicts this contradiction between glorious spectacle and urban underbelly, but also because his romanticized vision of Chicago squares with how the city still views the fair. Its spectacle (and specter) looms large in Chicago’s self-conception. Where Larson spends time examining the drama among fair planners, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth presents an imaginative -- and sparely, gorgeously rendered -- view of the event’s history through a child’s eyes. An emotionally paralyzed man living in present-day Chicago, Jimmy attempts to reconnect with his father. In scenes from the 1800s, the monumental fair casts similar shadows over an inter-generational Corrigan family history. Ware depicts how the tendrils of Chicago’s past reach to its present in a city with a complicated history. 4. Plans for Chicago To understand how American cities thought of their futures at the turn of the 20th century, one must consider two very different city planners in Chicago. Jane Addams founded Hull-House in 1889, well before the Columbian Exposition’s electric lights flickered on. Her settlement house ultimately comprised an enormous complex of buildings in one of Chicago’s poorest immigrant neighborhoods. In Twenty Years at Hull House, one gets the sense of Addams’s determination to reformulate the way that cities treated the poor and immigrant classes -- with dignity and a focus on individuals. She charted a course for services and advocacy for the poor that formed the foundation of social work and emphasized that communities matter in urban development. Concurrently, Daniel Burnham -- architect of the Columbian Exposition -- moved on from the fair to create an urban plan that would transform Chicago and cement the city’s status as a global metropolis. Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago makes it clear that Burnham’s monumental visions leave a complicated legacy. Despite “sincere” hopes that “City Beautiful” concepts would ennoble the poor, the Plan of Chicago deserves criticism for overlooking conditions of daily life for those to whom Addams ministered. As much as it marks a culmination of optimism in city planning, it lays some of the foundation for abysmal policies that would haunt public housing in Chicago and in many other cities. Moreover, it marks a kind of opening chapter in “public-private partnerships” that govern contemporary efforts to encourage markets to solve urban problems. 5. Bigger Ambitions for Chicago-Born Novels Native Son and The Adventures of Augie March belong at the heart of any serious conversation about Chicago novels (though I find Augie difficult to get through). The ambitions of Richard Wright and Saul Bellow in these two midcentury novels rise to the level of Chicago’s ambitions for itself. Their alternatingly devastating and ennobling investigations of individual agency and social determination in two unforgettable protagonists -- Augie and Bigger Thomas -- make them essential to an understanding of American ideas about selfhood, race, and ambition. It can be easy to forget that these novels take place in Chicago; they belong to us all and not to any one city. “I am an American,” Augie declares right at his beginning. “Chicago born” comes only second, though it acts as validation of his Americanness. Upon reflection, one cannot imagine either novel taking place in any other American city -- one of huge immigrant classes fragmented into neighborhoods bitterly segregated along racial and ethnic lines. Reading these novels together with a spatial understanding of Chicago deepens one’s appreciation for how wide a gulf exists between the lives of their protagonists and the populations they represent. Augie and Bigger find themselves in Hyde Park, for example (which still boasts of its veneer of racial diversity relative to other neighborhoods), but their experiences there are utterly separate. From this smallest of details -- the incongruity of lives despite physical proximity -- emerges persistent truths about the structure of racial dynamics in American cities. 6. Making the Most of Migration The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson's mammoth history of the Great Migration, won the 2015 Chicago Reader’s poll of “Greatest Chicago Book.” Chicago shares billing with LA and NYC as important destinations for those whose lives Wilkerson traces from the rural south to the urban north and west, but there can be no doubt that the Great Migration wrought indelible changes in the social fabric of every region in the United States from World War I through the 1970s; and in this story, Chicago plays a central role. Unwavering in her depictions of the political and physical violence of Jim Crow and nuanced in both her telling of personal stories and descriptions of broader effects of the migration on cities and people, Wilkerson's book is the seminal text on the largest internal migration in American history. Meanwhile, Adam Green’s Selling the Race provides an incisive contribution to conversations about how black Chicagoans carved a place for culture in modern America. Against prevailing narratives that cast black Americans (including many new migrants to Chicago) as victims of modernity, swept up by forces that looked to capitalize on anxieties of belonging, Green argues that they became powerful agents of cultural production. Examples from Mahalia Jackson to Ebony and Jet magazine (product of the Chicago-based Johnson Publications) present a rich picture of how much of black culture was generated and packaged for sale to wide audiences in Chicago. 7. Obsessions with the Ordinary No city values the “ordinary” so dearly as Chicago. And if Studs Terkel stands as the everyman’s greatest champion, his Division Street America best ties the city’s affection for ordinariness to American identity. It would be a mistake to suggest that Terkel shilled the myth of a “city that works” (a term coined by Richard J. Daley). Rather, his no-nonsense portrayals of everyday Chicagoans -- rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, racist, gay, jag-baggy, and others -- coalesce to create this affecting hodgepodge. As Alex Kotlowitz (no slouch himself in the department of spotlighting and writing movingly about injustice in Chicago) has observed, there’s always Studs in the background -- curious, probing, insisting, and asking questions that prompt often-ignored individuals to tell their stories. Vivian Maier, whose recently discovered work also transacts in Chicago’s obsession with the ordinary, may outshine Terkel decades from now. She embodies the perfect female flâneur (or, as historian Lauren Elkin has rightly insisted, flâneuse). Maier spent most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, secretly capturing some 100,000 images on the city’s streets. The domestic nature of her work all but guaranteed invisibility, given chauvinistic structures of artistic production and labor valuation. But when John Maloof was researching the Northwest Side neighborhood of Portage Park in 2007, he came upon Maier’s forgotten images. He bought and disseminated them. Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found is a great introduction and Maier now belongs in discussions about great American street photographers. Hers is an utterly Chicago story. 8. Daley’s Siege Richard J. Daley reigned over much of 20th-century Chicago. He ruled the city from 1955 until 1971, dominated Democratic Machine politics, and earned all of his enemies. Several books on this list describe Daley, and his complicated legacy plays out differently in their assessments. For this reason, I have left out of this list any Daley biographies. Perhaps no account of Daley proves as brutal as Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In his run-up to descriptions of protests and Chicago police reprisals, Mailer writes, “Daley was no national politician, but a clansman.” The 1968 DNC, convened by Daley, proved a flashpoint in American political history. The chaos fragmented the Democratic Party nationally, and set the stage for Richard Nixon’s victory in November. In Mailer’s description of Chicago, his clear affection for the city makes it all the more heartbreaking (despite his intimations of inevitability) that the fractures of American society should appear on live television broadcasts from Michigan Avenue. Algren-esque musings notwithstanding, Mailer remains a Chicago outsider. So it feels appropriate to add Chicagoan Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool to this list of books. Combining documentary footage of the convention protests with a fictional film, Wexler enlivens and deepens Mailer’s account. He depicts the tumult of 1968 like perhaps no other text from that stormy year. As a bonus, Medium Cool echoes experiments happening in documentary at places like Kartemquin films, which would go on to produce the now-canonical Chicago films Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters. 9. Out in Chicago The most recently published addition to this list is Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout. In it, Stewart-Winter troubles the dominant narrative of 20th-century gay rights activism in the United States, which typically treats New York and San Francisco as the two central cities, often to the exclusion of the Midwest. He fills this narrative with a cacophonous history of LGBTQ culture and activism in Chicago, where firings, shakedowns, police bribes, and bar raids were just as much a part of life throughout the city as anywhere else. Effective action depended ultimately on collaborations between gay rights and black civil rights groups, and the pursuit of delicate coalitions. Queer Clout traces the fits and starts of these collaborations and coalitions. Post-Orlando, Stewart-Winter’s discussion of the importance of gay bars for LGBTQ individuals -- historically and presently -- seems especially valuable. Bars served ground zero for exploitation by law enforcement, but also as meeting places and (most of the time) safe havens. Stewart-Winter cautions against readily equating the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement; the layering of race, sexual orientation, and gender identification necessitates a more complicated picture. And his affecting description of unequal access to healthcare among Chicagoans affected by AIDS creates a devastating picture of failed policies. In a city divided between a black south and white north, lack of access to educational resources, preventive care, and treatment becomes a reminder of how segregation produces injustice that communities and policymakers must continue to fight to address. 10. Humboldt Park To understand gentrification in Chicago, head to the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where protests against rising rents, tax hikes, and teardowns took place recently on the 606. This park, built on a former rail line, echoes efforts in other cities to erase industrial infrastructure from urban landscapes. Having whetted the appetite of developers, The 606 has accelerated the pace at which Humboldt Park is becoming unaffordable for longtime residents. Sandra Cisneros grew up in Humboldt Park. Her beloved The House on Mango Street takes place in a similar fictional neighborhood. Traditional readings peg the novella as the coming-of-age story of Esperanza, a daughter of Mexican immigrants. Cisneros experiments with form -- the book is a series of short vignettes -- to explore Esperanza’s struggles with sexuality, national identity, class, and the Spanish language. The poetic language of these depictions alone makes an argument for the work’s importance. To read Mango Street alongside Chris Ware’s Building Stories widens the lens through which readers can examine the relationship between individual and community identity. Ware’s unnamed protagonist, who loses a leg in a childhood accident, lives in Humboldt Park. Her story unfolds across 14 pamphlets, broadsheets, books, and other objects. Like Cisneros, Ware’s formal cartwheels advance conversations about identity. As with Cisneros, the book’s themes center on self-description -- again, a disjointed and chronologically jumbled task (there’s no “right” way to read the book). He’s also interested in the evolving neighborhood, as the heroine moves away and revisits the three-flat in which so much life happens. 11. Whose City? What does Chicago look like today? Natalie Moore’s The South Side, published last year, combines history and memoir to describe neighborhoods in the city that are too often represented in national news media in one-dimensional stories of gun violence. Her book draws productively from her own biography of a childhood in middle-class and largely black Chatham, and feels less concerned with comprehensiveness than with augmenting and correcting the record. As the current South Side reporter for the local NPR affiliate, Moore brings a great deal of connections and numerous voices to this project. By contrast, Larry Bennett’s The Third City offers a picture of contemporary Chicago that seems at times too rosy in its assessment of the younger Richard M. Daley’s infrastructure investments (the book was published before the first term of Mayor Rahm “One Percent” Emanuel). Visions of Chicago as a global city -- one that attracts entrepreneurs to ride the next wave of innovators was for a time called “Silicon Prairie" -- ring with the optimism of the 19th century. It presents a picture of Chicago that has become popular among elected officials looking to attract private money and foreign tourists. This vision of Chicago’s third incarnation (a vision of privatization premised on the notion that a city’s chief ambition should be to attract capital to its core) looks like a new version of Burnham’s century-old Plan. It has fans elsewhere. How to square this vision with the neighborhoods that sustain Chicago, and other cities, remains an unanswered question. 12. There Are No Two Finer Words... Among garrulous Chicagoans, most will grudgingly agree: we miss Hot Doug’s. Chicago treasure Doug Sohn’s sausage emporium was not only a celebration of encased meats, but equally a democratizing force on a desolate block on California Avenue in the Avondale neighborhood. One waited in line (often for more than an hour) whether one was Anthony Bourdain, Aziz Ansari, or even Doug’s dad. In Hot Doug's, the coffee table book that cashed in on Doug’s decision to close the shop not long ago, local voices weigh in on The Line: when they waited, how long they waited for, who got engaged to whom while waiting, who had to rush to the hospital to deliver a baby, etc. Doug reminded us all (always calling us “my friend”) that in Chicago, one waits in line like civilized people. The snow, cold, heat, wind, and rain be damned. 13. Coda: Next Steps There’s so much more to read and through-lines to trace from Carl Sandburg to Gwendolyn Brooks to Aleksandar Hemon to Chance the Rapper. Those interested in extensive lists of Chicago novels should consult, all kidding aside, several best-of lists already out there. My favorite was published by the dearly departed local site Gapers Block, and it organizes novels by neighborhood. Chicago magazine published a fun list of new Chicago-centric reads for the summer. I’m excited to read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland. And Curbside Splendor Publishing (a local house) recently put out The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing, a history of one of the Northwest Side’s most-loved venues. But now, it’s time to get to packing. Image Credit: Pixabay.

Out of Reach: Notes from the David Foster Wallace Symposium

Bound copy of "Corrections of Typos/Errors for Paperback Printing of Infinite Jest" from David Foster Wallace to Nona Krug and Michael Pietsch. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center. “It’s more intense every time I think of him,” said the woman in line behind me. We were waiting to get into the opening panel at last month’s David Foster Wallace Symposium in Austin. She wore a black and white sundress (more appropriate for 90-degree Texas-in-April weather than, say, my blazer and wrinkled gray wool pants), and spoke in the elevated volume of someone who wants her private conversation to be heard by a crowd of strangers. “The longer he’s dead,” she continued, eliciting reflex-type coughs from her audience, “it’s like he’s more dead.” To be honest, before the conference, I imagined that my task as an observer would consist mainly of plucking quotes like this from the air — of eavesdropping my way into conversations among Wallace devotees that would seem, both in the moment and on further reflection, cliché and naïve and, like, ten percent crazy. I think I expected to vindicate my own normal-seeming degree of Wallace fandom by exposing myself to the extremist sect of his readers — folks who wear Enfield Tennis Academy t-shirts (ETA being the fictional setting of Infinite Jest), or who are apparently in the process of trying to memorize the entirety of that 1,000-page novel (endnotes and all), or who participate regularly in the longstanding Wallace email listserv (1,200 strong, according to its creator and moderator Matt Bucher), and have ready responses to questions like “How do you characterize the influence of Lacan on Broom of the System?” In one of the weirder moments during the proceedings, JT Jackson (who apparently makes the rounds on the circuit of DFW events) asserted to a panel that Wallace had been an un-credited writer of Good Will Hunting, and that if we wanted the truth, we should all “ask Matt about it.” Jackson has long gray hair and spindly gray mutton chops. He wore an olive green military-style jacket and introduced himself to me as a “good jarhead” that served during Vietnam. A classmate of Wallace’s in the MFA Program at the University of Arizona, he seems very invested in exposing hidden truths about Wallace’s life. [Ed. Note: Please see Jackson's comment at the end of this piece for his responses.] I guess this is to say that the symposium had its share of characters one might expect to find in a David Foster Wallace novel. But thinking back to two days of talking about suicide, love, literary commitment, illness, perfection, and grief, it seems silly to sneer at the earnestness of readers who understand Wallace’s work much more deeply than I could ever hope to. I can’t report feeling any closer to a resolution about how writers should carry forward Wallace’s considerations of the constitutive struggles of ordinary life. The symposium did repeatedly drive home the obvious fact that I don’t miss him as badly (and can’t miss him as badly) as the people who knew him personally. Not just as a spectral, textual, complex set of sometimes life-changing ideas about the world, but rather as a fleshy, six-foot-plus, pain in the ass, bandana-ed human dude who once asked Rolling Stone to provide a special caregiver for his dogs with “emotional issues” before covering the McCain campaign in 2000, and who left behind friends and family and a heap of paper that now sits in catalogued boxes for the rest us all to decipher, dissect, and translate. More importantly, it revealed something of the motivating force behind our collective desire to discover for ourselves the ordinary humanness of writers we admire, and the ways we go about trying to do it by opening those boxes full of paper. The event was made up of a series of moderated discussions among some of Wallace’s closest literary collaborators and friends, and was being held to consider the archive of unpublished story drafts, correspondence with editors, excised chapters of Infinite Jest, personal copies of John Barth novels, etc. It’s the kind of collection that the Harry Ransom Center — which acquired the steroidal volume of material for more than half a million dollars and meticulously prepared it for public use — will have to marshal serious ingenuity to protect against the drool of rabid pilgrims that visit their headquarters on the UT-Austin campus during the coming years. Among the conference’s participants were Bonnie Nadell (the agent who stumbled across Wallace’s work in a slush pile in 1985 and worked with him for the subsequent 23 years); Michael Pietsch (the Little, Brown editor who helped Wallace bring Infinite Jest into the world, and assembled the posthumous Pale King from pieces that Wallace left behind); critics and writers (some of whom openly expressed their intimidation at having to face a crowd of hyper-smart DFW junkies); and Deborah Treisman, fiction editor of The New Yorker, whom I talked with after the final panel. As the room emptied, I asked her what it felt like to know she wouldn’t ever find another DFW story in her inbox. I immediately regretted it. Yank back the curtain around Wallace’s genius and one finds a cast of fairly normal-seeming smart literary characters — people who pull the levers of the publishing industry’s machinery and who started careers hoping to work with someone like Wallace. I don’t think they ever expected to expend publicly this kind of emotional energy to describe the loss of a friend, and the question seemed crass, insensitive, stupid. “It’s an intense sadness,” she said, as I felt the blood come to my face, “and being here brings it back. We haven’t spent too much time talking about that today. But it’s really sad.” I stood there, pretending to be a real-life journalist, inspecting the pattern of the carpeting and managed to capture her last sentence: “He wasn’t going to give us something easy.” She was referring to his stories and the challenges that Wallace presented his editors. But I ended up wondering whether this could stand as an encapsulation of a sentiment that ran throughout the symposium. It’s not easy — especially not when so many readers still feel the pain of personal loss with regard to Wallace. Many found it hard enough to say the word “suicide.” They said “early death,” “untimely death,” “untimely end,” “unfortunate end,” “tragic way that he died,” and even “the way he resolved himself.” They want to get into the archive to find a personal version of an answer to “why?” or alternatively, simply want clues about his writing process and about the way that his written work evolved — to look over his shoulder. Christopher Gordon flew down from Boston to attend the conference with his son Noah. Together, they embodied these two most prevalent reasons for wanting access to the material. The elder Gordon, a mental health professional who has read Infinite Jest three times (the number of times one has gotten through the book has become a sort of currency — everyone gives you their “number”), wants to know more about Wallace’s use of psycho-pharmaceuticals. Meantime, Noah teaches high school English in New York and told me that the archive would help him demonstrate to his students the difficulty of creative activity. “I want to expose how much work goes into writing,” he said, adding, “When you’re a student, you only see the gift.” He was talking about the polished final products that we hold in our hands and store on our e-readers. In other words, we can too easily assume that writing “just happens.” The party line throughout the entire conference was that this new archive would precisely help us understand the evolution of Wallace’s ideas, and that this in turn would help us comprehend his life, his work, his mind. All of this has clear academic value and it’s the kind of thing that places like the Ransom Center put in their website mission statements. But the symposium made it plain that most of us also go to archives, or attend conferences on the lives of authors, or coordinate desperately with Public Relations professionals in the hopes of meeting the friends of authors (totally hypothetically, of course) to experience a sense of enhanced emotional proximity to the person we knew only in book form. Despite our coolly intellectual association with the “death of the author,” the freedom of the reader, the independence of the text (as a friend of mine puts it plainly: “fuck biography”), we cling to the shards of evident ordinary humanity that an archive lays out for us. On page 30, Wallace corrects the age of one of the characters in the book. Image courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center. “Any time you go into an archive, you get this burst of excitement,” said D.T. Max, whose biography of Wallace Every Love Story is a Ghost Story will be published this September. We sat outside the Ransom Center underneath its large trees during a break in the symposium. “You see how somebody writes. You see their handwriting. There’s nothing like that moment of delight.” When I asked if he thought that Wallace fans are unique in the depth of their desire to see this kind of material, he answered unequivocally in the affirmative. Some of these fans will be disappointed because not all of the material will be available. Wallace’s personal collection of self-help books has been quietly removed. Shortly after the appearance of an online article analyzing the marginalia in those books, they were closed off. It seems understandable — though I identify with the frustration of researchers who contend that the self-help books would offer insights into Wallace’s own reflections on his mental illness. The archive will tell an incomplete story and this fact reminds us that its contents are contingent on raw and real emotions: that there’s a hierarchy in which readers come second (personal bias here, having met Wallace’s wife Karen Green and having observed the rigidity of grief in her posture as she patiently answered an attendee’s questions about her husband’s views on religion: rightfully so). I’m not an expert on Wallace’s work. But I remember sitting on the curb outside an aquarium-themed bar in Washington, DC (one of the five worst establishments in the world) on a September night in 2008. I’d just learned about his death via text message from an ex-girlfriend. It was awful. I was blubbering with disbelief and shock and an unexpected sense of loneliness and stupidity that I’d be this upset about the death of a stranger. I remember thinking that there were other people out there who deserved to be more upset — people who knew him as more than a dust-jacket picture. Yet as it turns out, even for some of the people who knew Wallace personally, the most difficult memories to talk about are the ones dealing with his writing. Pietsch choked up when he described the process of editing The Pale King. He told his audience that Wallace was trying to unlock the “hallucinatory possibilities of boredom” — to explore ecstatic human freedom in desolate-seeming moments of mental life. It was tough to watch him characterize the almost unfathomable difficulty of this challenge, and to describe the degree to which his friend fought it. He had to cede the floor to Nadell, looking down at the stage as she picked up the thread of the conversation. Over breakfast the next morning, Pietsch told me about reading the first 250 pages of the manuscript, which began from the perspective of a character named David Wallace. “Reading those first words,” Pietsch said, “I was able to forget he wasn’t alive for a little while.” How strange this moment must have been: the aliveness of the character and the realness of the voice strong enough to overshadow actual death (though one hesitates to concede that he was less dead). Isn’t the achievement of this kind of togetherness the motive force behind reading itself? Don’t we hope to connect at an irreducible level with the consciousness of another person in this way? And doesn’t fiction offer us the promise that this kind of experience can help us understand how to live? To his fans, Wallace struggles more mightily in his work with these kinds of questions than any author of his generation, though they’re certainly at the heart of a lot of fiction that Wallace didn’t write. He was, as Pietsch puts it, “an extraordinary mind struggling with the challenge of ordinariness.” But what we seem to be searching for in an author’s archive (or even in a biography, a memoir, or whatever) is precisely an indication of the ordinariness of their struggle. So although we say we go to fiction for what we think is a unique set of experiences, we still crave the tangible evidence that an author was a person: that Wallace made sometimes-unreasonable demands of his editors, that he hid in hotel rooms while on assignment, that it was harder for him than the effortlessness of his prose would suggest. When I asked Pietsch about the challenges of working with Wallace in everyday life, he responded with a tennis anecdote, telling me about a time when David had ask him to play a few sets. “I demurred,” he said, “but David said ‘trust me, it’s great. What I’m really good at is putting the ball just outside your range.’” I grew up on tennis courts (and sometimes think I’m doomed to forever find the overlaps between tennis and literary life). I know from experience that these kinds of players — torture-experts who can, at will, place a crosscourt forehand or down-the-line backhand just two inches beyond your panting body — are the worst people to play. Their befuddling facility with your personal limitations gets inside your noggin. You feel as though they have elemental knowledge, not only of your athletic ineptitudes, but your moral and intellectual shortcomings. They know about the time you peed your pants in first grade, about your unreported short-term capital gains, about your secret belief that recycling is bullshit. Yet to duel against this kind of brain can also provide the best and most fulfilling kind of joys, both on the court, and on the page. Perhaps this tennis-like skill marks the unique quality of Wallace’s genius and explains the unique fervor of his readers. He rarely overwhelms us or bludgeons us into submission with the sheer force of his intellect. He uses big words and asks us for patience, and drives us nuts with the freaking footnotes. But the fact that his work is so addictive to so many arises from the tantalizing closeness of his observations of ordinary life to our own experience. He puts the ball just out of reach. When we go up against him, we push our capacities for attentiveness to their limit. We want to see the world the way he does, and feel like we almost do — and maybe an archive suggests that by seeing the remainders of his ordinary life, we might get closer. It might reveal that his effortless-seeming performance requires an enormous amount of effort. But we might have to come to terms with the fact that he’ll remain out of reach.

HBO (Isn’t) Filming The Corrections at My Parents’ House: TV and Fiction

1. A location scout came through my parents’ neighborhood last month and slid a letter printed on blue paper into each house’s screen door. The letter had HBO’s (fuzzily reproduced and definitely not hi-res) logo at the top and announced in all capital letters that a production team had descended on Mount Vernon, N.Y., in hopes of finding a “HOUSE WITH AN ATTACHED GARAGE.” It happens that Chez Aronstein has one of those, and my mother found a copy of the letter when she got home from work. She called me in Chicago. “Look, I won’t keep you,” she said, in a greeting that has become standard for our conversations, “Someone from HBO came to our house. Have you read that book called -- what is it -- ?” I could hear her rustling some papers on the other end, “The Corrections?” “They want to film the TV series at our house,” she said. 2. In a short essay written for The New York Times Sunday Book Review last month, Craig Fehrman points out that HBO has recently decided to pay attention to serious fiction -- or what used to be known in the TV industry as “Stuff We Don’t Buy.” Last year, the premium channel acquired rights to The Corrections for a full four-year series and convinced Jonathan Franzen to write the scripts. Noah Baumbach will direct at least a few episodes. HBO execs also swiped up Jennifer Egan’s 2010 A Visit from the Goon Squad as well as two of 2011’s best-received novels, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia and Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding. In the case of the latter two, it seems as though the TV rights were negotiated along with publishing rights, so quickly did HBO decide to option them. Writers have long been squeamish about selling their work to Hollywood directors, let alone to television (not all writers, of course). In his own famously crotchety essay "Why Bother?", Franzen offers the familiar lament that television dumbs down cultural consumption. He argues, “Broadcast TV breaks pleasure into comforting little units—half-innings, twelve-minute acts -- the way my father, when I was very young, would cut my French toast into tiny bites.” To the Franzen of 1996, when compared with television (the Internet wasn’t yet on literature’s radar as an existential threat), the so-called “social” novel simply can’t match up on the issue of popularity. Neither can it win a resource war. “Few serious novelists,” he adds, “can pay for a quick trip to Singapore, or for the mass expert consulting that gives serial TV dramas like E.R. and NYPD Blue their veneer of authenticity.” Viewed as an enemy combatant, television competes directly with novels for eyes, attention, and dollars. Franzen’s essay ends on a hopeful note for books, but the assumption remains that TV and other forms of media will win away the majority of readers. Literature gets the consolation prize of mattering to an important few. The Franzen of 2011 had a very different perspective when speaking with David Remnick at The New Yorker Festival. Describing his involvement with the HBO series based on his book, he excitedly insisted, “We had an opportunity here -- because it’s not a miniseries, it’s an actual series -- I think to do something that has not been done.” I don’t assume that an individual’s intellectual positions have to remain consistent over a lifetime, but this marks a pretty significant shift -- and one that characterizes what seems to be a growing number of writers. TV no longer stands as the primary enemy of fiction, as long one can write for the right kind of TV. Or: getting a contract with folks like HBO has become the new ideal. What’s changed? For one thing, the rise of premium cable has produced practical advantages for authors. Higher production values and an emphasis on multi-year serial dramas allow for financial security, giving them an incentive to stay involved with television projects. Moreover, HBO has demonstrated a willingness to allow novelists to maintain control of their work, offering folks like Franzen (and Egan, who turned down the opportunity) the opportunity to write the scripts. And perhaps most importantly, the popularity of shows like Mad Men, The Wire, and Homeland -- all of which find a place in what Fehrman rightly dubs “post-Sopranos” cable -- enables producers to make compelling cases for slower, unfolding, deliberate narratives. Slower, unfolding, and deliberate narratives comprise the bread and butter of literary fiction. Perhaps television audience tastes have simply come in line with the tastes of readers, while new content-delivery preferences make it possible to exploit the similarity. Tivo and OnDemand everything allow viewers to string together episodes of series on their own schedules -- to cater their media consumption to individual attention spans. But especially interesting about Franzen’s position with regard to the series is his insistence that TV has allowed him more creative room to explore the themes of The Corrections than did the novel itself. In the same conversation with Remnick, he explains: Because we had so much more time to work with than there was material in the novel, it was an opportunity to tell a story at many different points in time -- that is spread over thirty years -- and have those all have equal weights […] To figure out how to make that work, it seemed like it could be really cool. By his account, it turns out that television will present freedom to explore plotlines that the novel limited or foreclosed. For the reigning king of American realist fiction to confess this point -- and to do it readily -- marks a sharp change of direction, suggesting that perhaps we need to start thinking differently about the relationship between television and fiction. I don’t mean to make hasty qualitative or hierarchical distinctions between TV and novels. It’s easy to say indignantly “Novels are better than TV, you sell-out jerks!” like a petulant writer with exactly zero novels to his credit. (I’m working on it, OKAY?) But I don’t think anyone should begrudge writers like Egan or Franzen for working with HBO. At the very least, Franzen sounds a lot happier than he did 15 years ago, and the fact that The Corrections will reach millions more potential readers on HBO (and on DVD) sounds like an unmitigated win for literary fiction. Nevertheless, we do need to think about the implications of suggesting that television’s aesthetic capacities can complement, or even supplant, those of novels. For once, we might not have to ask, “Will the novel survive?” Instead, we need to ask what it means that the novel’s future depends on a relationship with TV -- and whether this relationship will be a productive one in the long run. I started thinking about all of this when it suddenly became possible that The Corrections would be filmed at the house where I grew up. 3. For young(ish) writers, reading Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections has for a long time seemed like a kind of prerequisite to engaging in literary practice: writing, reading, thinking about novels and their future or lack of future, or whatever else. When I was in college, the book seemed a kind of talismanic object, a guidebook, a blueprint to follow if I ever wanted to write serious fiction. At the same time, 18-year-old A-J secretly worried that Franzen’s depiction of American middle-class despair and loneliness, and the concurrent self-torture about the shallowness of this despair and loneliness, obviated the need for anything I would ever come up with to describe same. (It’s possible 18-year-old A-J should have been worried about other things, sure, but this is how the story goes). Regardless, my copy of The Corrections bears the scars of obsessive, borderline psychotic reading: highlights and underlined passages; exclamation points and YESes; check marks and squiggles (most of which have no significance to me now). As an overzealous (and, it can’t be overemphasized, really obnoxious) undergraduate I wrote a chapter of my rambling 120-page thesis (a ponderous object titled “Realistically Speaking: The Politics of the Contemporary Realist Novel”) on Franzen’s work. I also bought a copy of The Corrections for my father one Christmas and distinctly remember telling the family it was my favorite book. I later found it on a bookcase in our living room, wedged between How to Clean Practically Anything and The Bible for Dummies, its spine un-cracked. I started giving my mother a précis of this personal literary history, but she cut me off and asked whether she should call HBO. She added that they offered anywhere between $1,000 and $3,000 for every day they were filming. My response was something along the lines of: “YOU HAVE TO TELL THEM THAT YOU WILL DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO FILM THIS SHOW IN OUR HOUSE.” The fact that our house could play a central role in The Corrections validated a long-held suspicion that our Mount Vernon abode -- scene of my childhood -- had something quintessentially American about it. Its “ATTACHED GARAGE,” its magnolia tree and vegetable garden, its slate walk and bay windows could stand in for Franzen’s work. He may have written a book about such a house. But I lived in that house. [For anyone else keeping score, it’s Aronstein, unpaid freelance essayist and freshman writing teacher, 1 – Franzen, National Book Award-winning author and American literary icon, 0]. I excitedly wondered how HBO would transform my parents’ home into that of the Lamberts, the family at the heart of The Corrections. Some rooms wouldn’t need any modification at all. For example, our garage seemed ready-made for Lambert patriarch Alfred’s metallurgical lab. The production designer wouldn’t have to move anything. The boxes marked “For Yard Sale” and the 1960s-era rocking horse, the Tupperware containers packed with quilts, and the workbench populated with dusty shot glasses all fit almost too perfectly with Franzen’s vision. Then again, how would this transformation (or lack of transformation) warp my own reading of the book? And more unnervingly, how would the depiction of my childhood home on screen, written into the scripted version of a novel I’ve read at least four times, change the way I remembered and wanted to write about my own experiences? The translation of this particular novel to the screen seemed to have more personal ramifications than those of a general conversation about the relationship between cable and novels. It had to do with my own source material for fiction -- and the potential consequences of seeing what Franzen would do with the scene of my childhood. And that idea weirded me out. 4. The formal challenge of novels has always been to represent human experience in a way that attempts to transcend limitations of language: to create something like a shared consciousness among readers of a common text. That this shared consciousness takes place entirely in the realm of thought grants fiction its unique identity, distinguishing it from visual forms of media. What a novel leaves unsaid is often as important as what it does say, and for this reason a piece of fiction’s textual construction of narrative requires a lot of mental work on the part of authors and readers. It has less to do with the scope of a novel’s plot, and more to do with the depth of its inquiry into consciousness. When we read, we take a mental inventory of the objects and people that inhabit our world and map them onto whatever the author offers us. No matter how meticulously an author creates an environment from words, we still find ourselves spending part of our time with a book trying to match up our own life, possessions, sensations, ideologies, misunderstandings, and relationships with imagined plots, settings, and people. We have to imagine how the sunlight glints through the magnolia tree, how a mother’s voice shouting “MEATLOAF” resonates off of light fixtures, how the wallpaper peels off the walls, how the dog howls at shadows on the ceiling during dinner. Regardless of the size of the screen or the total length of the movie/series/miniseries, visual forms of representation take away this pressure (and pleasure). That is, in my reading of The Corrections, the Lamberts’ house has always felt and looked like my parents’ house. What can I say? The brain is sometimes lazy. It conjures approximations of Mr. Darcy, or Daisy Buchanan, or Chip Lambert based on people we know. We try to understand a novel in the vernacular of our own experience. Our relationships condition our mental, emotional, and psychological connection with characters. And when we say that literary fiction is “character-driven,” we mean this: our private interactions with texts depend as much on the associations and imagination of the author as on the associations and imaginations of the reader. Our desire to know them -- and to know them on our own terms -- drives us to read. Then again, once we see Viggo Mortensen playing Aragorn at Helm’s Deep, it’s difficult to imagine him any other way. Once Rooney Mara walks into the frame as Lisbeth Salander, all we can do is hem and haw about how her interpretation of the character either matches up with or fails to meet expectations that have been molded by books. And I worry that once Ewan McGregor puts on a midwestern accent and a pair of leather pants, I won’t be able to imagine myself as Chip Lambert ever again. Movies and television shows have the uncanny ability to restructure the way that we read novels because they gives us definitive answers about how to see them. When we say that movies fail to live up to expectations created by novels, it’s not just because they don’t comport with our individual imaginings of how the world of a novel is supposed to look. It’s because they rob us of the sense that we have a claim to a private interpretation. Or more simply: even if I had always imagined our house standing in for the Lamberts’ house, I didn’t want the television to tell me that our house had to be the Lamberts’ house. What makes novels unique when compared with television has little to do with having enough room to explore certain plotlines in a more detail. What distinguishes them from (even the best, most tasteful, best-acted and directed) television arises from the form of textual engagement itself. Serial dramas on premium cable might in some ways be able to increase the size of the canvas available to fiction writers, and certainly expand the reach of their work. They might demand more mental work than forms like the sitcom. But a novel like The Corrections can seem limitless to readers precisely because it leaves meanings open, leaves parts of characters’ lives only implicitly explored, allows readers to fill in the blanks. It’s these blanks that I’m worried The Corrections on HBO will fill in. 5. A representative from HBO came to my parents’ place. After walking around for about 30 minutes, he told them that the house was the right period, but likely too small. To film the scenes properly, they would need a lot more room for the cameras and crew. It was likely the kind of house that they wanted, but they couldn’t film it effectively. And, I think, it’s just as well. I’d like to write about that house one day. Photo courtesy the author.

Recovery in Pieces: A Study of the Literature of 9/11

Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia. –Zadie Smith, "This is how it feels to me," in The Guardian, October 13, 2001. If you want to read the Greatest Work of 9/11 Literature, the consensus is: keep waiting. It will be a long time before someone writes it. We don’t know what it will look like. It could be the Moby Dick of the Twenty-First Century, or maybe a new Gatsby, but more likely it will be neither. Maybe it won’t be a novel at all. It could be a sweeping history (maybe) of New York at the turn of the Millennium and of America on the precipice of total economic implosion (or not). We will read it on our iPad34 (or maybe by then Amazon will beam narratives directly into our brain for $1.99). One thing that seems certain is that no one has yet written that book. Not DeLillo (too sterile), Safran Foer (too cloying), Hamid (too severe), Messud (too prissy), O’Neill (too realist), Spiegelman (too panicked), Eisenberg (too cryptic) or the 9/11 Commission (too thorough). The idea is that it will take time to determine what — if any — single piece of literature best captures the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. We can name any number of reasons why authors seem to have underwhelmed us during the past decade. Perhaps they suffered from an extended period of crippling fear of the kind Zadie Smith described just weeks after the attacks. Literary production can tend to feel superfluous in the aftermath of large loss of life. Or perhaps it’s our persistent closeness to the events. We’re still only a decade out, despite the sense that we’ve been waiting in airport security lines for an eternity. (By comparison, Heller wrote Catch-22 almost 20 years after Pearl Harbor; War and Peace wasn’t finished until 50 years after France’s invasion of Russia; and I think the jury may still be out on who wrote the definitive work on Vietnam). We can’t blame earnest authors for trying. It just wasn’t long enough ago yet. None of this stops critics from trying to figure out the best 9/11 book so far. We gather books about 9/11 (and some would go as far as to make the hyperbolic-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek claim “they’re all post-9/11 books now”) into a single pile and determine who has best distilled the essence of terrorism’s various traumatic effects on our national psyche and our ordinary life. On one hand, it seems plausible to blame this tic on our collective reduced attention spans and expectations for rapid literary responses to cultural and historical events. Or more simply: we want our book and we want it now. On the other hand, the imperative to produce a 9/11 book became a kind of authorly compulsion — a new way to justify the craft of writing to an audience whose numbers always seem to be inexorably marching toward zero. Amid conversations about “the death of the novel” (and we often fail to remember that these discussions were robust and ominous-sounding back in 2001 too), 9/11 provided a renewed opportunity for books to become culturally relevant. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction — the whole lot. Any literary rendering of the post-9/11 world would be preferable to the unmediated reality of it. Or more simply: writers could come to the rescue of a traumatized public. Or even more simply: why shouldn’t it have been writing that could have soothed us and given us some kind of answers? Whether these considerations will eventually vindicate the authors who tried to translate 9/11 into literature just a few raw years after the fact, we can’t say. My contention is simply that, for now, they shouldn’t be so universally panned for trying. In the meantime, perhaps this decade anniversary isn’t an opportunity to determine who’s written the best book so far, but rather to reconsider accepted notions about what constitutes the Literature of 9/11 in the first place. The books we have written and read since 2001 tell us more about ourselves than about the capacity of literature to encompass the consequences of an event like these terrorist attacks. Rather than rank these books, we should fit them into categories that allow us to consider why we turn to literature in the aftermath of a traumatic event. We can more usefully ask ourselves “Why read?” and think about why this particular historical moment produced such a rapid and rapidly evolving body of literature. Here are some ideas to help get this conversation started. I don’t intend these bullet point-style assertions to be a decisive argument. Rather, I guess I’m just trying to figure out a way to group and regroup the books that have been on our collective radar for the past ten years. 1. To understand the post-9/11 world, we should look to the literature of the last moments before September 11, 2001. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001. Concerned with biotech, the dot-com crash, and the erosion of middle class family life in millennial America, Franzen’s novel captures a vague sense of menace in the days immediately before 9/11. And, though she has become better known for A Visit from the Goon Squad (which mentions the World Trade Center, only briefly) Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me proves that fiction can often seem to predict the world just ahead of us. The events of the novel so uncannily represent the shadow presence of terrorism in the unseen spaces of American everyday life that Egan, who wrote the book entirely before 9/11, included an afterward to the novel in 2002. She writes: “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress last fall, I would have had to receive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.” This last line has always been problematic for me. Were we really that innocent before 9/11? Authors seemed totally capable of exposing the dread underlying the exuberance (rational or otherwise) at the close of the Millennium. I wonder to whether we’ll remember the pre-9/11 years as one of innocence or willful ignorance. 2. There is no single body of 9/11 Literature. As I have mentioned, the tendency in the past decade has been to lump together all works of fiction about 9/11. As the number of works that deal directly and indirectly with the terrorist attacks has ballooned, the moniker “9/11 Literature” has become a dull catchall term used to describe too many types of books. Instead, we can try to make some distinctions to figure out more precisely what different kinds of books have done, and stop trying to judge them all by the same criteria. It can be helpful, for example, to distinguish between 9/11 Literature and Post-9/11 Literature. Whereas Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man pivot around the events of September 11, books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children suggest how the events and their effects can be pushed to the margins. Works of 9/11 Literature obsess about the intricate and far-reaching effects of 9/11 on the lives of characters, whereas Post-9/11 Literature emphasizes how individuals can move beyond the trauma of the attacks and allow ordinary life to resume its flow. 3. The literary response to 9/11 better helps us understand the longer-term psychological effects of terrorism on families, communities, and nations. Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close help us understand how the effects of cultural trauma reach into future generations. They explore how we are all implicated into broader narratives of belonging to national and cultural heritages. Spiegelman had to publish the serial version of his comics in Germany because squeamish newspapers in America believed that his critiques of the Bush Administration would be poorly received at home. Likewise, Safran Foer’s novel was frequently criticized as playing on themes of grief and loss that seemed too fresh. As time passes, these criticisms fall away, and what we’re left with is a more subtle understanding of how — in the immediate aftermath of a cultural trauma — we must try to recover as individuals. 4. The relationship between The 9/11 Commission Report and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation stands as one of the most compelling pairs of books to emerge in the past ten years — and neither one of these is a novel. While I’d argue that no single works stands out as the definitive representation of the terrorist attacks, a reader could do no better to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001 than to devour the 9/11 Commission’s official report. To 9/11 truthers, it probably makes sense that the government would produce an eloquent and sophisticated rendering of the attacks, and the complicated histories of terrorism and American intelligence failures that led to them. But to the rest of us, it comes as a fascinating surprise — one that reveals the government’s investment in the production of a literary artifact of some serious depth and skilled sentence-making. The 9/11 Commission Report defies the expectation that a government document should be stodgy and defensive. Instead, it reveals — often in a tone that breaks its own rigid impartiality and becomes downright moving — the grating human oversights of regulators and the humanity of the terrorists themselves as they bumblingly tried to find a hiding place in America. When read alongside Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the report, the two works become a breathtaking and genre-bending account of 9/11. Together, they are proof that an event like 9/11 can actually produce new artistic forms. The effort to describe and understand — to probe and render aesthetically — gives rise to new ways of thinking about the world. These are not novels, but they certainly rise to the level of literature, no matter how one decides to define it. 5. It’s time to start re-thinking the place of 9/11 in the landscape of American literary production. It has become more apparent that 9/11 is moving to the background of our cultural consciousness. Its influence remains, but its effects have faded when compared to what seem like more pressing economic and political concerns. Books like Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes help us understand what this process of fading looks like. But to return to Franzen and Egan, no two books seem better suited to the moment after the post-9/11 moment than Freedom and A Visit from the Goon Squad. To understand how authors have begun to fill their blank screens with something other than images of the World Trade Center on fire, it’s hard to do better. Franzen tackles the Bush Administration while Egan projects into a future New York, in which the 9/11 memorial has become an old landmark in Lower Manhattan. Literature looks forward at the next moment — toward a space and time during which we will no longer use the term Post-9/11 to describe ourselves, if only because newer and more troubling problems will take its place. * * * I have left out many works and many ideas. Where are Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan? Where are Colum McCann and John Updike? I have left out (in the very last minute) Lorraine Adams, whose book Harbor absolutely changed the way I thought about post-9/11 America when I read it, even though it had little if anything to do with 9/11. All of this is just to say: the conversation should continue, and I think it will only get more interesting throughout the next decade.   Image credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr