In the shadow of the twin towers

American fiction writers are still struggling to put words to the horror of September 11th—and only a few have succeeded
May 25, 2011

To read responses to this piece by American novelists Siri Hustvedt, Stefan Merrill Block and Teddy Wayne, see below

After the death of Osama bin Laden, and approaching the tenth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, it is tempting to declare the end of the 9/11 era. Looking at US culture and politics today, however, it becomes clear that historical traumas do not have such clear half-lives. In American fiction, certainly, there’s no sign that the trauma has been resolved. On the contrary, the sheer number of novelists who have treated the subject, and their very mixed record of success, suggest that American literature is still searching for the right way to understand the attacks.

One of the first interpretations, from pundits and politicians alike, was that 9/11 marked the end of an era of American fecklessness—or, more politely, “the loss of American innocence.” The 1990s, on this view, had been a brief vacation from history, a time of distraction and greed, when the greatest threat to the republic seemed to come from Monica Lewinsky. It was now time for a new sobriety and sternness of purpose. “The death of irony” was another phrase often heard in late 2001.

In politics, business, and mass culture, the moment of resolve passed quickly enough. But American writers, to their credit, have taken the exhortation to seriousness quite seriously. In her short story “Twilight of the Superheroes,” for instance, Deborah Eisenberg embraces the notion of September 11th as a bonfire of the vanities. The story is an acerbic parable about a group of spoiled young people living beyond their means in a borrowed loft in downtown Manhattan. Their expensive view turns into a curse, however, when it forces them to see too much: “the planes struck, tearing through the curtain of that blue September morning, exposing the dark world that lay right behind it, of populations ruthlessly exploited, inflamed with hatred, and tired of waiting for change to happen by.”

The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud, tells a similar story at novelistic length, chronicling a group of privileged New Yorkers, whose plans are annulled by the towers’ fall. Jay McInerney’s The Good Life offers a more middle-brow and sentimental treatment of the same theme, turning 9/11 into an occasion for yuppie soul-searching. There’s no way to miss the sarcasm when Luke, a Wall Street millionaire, marks the Sunday after the attacks by ordering takeout from a place called “Pig Heaven.”

Yet McInerney does not really want his characters expelled from this heaven. As Corrine, Luke’s lover, muses: “They’d participated in the binge and contributed to their own undoing… But this thing, this was as absurd a deus ex machina as a sneak attack from Mars.” This is, in fact, one of the chief problems facing the 9/11 novel. Writers must come to terms with the way the attacks, in their random, indiscriminate horror, made nonsense of the most basic requirement of storytelling: the meaningful consecutiveness of plot.

This point is underscored by two oddly similar books published last year: Next by James Hynes and There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From by Bryan Charles. Each tells the story of an ordinary man who ends up in the middle of a major terrorist attack. Character is supposed to be destiny, but the structure of these books—the quotidian suddenly turning, after a few hundred pages, into the unspeakable—suggests that the real menace of terrorism is the way it renders destiny, and therefore character, meaningless.

There is, however, a major difference between the two stories. Next is a novel, and it culminates in a fictional attack on a Texas skyscraper. Road is a memoir, and Charles was actually in the south tower of the World Trade Centre on September 11th. Read side by side, then, they offer a case study in the comparative ability of memory and imagination to cope with 9/11; and the result should be sobering for any novelist.

Ever since Henry James coined the phrase, novelists have prided themselves on possessing “the imagination of disaster.” For many US writers, 9/11 was a chance to test that imagination, to prove it was bold enough to keep functioning in situations of extreme horror. Thus Hynes devotes the last ten pages of his novel to the thoughts of his protagonist, Kevin, while he plunges to his death from the 52nd storey of a burning building.

But Charles, who is also a novelist, suggests that an authentic experience of disaster cannot be imagined, even while it is going on. As he was walking down 70 flights in the quaking tower, he writes: “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.” Like everyone else, he had to watch TV afterwards to piece together what had happened.

Next and Road are worth dwelling on because they perfectly illustrate the paradox that has defeated a number of American novelists, including the most distinguished. In Falling Man, for instance, Don DeLillo makes his attempt at a bravura description of the towers’ fall: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night… The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now.”

But style defeats itself in these cool, hypnotic sentences, precisely because DeLillo knows that he is wagering everything on style. It is his only justification for writing about an event that he experienced in the same way as his readers—by watching it on television. This is even more obvious when DeLillo describes the bodies falling from the towers: “the awful openness of it, something we’d not seen, the single falling figure that trails a collective dread, body come down among us all.” The mannered prose is irreconcilable with the dread and compassion it means to evoke.

The novelist, it turns out, can no more transport us into the burning World Trade Centre than he can into the Titanic. This is not because such horrible deaths are unimaginable, but, paradoxically, because they are all too easy to imagine. Indeed, there was probably not a person alive on 9/11 who didn’t try to imagine what it would be like to be in a collapsing skyscraper or a crashing plane. At cases which test the limits of imagination, the novelist turns out to be no better equipped than the reader.

If the victims of 9/11 turn out to be inaccessible to the novelist, so, in a different way, do the perpetrators. 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. When DeLillo tries to channel such a terrorist in Falling Man, all that comes through is the threadbare rhetoric: “Everything here was twisted, hypocrite, the West corrupt of mind and body…” It’s the same in John Updike’s Terrorist, whose title perfectly captures its sociological bluntness. Ahmad, the teenage American Muslim who plans to blow up Manhattan’s Holland Tunnel with a truck bomb, is not so much a novelistic character as a composite of dutiful references. “Have you ever, in your studies, read the Egyptian poet and political philosopher Sayyid Qutb?” he asks a teacher. This is how newspapers talk, not people, and when Updike repeats Ahmad’s professions of violent faith, it’s because he has read that Muslim fanatics talk this way, not because he has ever heard one or imagined what it is like to be one. How could he, given his predilection for soft, worldly epiphanies? Sex, not God, is Updike’s God, which is why he overdetermines Ahmad’s rage by giving him a clear Freudian grievance: his sexual puritanism is shown to be a reaction against his promiscuous (and non-Muslim) single mother.

Probably the best American treatment of this theme is Harbor, by Lorraine Adams. Her novel, about Arab immigrants in Boston suspected to be terrorists by the FBI, is based on a story she covered as a reporter for the Washington Post. Adams does not overestimate her understanding of Aziz and Ghazi, the Algerian refugees at the novel’s core. Instead, she emphasises the foreignness of their experience, filling the choppy narrative with flashbacks, immersing the reader in the unfamiliar world of Algerian factionalism. The FBI agents who are following Aziz and Ghazi are ill-equipped to understand them, as one admits: “We can’t, ever. We can just piece something here with something there and draw logical conclusions. It’s flawed, of course it’s flawed. But it’s better than the alternative.”

Here, “the imagination of disaster” comes up against another Jamesian dictum: “If you haven’t, for fiction, the root of the matter in you, haven’t the sense of life and the penetrating imagination, you are a fool in the very presence of the revealed and assured. But that if you are so armed you are not really helpless, not without your resource, even before mysteries abysmal.” James wrote this in his preface to The Princess Casamassima (1886), a novel whose subject is terrorism. Hyacinth Robinson, its hero, is a bookbinder’s apprentice turned socialist conspirator—unlike his creator in every respect. But the revolutionary ardour that nearly leads Hyacinth to assassinate a duke could not be wholly foreign to James, or to any thoughtful reader of his time. “If it was the fault of the rich… the selfish, congested rich, who allowed such abomination to flourish,” Hyacinth thinks while observing London’s poor, then “what remedy but another deluge, what alchemy but annihilation?”

This may have been extremism, but it was an extreme version of western ideals of enlightenment and justice. Dostoevsky made the point in another great novel about terrorism, The Devils, in which the nihilistic revolutionary, Pyotr Verkhovensky, is the estranged son of an ineffectual, buffoonish liberal. “Our party consists not only of those who kill and burn,” Verkhovensky says. “The teacher who laughs with the children at their God and at their cradle is ours already… A public prosecutor, who trembles in court because he is not sufficiently progressive, is ours, ours.”

Dostoevsky wanted his readers to say about the terrorists what Prospero says of Caliban in The Tempest: “this thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” It is this acknowledgment that the 9/11 terrorists cannot receive from American readers. This is not because of resentment or hatred, but because contemporary western literature does not understand, or believe in, the kinds of motives that drove them to commit murder-suicide. The point was perhaps best demonstrated by Ian McEwan in his 9/11 novel, Saturday.

This is one of the most effective books on the subject, partly because McEwan had the tact not to put the attacks “on stage.” Instead, he offers a parable of civilisation confronting barbarism, set in London during the anti-Iraq war protests of 2003. Henry Perowne, the novel’s brain surgeon hero, represents the best of the west: its rationalism, technological prowess, prosperity, and compassion. Yet he comes close to being destroyed by the random violence of Baxter, a street thug.

McEwan makes things far too easy on himself, however, by attributing Baxter’s impulsive cruelty to an incipient brain disease—an extremely literal application of the Socratic principle that evil is actually ignorance. The terrorism of a Verkhovensky or a Hyacinth could be understood by their authors as the excesses of reason. The evil of a bin Laden, apparently, can only make sense to our novelists as a deficiency of reason.

The lesson of most 9/11 books, with their frustrated earnestness, may be that American forthrightness is ill-suited to a subject that, like the sun, does not bear looking at directly. Perhaps that is why the best ones have not been written by Americans, but by immigrants or visitors. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, probably the best novel on the roots of Islamic anti-Americanism, was written by Mohsin Hamid, a Pakistani writer who moved to America to study at Princeton. That background is shared by Changez, the novel’s narrator, who tells his story to an American visitor in a Lahore café. Changez becomes a financial analyst for a New York firm, until 9/11 and the Afghan war forces him to wonder whether America really “contained a part written for someone like me.” Finally, he comes to see himself as a “janissary,” hired away from his own people to serve an inimical empire. Yet as Hamid shows, even Changez’s anti-Americanism borrows its metaphors from American culture: seen on TV, the Afghanistan war looks like “the film Terminator, but with the roles reversed so that the machines were cast as heroes.”

This double perspective on America, and on New York in particular, is shared by perhaps the best of all post-9/11 novels, Netherland by Joseph O’Neill and the recently published Open City by Teju Cole. Neither book reconstructs the attacks, or deals directly with terrorism. But O’Neill, who was born in Ireland and grew up in the Netherlands, and Cole, who was raised in Nigeria, are perfectly equipped to understand post-9/11 New York. The city can provoke the tourist’s wonder and the immigrant’s ambition, but also the refugee’s indignation and the terrorist’s rage.

Above all, O’Neill and Cole describe a New York where the memory of violence is close to the surface. On the last page of Open City, Cole writes about a real 19th-century figure, a Colonel Tassin, who kept a tally of birds killed by flying into the Statue of Liberty—as many as 1,400 in one night.

This image of aerial collision—a symbol of American pride turned into a site of mass slaughter—can’t help but remind us of the planes and towers. It is a beautifully indirect allusion, and it suggests that there is no need for the novelist to re-imagine 9/11 when, on some level, Americans have never stopped thinking about it.

American novelists respond to Adam Kirsch's article


Despite Adam Kirsch’s good intentions and the fact that he touches on many issues relevant to what has come to be called “9/11 fiction,” his argument is unfocused. The reader is left with a sense that Kirsch is mostly dissatisfied with the books he has read and that their depictions of the catastrophe on September 11th, 2001 are by and large inadequate. His general view seems to be that neither the victims nor the perpetrators have been well represented. He cites James and Dostoevsky as writers who were able to enter the minds of political terrorists and produce convincing stories about them, something 9/11 novels have mostly failed to do, and then suggests that the best fictions about that day may be the ones that do not treat the devastation directly but obliquely. The problem, he tells us, borrowing James’s phrase, hinges on “the imagination of disaster.” This is a huge subject, one I can only address partially. What, in fact, does it mean to imagine disaster?

Although Kirsch uses the word trauma early in his article, and flirts with the idea that there may be a fundamental contradiction between storytelling and the experience of horror, he does not pose a fundamental question: what is the relation between trauma and linguistic representation? The answer is psychobiological, and it turns on the problem of memory.

At the end of April, I gave a lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris to a group of faculty and graduate students working specifically on the issue of trauma and writing. I began my talk by saying that the idea of writing trauma may be nonsensical. By the time a person is able to articulate a traumatic experience, he has moved into another position: a terrifying somatic sensation has become its verbal representation. There is abundant neurobiological evidence that traumatic memory is stored differently in the brain from the ordinary, episodic, narrative memories we tell ourselves about our own lives. The involuntary experience of the flashback, for example, is an emotional, motor-sensory, sometimes visual event that has few if any words attached to it. The very nature of psychic trauma is that it is not integrated into an autobiographical story.

The novelist who wants to write about a character’s encounter with his or her own near death or with events so terrifying they become bodily rather than narrative memories must confront the human reality of the unspeakable. There is a vast literature on this subject in various fields that include psychiatry, neuroscience, medical history, and psychoanalysis. In my nonfiction book The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, I draw on this research to argue that traumatic experience exists in a perpetual present. It does not reside in the past but lives in the here and now as a pathological repetition in one form or another. Trauma alters the experience of time.

It is not easy to imagine disaster from up close, to put into words what may in essence escape words, and yet, there are many perspectives from which the novelist can imagine and represent disaster. One needs only to think of the end of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to understand that it can be done: “The horror. The horror.”

Siri Hustevedt's latest novel is "The Summer Without Men" (Picador)


Adam Kirsch astutely points out several obstacles in writing about 9/11. I would also submit that perhaps the subject simply does not lend itself all that well to fiction; that it is at once too big and too small, unlike previous generations’ defining catastrophic and expansive events—Vietnam, the Holocaust, World War One.

Writing about the actual attacks on the World Trade Center requires homing in on a couple of hours of terror and fashioning into prose what is likely better suited to the grammar of an action movie, whereas a novel about World War Two, for instance, may span several years. There is a danger of exploitation here, of co-opting a few moments of awesome destruction to enliven what has been a mostly placid period in American history.

The dominant alternative has been to focus on the amorphous aftermath, the death-tinged anxiety coursing through urban civilians during the War on Terror. The protagonists of these novels tend to be ruminative, overeducated sophisticates who are detached observers, I suspect largely because novelists tend to be ruminative, over-educated sophisticates who are detached observers. But this strategy can be gratuitous, too; a means of magnifying the Most Important Event in Our Lifetimes to provide tragic backdrop. In these novels, the enormity of 9/11 can't help but overshadow what tend to be domestic novels about fraying marriages and the dissatisfactions of middle age.

While there is something to be said for the effects 9/11 had on the average American who did not know anyone directly affected by the attacks, it pales next to the geopolitical reorientation and massive bloodletting in Iraq and Afghanistan, topics best served by nonfiction or by the minuscule number of fiction writers who have served overseas (I am not among them).

Maybe it’s a sign of the difficulty of the topic (one I dodged by writing a “pre-9/11” novel set in 1999 but with, I hope, corollaries to the post-9/11 world) that American writers have largely moved on to fiction influenced by the recession, another unforeseen yet unsurprising consequence of our empire’s overweening ambitions, and one whose dimensions are more conveniently sized to our understanding of how to narrate them.

Teddy Wayne is the author of the novel Kapitoil (Harper Perennial). His work has appeared in The New Yorker, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Time, and elsewhere


In the history of American catastrophes, there have been many occasions when the imaginative act of fiction is necessary to comprehend the reality of an event that would otherwise remain obscured by technological limitations, distance, censorship and oppression. In classics like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a writer’s imagination makes a crucial contribution to our understanding of the personal experience of an immense tragedy.

But to understand the tragedy of September 11th requires no fiction. The media coverage of the event was of an unprecedented scale and intimacy; on that day, we all watched the buildings and the bodies fall. As Kirsch argues, no novelist is necessary to conjure the ineffable horrors of that day because we all witnessed them on television. When writers try to reimagine that shared public trauma in fictional works, their projects can often seem perverse, as if those writers are claiming a primacy of their own intellects over a tragedy that we all experienced. I think that the absence of quality American writing about September 11th is not, as Kirsch suggests, due to a failure of American forthrightness to look directly at such a colossal tragedy. It is, instead, due to the fact that on that day we all looked directly at it together.

Stefan Merrill Block's latest novel, "The Storm at the Door," will be published by Faber and Faber on 7th July