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May 10, 2007

9/11 as a novel: Why?

Why do we expect our writers to produce the "Great 9/11 novel" anyway?

Has there ever been a "great" Pearl Harbor novel -- the event most often compared to the Towers' collapse? From Here to Eternity is about all that one's memory can conjure up, and surely it doesn't qualify as great.

These thoughts struck me while reading Falling Man, Don DeLillo's astonishingly sharp yet ultimately unfocused new novel, as well as several reviews that greeted it and other attempts by writers the past two years to come to grips with That Day in fictional terms. If ever an author has the wisdom and literary chops to expound on those events, it would be DeLilllo, considering all he's written about terrorism, crowds, assassination, disasters and the media. Indeed, the beautiful cover photo for Falling Man is an above-the-cloud shot looking down at the World Trade Center, eerily balancing the under-the-cloud photo that graces the cover of Underworld, looking up at one of the WTC towers, cut off by the fog, as if anticipating its billowing destruction a few years later.

But is there a "great" Stock Market Crash novel? Depression novels, yes. Word War II and Holocaust novels, of course. But we're talking about those single, one-day catastrophes that change an era, re-direct history's course. Does anyone expect a great "Berlin Wall falling" or "Oklahoma City bombing" novel? (Speaking of which, it turns out that Edmund White, of all people, has actually written a Timothy McVeigh-meets-Gore Vidal-on-death-row stage drama).

In part, it was the growing self-consciousness of American culture and American authors after World War II -- our assumption of world leadership in politics and the arts, the perceived need to explain and advance our values against the Soviets -- that led to this peculiar and unexamined expectation, especially on the part of journalists and critics, that novels are a kind of "wiser journalism." We now regularly anticipate the timely contributions of major authors, like competing news networks, to weigh in on momentous occasions, to pronounce, to tell us why they're momentous.

Of course, in Latin America and Europe, the novelist as engaged political commentator is a familiar figure. If journalism is "history in a hurry" or "the first draft of history," then this position of author-as-Edward R. Murrow makes the novel "journalism in an easy chair," journalism given time to think. "News that stays news," in Ezra Pound's famous formula for art. But in America, the efforts of writers like Norman Mailer to court media and political prominence, to master the celebrity beast, to re-conceive the novelist's role as pugilist-pontificator, certainly played to this notion in a very late '60s-ish way. But it's a way of reaching the American public that seems to have passed. There seems to be no major novelist who matters to American readers anymore -- on that particular, event-defining, consciousness-shaping level. The Executioner's Song, Mailer's last achievement in his journalist-as-sage mode, was 28 years ago -- a generation past.

Larry McMurtry devised the term "novels of information" for the hefty tomes of post-World War II writers like James Michener and Herman Wouk, popular social novelists who reported back from foreign lands or historical periods. It's certainly the case, as McMurtry has argued, that their heavyweight sagas have been supplanted by cable TV, by the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and National Geographic. No one seems to write something like Michener's Poland or Chesapeake anymore, or if they do, they're not read at the volume that Michener was. Thank God: Who says art doesn't progress?

But now, "the novel of higher punditry," the expectation that a Didion or a Foster Wallace will explain events to us, may have passed its effective prime time, too, killed off by TV news or the internet or the zeitgeist. It seems to have been a form most attractive to novelist-essayist-journalists like Didion or Mailer or Stone. Certainly, the dreadful Terrorist by John Updike (another novelist-essayist) doesn't stand up against such gripping non-fiction books as American Ground: Unbuilding the World Trade Center by William Langewiesche or Larry Wright's The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11.

Such a comparison is hardly convincing: setting a weak novel against two excellent pieces of long-form, in-depth reporting. Since the advent of New Journalism, long-form narrative journalism has certainly taken on much of the "reporting" function of the classic, 19th-century, social novel. But regardless of what the journalists have done with 9/11, when one looks over what so far constitutes our fiction writers' attempts at climbing the Twin Towers (Philip Roth, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ian McEwan, Jay McInerney), it does seem as if the worried reviewers have a point. Perhaps only Deborah Eisenberg's short story, "The Twilight of the Superheroes," impresses one as something that might last (though I did enjoy Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close more than most and felt he was attacked often out of checkbook envy. But in retrospect, the young-boy-trying-to-trace-his-father's-clues storyline just feels too precious for such a massive upheaval.)

But that is to say the (possible) collective failure of fiction may be not a failure of the form itself or even its current dilemma, increasingly sidelined as it is yet still expected to prove itself relevant. It may be simply a failure of individual authors to find the right will, the right perspective. In which case, no big deal, no need for a death-knell manifesto like David Foster Wallace's provocative essay E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction, which argued that TV irony has co-opted the post-modern novel. And no need for another crowing (or worried) declaration about how the internet has killed off print fiction. One doesn't feel that novelists shouldn't tackle such topical events or that they can't or that the form's province is now confined entirely to the domestic and the psychological while journalists are free to run wild.

Yet when many novelists do take on pressing, topical events today, there often seems to be a note of hurry and desperation, a desire to be heard in our media-shouting world. But trying to say something more compelling than Katie Couric: Is this a novel's function?

Actually, with Libra, DeLillo has arguably written what stands, so far, as the one, great novel on the JFK assassination, that other epoch-marking tragedy. I believe it's a great novel, even though the book's overarching conspiracy theories aren't convincing to me. I'm a proud lone-nutter, as the assassination buffs would say, a member of the pragmatic, Oswald-did-it crowd, the ones who believe that mere anarchy does often rule our lives, that a resentful nonentity can repeal an election or topple an archduke. Nonetheless, Libra masters all of these threads -- Oswald's mess of a life, the Cold War, the New Orleans mafia, the Cuban-CIA connection -- and makes such a compelling portrait of American history and American loserdom that I can still be enthralled by it as a revelatory fiction and not accept it as a guidebook to actual events. Much the same can be said for War and Peace, after all.

And as noted, DeLillo is particularly well-equipped, even primed to tackle 9/11, given his New York home turf and his long-abiding concerns with the terrorist's "plot" now superceding any novelist's "plot" in effectiveness, in its ability to shape events and re-shape consciousness. Falling Man also feels like a return to his strengths after the reflective but oddly insubstantial The Body Artist and the lightweight, Wall-Street-hotshot satire Cosmopolis.

With its main character, Keith Neudecker, stumbling down the street on the first page, Falling Man plunges us straight into the dust, disorder and flying glass of the Towers' fall, and this is bracing: There's nothing standing in the way of the horror. There's no grand, metaphoric invention that will re-conceive 9/11 as something else, no psychological inquest or exploration into the extremist critique of American culture -- these come later. For now, we return to the disaster face-on, full-force, to understand why the metaphors and soul explorations would come. Recall DeLillo's treatment of the "airborne toxic event" in White Noise: This is his masterful brand of hallucinatory realism, his ability to make things shimmer with uncanny clarity so that they seem at once ordinary and extraordinary, banal and ominous:

"He started walking again. A supermarket cart stood upright and empty. There was a woman behind it, facing him, with police tape wrapped around her head and face, yellow caution tape that marks the limits of a crime scene. Her eyes were thin white ripples in the bright mask and she gripped the handles of the cart and stood there, looking into the smoke.

In time he heard the sound of the second fall."

Keith is stumbling to the apartment of his estranged wife, Lianne, and his young son. He recovers there, and the family is partly, gingerly reconstituted, although he was always a hollow man and remains affectless in a very DeLillo manner: hard-nosed, silent, wary, elliptical. Soon, Lianne encounters the Falling Man, a performance artist who, unannounced, dangles from buildings and elevated train tracks, reproducing the fall of the office workers who leaped from the Towers.

Eventually, Keith gives up any pretence of an office job and becomes a professional poker player, and we get extended sequences about casinos, tournament play, drifting through hotels -- the anomie of contemporary Western life that DeLillo is so good at conveying, its beauties, its excesses, its repetitions. And with the poker, we get the playing out of odds, the kind of randomness that let Keith survive 9/11. Underlining his luck are flashbacks to the towers falling, plus cross-cuts to Lianne and flashbacks to one of the 9/11 conspirators as he trains for that day. Life as gamble vs. life as locked-in plot.

But the Islamic terrorist never really comes alive, although the return to 9/11 is as stunning as the opening sequence. But in the last third of the novel, the characters drift apart, not that they were ever energetically connected anyway, and the novel as a whole seems to fail to cohere. This is a fault I found with Underworld, too, despite the widespread acclaim for that novel as DeLillo's masterpiece. My friend J. D. O'Hara explains Underworld as a "novel without a hero," which is a fair claim. But it raises the issue that the modernists first did: What, then, is a novel's organizing principle? With Underworld, the organization seems prismatic and thematic. The novel tracks several, sometimes reflecting and refracting examples of "diatrologia," the "dark forces" that secretly organize history.

But in Falling Man, we do have an "antihero," more or less, or a "family" around which the narrative centers, and the novel still feels as if it dissolves or trails away. The return to the opening cataclysm, though brilliantly rendered, fails to "tie things up" or lend the tangents any resounding purpose, renewed focus, which it seems intended to do, even as such a circular return (recall Samuel Beckett's dramas) connotes futility, purposelessness, no exit.

Too bad about the novel's drift, because much like Underworld, Falling Man does have remarkable setpieces. But in our current "race to ponder the news" that we've set up for novelists (in which many novelists are eager to compete), I can't help pausing to wonder. Is this even what we should demand from fiction writers? Inevitably, authors in any period will speak of their time and place, no matter where their stories are set. But we now seem to have a particularly urgent push for big-time topicality.

Which is odd because the novelist's take on events has almost always been the historical novelist's take on events. Authors have the luxury to deal in almost geological reflection. War and Peace came out 50 years after the Napoleonic wars. Gravity's Rainbow was a speedy little rocket in comparison: Pynchon wrote it only 30 years after the V2s blitzed London. John Steinbeck was quite the nimble penman: Grapes of Wrath was released less than five years after the Dust Bowl (and the drought continued well into 1939 when the novel came out). On the other hand, Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels took a dawdlingly long 120 years to appear after Gettysburg, but it surpassed any other fictional representation of that conflict.

I'm not in any hurry for a fictional re-conception of 9/11. There are plenty of ways to grapple with it in nonfiction books already -- politically, strategically, photographically, even in its effects on engineering and city planning. And none will fully satisfy -- at least not yet. We still don't really know how the larger war in Iraq will be viewed by history: idiot-devious neo-con escapade or valiant first beachhead for re-shaping the region on a more egalitarian model. Some might claim we still don't even know what really happened on that single day.

So the question is not "why no great 9/11 novels?" The question is: "To retain any relevance in a culture running on a panicked, 24/7 news cycle, must the novel compete in the information overload?" Many novels actually offer a retreat from the shouting match, a solace. But even today, some novels still cut through the din to be heard. Surely, the novel can participate meaningfully in the culture without being . . . so insistently pertinent, so newsworthy. It's as if we want the damned things to be useful and relevant, to help us understand ourselves -- now-now-now. And only that matters.

In this light -- the light of a video monitor -- the "need" for a Great 9/11 Blockbuster Novel -- coming up next! -- is a journalism value, a value of corporate media, not an artistic value. It's in response to a supposed consumer demand, although one suspects that readers have never collectively expressed such a need. If they have, it's misplaced: Immediacy is not one of the novel's deep purposes. It's more likely a response to the hunger of that 24/7 news cycle: Feeding the beast, especially after a major crisis, will call on every resource, every talking head a network can find.

As noted, this expectation for "pundit novelists" arose during the Cold War. This also happens to be the same period that saw American journalists rise to white-collar respectability and cultural visibility. Inevitably, perhaps, we important journalists judge novels as important when they reflect our important priorities. And our urgent deadlines. Note our lack of interest in the Great 9/11 Abstract Painting or the Great 9/11 Epic Poem or Short Story or Documentary Brief or Performance Piece. These are forms without mass media clout, they have no instantaneously sizable audience, therefore, they have no instantaneously sizable import. They speak in slow, gathering voices.

The novel does, too, at times. You want immediacy, topicality -- go get yourself a broadband connection. That era when novelists had a hold on the Big Megaphone of Now turns out to have been an aberration in the history of fiction, certainly the history of the American novel. McMurtry was right: As long as novels provided us with rafts of information, information that we couldn't access more quickly, more easily from other sources, Americans turned to them, even American males did, and they have always valued data over fiction. Hence, the wide readership that a Michener or Wouk once commanded: They had little competition and they fulfilled a useful function.

One understands, then, why today's writers might pursue that fast-disappearing media podium: It once granted them access to what was the Great American Audience. To gain a near-permanent place on the American nightstand reading pile, to be heard on the nightly news, to be called on in a time of crisis: All of these mean an author can reach an audience beyond normal bestsellerdom. It's an audience that novelists will likely never get any other way these days, unless they're caught in a hotel room with Angelina Jolie or an airport men's room with Senator Craig.

But it's a novel-reading audience that may no longer be there, considering the recent NEA studies of the decline in avocational fiction reading. Or it may not be worth the candle. Look at the novelists that have managed to hold its attention as true brand names. The vast majority of top 10 best-selling novels today are written by only six writers: the Kings, the Grishams, the Steels, the Clancys. So it's not that fiction has been killed by media competition or the internet or by narrative journalism -- it's only this particular kind of pundit novel of information, the "cultural crisis" novel, that has passed, and only this particular kind of broad-based audience that went with it.

Personally, I would start worrying about American authors' supposed failure to treat 9/11 in a memorable fashion if 50 years from now, we reviewers were still futzing with the issue. Over in England, Pat Barker managed to write one of the finest World War I novels, The Ghost Road -- in 1995. No one complained: "What kept you?"

At the same time, we Americans have only comparatively recently seen tremendous narratives from historians, narratives that encompass the full range of the civil rights movement. So where is the great novel of the '60s race riots? Or more relevant to this discussion: Where is the novel of James Earl Ray and that day in Memphis when Martin Luther King walked out on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel?

No novelist has touched it. But talk about a history-changing act of terrorism.

Posted by jweeks at May 10, 2007 4:21 PM

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The trend has faded, but in the nineties, German critics kept complaining that nobody had written a good "Wenderoman" -- that is, a novel about the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It's not that anybody has written said novel yet, but the critics have stopped complaining about its absence.

Posted by: Andrew Shields at May 10, 2007 11:48 PM

That's fascinating. So it's not just an American phenomenon. Perhaps it's an inevitable result of media urgency: Get on with it -- tell us what we want to know.

Funny thing is, the more I considered Falling Man, the more I found ways its disparate parts reflected each other, linked up, much as the different elements did in Endzone or Running Dog.

Just goes to show what time can do ...

Posted by: book/daddy at May 11, 2007 8:13 AM

Pynchon gathers Americans how Mailer tries in your opinion. I think Pynchon is our greatest author.

And Subject for art is illegitimate if one believes art is subject, or thinks people as subjects. 9/11 may be written of, but Against The Day, be its tome.

Posted by: Brian Hadd at May 11, 2007 2:29 PM

The answer, of course, is already there in "American Ground" and "The Looming Tower." Real events have become the territory of literary non-fiction. Perhaps they always were. Think of "Hiroshima." The novel does other things. I think it could even be argued that the novel will rarely, perhaps never, fit itself to real events with the ease and aptitude of non-fiction.

Posted by: Bill M. at May 11, 2007 5:43 PM


Yes, serious literary non-fiction has encroached extensively on the novel's turf. I didn't want to get into that too much because i thought my essay was long enough. But literary non-fiction has neither lessened this unexamined expectation on the part of reviewers and novelists, it seems, that the novel should tackle topical Big News Events nor has it, I think, enitrely precluded the novel from doing so. Did people ever turn to "Madame Bovary" or "Howards End" or "Jude the Obscure" with the idea they were catching up on reports from the hinterlands? (To a degree, I think people DID do that with authors of faraway "exotica" like Melville or Conrad or Greene).
Yet consider Libra and Gravity's Rainbow -- after all that had been written about those two topics, they still shifted or deepened one's understandings of the events, the period. They just didn't do it in a very timely manner.

So perhaps that's it: It's often when something loses its media heat that it becomes the province of the serious novelist. This may irk those novelists who also work Fleet Street as commentators, who feel writers should be the world's somewhat more acknowledged legislators.

But let's turn the issue around: Does anyone know of a novel that came out immediately after an earthshaking event (say, within a year or two) that is a longstanding literary achievement, something one could read with or without extensive knowledge of the relevant history?

Which is why I've posted my "Corollary question" -- I'm taking suggestions for such novels.

Posted by: book/daddy at May 12, 2007 8:59 AM

Yes there is such a book,

Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, perhaps the only novel to provide a distilled, distanced view of an atrocious even as even the event unfolded. So up to the moment was the war she wrote about that that same moment took her life before she could finish it.

Posted by: Marlon James at May 12, 2007 9:30 AM

I'm not sure "Gravity's Rainbow"is "about" World War II, or even about the chemo-industrial weapons war complex. I think "Gravity's Rainbow" is mostly about the universe Pynchon invented. "Heart of Darkness" is sort of about the Belgian atrocities in the Congo, but it's really not. They are -- a better word, perhaps -- the occasion for the novel. A novel about some great historical event ages pretty quickly. Would we read "War and Peace" to learn about Napoleon's invasion of Russia?

Posted by: Bill M. at May 12, 2007 10:02 AM

Good choice with Suite Francaise. In fact, these comments have caused me to post a "Corollary question" -- to expand on just that issue: Are there such novels?

Bill, you're absolutely right about "War and Peace": which is just my point. We now seem to be expecting novels to be pundit-ready yet also timeless, to speak profoundly to concerns here-and-now yet stand as literary achievements beyond any news value.

Posted by: book/daddy at May 12, 2007 10:12 AM

Upton Sinclair wrote "King Coal" based on the Ludlow Massacre. He traveled to Colorado to do research. It's a dreadful book. One wonders how it would have turned out as non-fiction.

Posted by: Bill M at May 13, 2007 9:28 AM

This essay is a vivid example of why the downsizing of book sections is a shame. By far the most insightful writing I've read so far on Falling Man and on the larger questions addressed above. This deserves to be in print, and read by the untold thousands who will probably take the Times' word for it instead of actually reading the book. Cheers.

Posted by: Sister Edgar at May 14, 2007 10:30 AM

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