American fiction writers are still struggling to put words to the horror of September 11th—and only a few have succeededby Adam Kirsch / May 25, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in June 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.”