It took 14 years after the death camp’s liberation for Auschwitz to appear in American fiction (in Meyer Levin’s 1959 novel Eva), but 9/11 began to influence literature straight away. Roland Merullo was probably the first American writer to allude to the terrorist attacks. In a 2002 novel-as-memoir of growing up in the Sixties, Merullo observed in passing that “people did not bomb airplanes in those days, or fly them into buildings.” The first 9/11 novels, neither so unassuming nor so objective, started issuing from publishers within another year or two.
With the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks looming near, the time may be right to assay what has been done so far, and to ask whether there are any 9/11 novels that might be read in commemoration. The Belgian scholar Kristiaan Versluys, who wrote a study of 9/11 fiction, assigns the collapse of the Twin Towers to the category of the “unsayable,” and English-language novelists have shown a marked reluctance to dramatize the events of that day directly. The usual approach has been to write about people who experienced 9/11 the same way the novelists did: in Julia Glass’s words, “touched by it, scared by it, but not having lost anyone directly.”
More than 30 novels have been published with the 9/11 attacks at their backs, where the characters always hear them. (H/t: Mark Athitakis and Erika Dreifus for additions to the original list.) The books fall into two main groupings — those in which men and women must live in the aftermath, and those in which the 9/11 attacks are mere episodes in a larger environment of terror, where politics are more telling than moral experience. Only two novels take place on the day in question:
• Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). The best novel to emerge from September 11, and perhaps the only real 9/11 novel on the list. A New York intellectual is caught in a lie and stranded in his adulterous lover’s apartment by the attacks, which change nothing for him and everything for her.
• Hugh Nissenson, Days of Awe (Naperville, Ill.: Sourcebooks, 2005). The author of the minor masterpiece My Own Ground transgresses the limits of imagination, putting into words what it might have been like to jump from the 102nd floor of the north tower.
Living in the Aftermath
• Shirley Abbott, The Future of Love (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2008). Five New Yorkers struggle with the problem of love, mostly extramarital, in the days after September 11.
• Don DeLillo. Falling Man (New York: Scribner, 2007). How does a lawyer who worked in the World Trade Center react to the terrorist attacks? Short answer: Not well.
• Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005). A nine year old searches all over New York for the key to his father, who died on September 11.
• William Gibson, Pattern Recognition (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2003). The first 9/11 novel and the first novel by the celebrated sci-fi writer to be set in the present. 9/11 yanks an opening into a future of frightening radical uncertainty.
• Julia Glass, The Whole World Over (New York: Pantheon, 2006). A pastry chef and her friends sort out their lives after 9/11, looking for safety in interpersonal closeness over the course of 500 pages (see Shirley Abbott, above).
• Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector (New York: Dial Press, 2010). The American novelist, whose first published story appeared in COMMENTARY, rewrites Sense and Sensibility in the years between the dotcom bubble and 9/11.
• Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (New York: Ecco, 2006). A wife assumes, not unhappily, that her husband has died in the Twin Towers. When she discovers that he has not, their marriage must resume — in bleakly comedic fashion.
• Jay McInerney, The Good Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). Two Manhattanites, each married to someone else, volunteer at a soup kitchen near Ground Zero in the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks. Searching for a renewed meaning to their lives, they fall in love.
• Martha McPhee, L’America (Orlando: Harcourt, 2006). The international love story of a rich Italian and a New York girl who dies in the Twin Towers. The story unfolds in the shadow of how it is to end.
• Sue Miller, Lake Shore Limited (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010). A playwright decides to move out on her boyfriend. Before she can, though, his plane hits one of the towers. Later, her play opens.
• H. M. Naqvi, Home Boy (New York: Crown, 2009). The Muslims in New York, after the World Trade Center was attacked, had “become Japs, Jews, Niggers,” according to the first sentence of this first novel about their lives and the suspicion and discrimination against them in the aftermath.
• Joseph O’Neill, Netherland (New York: Pantheon, 2008). A family of three — Dutch-born market analyst, British wife, two-year-old son — are living in a Tribeca loft when the World Trade Center attacks oblige them to find living quarters uptown, where their marriage gradually pulls apart.
• Jacob Paul, Sarah/Sara (Ig Publishing, 2010). A young American woman who makes aliyah to Israel after 9/11 — her father survived the attack on the North Tower — is afflicted and disfigured by Palestinian terrorism. She relives the events on a journey to the Arctic. The author is himself a 9/11 survivor.
• Reynolds Price, The Good Priest’s Son (New York: Scribner, 2005). When a 53-year-old art conservator cannot return to Manhattan on 9/11, he goes home to North Carolina and reconciles with his father, an Episcopal priest.
• Francine Prose, Bullyville (New York: Harper Teen, 2007). In this well-written young adult novel, the son of a father killed in the Twin Towers is awarded a full scholarship to the Baileyville Academy, better known as Bullyville.
• Nicholas Rinaldi, Between Two Rivers (New York: Harper Collins, 2004). In the style of Aharon Appelfeld’s Badenheim 1939, a beautifully written novel set among the residents of a Manhattan apartment building who are unaware of the coming destruction.
• Helen Schulman, A Day at the Beach (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). A marriage tries to recover from 9/11, without much success (see Ken Kalfus, above — without the humor).
• Lynne Sharon Schwartz, The Writing on the Wall (New York: Counterpoint, 2005). A librarian inherits a baby after her boyfriend’s assistant dies in the World Trade Center. She is a surviving twin, whose sister died when they were teenagers. Wall-to-wall survivor guilt.
• Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (New York: Pantheon, 2004). In no sense of the word a novel, Spiegelman’s graphic memoir describes the trauma of witnessing the Twin Towers’ destruction. Complete with a monograph on the Sunday comics and comparisons to the Holocaust in just 42 pages.
• Claire Tristram, After (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2004). One year after her husband has died at the hands of Muslim extremists, a young widow decides to take a Muslim lover to mark the anniversary.
• Amy Waldman, The Submission (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011). In the latest 9/11 novel, by a former New York Times reporter, an American Muslim wins the blind-judged contest to design the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero, causing the predictable furor.
• Jess Walter, The Zero (New York: Regan, 2006). The main character, who accidentally shot himself in the head on 9/11, now gives tours of Ground Zero to VIP’s, and also suffers memory “gaps.” Absurdity ensues, along with plenty of political commentary of a monolingual kind.
The Global War on Terror
• Pearl Abraham, American Taliban (New York: Random House, 2010). The American novelist who began her career by turning the world of the Hasidim inside out tries to do the same for a young man suspiciously like John Walker Lindh.
• Andre Dubus III, The Garden of Last Days (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009). This “prequel” to 9/11 is about a young Arab Muslim who is living in Florida, learning to fly jetliners and haunting a strip club. A study of a terrorist’s mind (see John Updike, below).
• David Goodwillie, American Subversive (New York: Scribner, 2010). A good-looking girl with a figure “stolen from a teenage fantasy” becomes a domestic terrorist after her brother is killed in Iraq. Should a “relationships columnist” for the New York Times bed her or turn her in?
• Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2007). A young Pakistani returns home to Lahore after 9/11 to find that the global war on terror may be transforming him, against his will, into an Islamic fundamentalist.
• Heidi Julavits, The Effect of Living Backwards (New York: Putnam, 2003). A passenger jet headed to Morocco is highjacked, or maybe one of two American sisters on board only thinks it has been hijacked. Hints about 9/11, “The Big Terrible,” suggest that she may be fantasizing. Or hallucinating.
• Ward Just, Forgetfulness (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006). After 9/11, an American expatriate painter must confront the global war on terror when his wife is murdered by Moroccan terrorists.
• Ian McEwan, Saturday (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005). A London neurosurgeon begins his day by watching a plane on fire — a bomb on board, he assumes — and navigates around an anti-Iraq War protest to encounter terrorism in his own home.
• Carolyn See, There Will Never Be Another You (New York: Random House, 2006). A prophetic look into the near future: beginning on 9/11, a group of characters in Los Angeles must learn to live with bioterrorism, while the U.S. fights an unnamed war.
• John Updike, Terrorist (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006). A half-Egyptian New Jersey high school boy is introduced to a jihadi terrorist cell by a Yemeni iman.
So Which Are Any Good?
Very few. And every recommendation leads to a “but. . . .” The Emperor’s Children is probably the best novel to come out of September 11, but Claire Messud gives up on the narrative dilemma that she creates for her characters. She is more interested in the drama of a romantic breakup, which she dramatizes very well, than in the trauma of 9/11. Similarly, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland is more absorbed with cricket than terrorism, but because the novel does not try to do too much, it is a pleasant little thing.
Nicholas Rinaldi’s Between Two Rivers deserves a larger audience, but too much of it is padding. Ian McEwan’s Saturday suggests provocative connections between political terrorism and violent crime, but its implausible ending ties them up unconvincingly. John Updike’s Terrorist is the only 9/11 novel I’ve read that seeks to penetrate the mind of a terrorist, but it suffers from the same defects as Updike’s weakest books — a sighing preciousness that trivializes its serious subject.
The sad hard truth is that the best novels about terrorism remain Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. The 9/11 books add little that cannot be learned, and more memorably, from them.