Where Is Our Best 9/11 Fiction?

Four bestselling authors were having dinner at Gerard's Place, a quiet Washington restaurant. At one end of the table was George Packer ("Assassins' Gate"). At the other was Rajiv Chandrasekaran ("Imperial Life in the Emerald City," now being made into a movie starring Matt Damon). In the middle were Steve Coll ("Ghost Wars") and Tom Ricks ("Fiasco").
All are journalists who have turned their on-the-ground reporting in dangerous places into riveting, narrative non-fiction about 9/11 and its aftermath, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. An hour earlier, they were featured speakers at The Washington Post Book Club discussion on the war on terror, which was hosted by Book World and to which you can listen on our podcast (beginning Saturday, Feb. 16).

Now, their conversation turned to great fiction about 9/11. And the main question, posed by Packer, was: Where is it, anyway? Why are we still waiting?

Various people at the table tossed out the titles of some fine books and short stories. One noted that some of the best fiction about Vietnam came long after the end of that conflict (Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" was published in 1990; Denis Johnson's "Tree of Smoke" appeared just last year). So maybe it's just too early. Then, again, maybe the all-volunteer military has narrowed the range of Americans who go into combat, and we're still waiting for the right soldier-writer (think Norman Mailer or Joseph Heller) to come along. Or perhaps we're looking in entirely the wrong places: Maybe the great 9/11 novel will not be written by an American.

Maybe it's already out there.

Here are some works of 9/11-related fiction that were mentioned at the table. If you've found a great one, let us know what it is and why you're nominating it. Other readers are certainly looking for the inspired choice.

1. "A Disorder Peculiar to the Country," by Ken Kalfus. A sardonic, witty novel that uses twisted humor to process twisted events.

2. "The Reluctant Fundamentalist," by Mohsin Hamid. Why a Pakistani man fell in, and out of, love with America. Written before 9/11, re-written afterward.

3. "Falling Man," by Don DeLillo. Poker games, performance art and a hijacker named Hammad all play a role in this (deliberately) disjointed narrative.


4. "The Emperor's Children," by Claire Messud. What people worried about in Manhattan just before September 2001. Petty or profound, it's all in the past.

5. "The Writing on the Wall," by Lynne Sharon Schwartz. We seem to have trouble facing facts, both in our personal lives and as a nation.

-- Alan Cooperman

By Christian Pelusi |  February 15, 2008; 7:24 AM ET Alan Cooperman , Fiction
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"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer.

"Unlubricated" by Arthur Nersesian. While not focused on September 11th, the book takes place with post-9/11 NYC as its backdrop. Nersesian's novels have always captured NYC in a very realistic way and this novel is no different.

Posted by: M Street | February 15, 2008 9:52 AM

I've commented in WashingtonPost.com chats and blogs before about this and will repeat my thoughts here. First, Jonathan Safron Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" is a cathartic book about the need for human connection in the aftermath of 9/11. I mentioned this and one other recommended 9/11 fiction book once to two chat participants here, and they embraced my other choice while not commenting on this selection. Why is that? Was Foer's book poorly reviewed? Considered too sentimental? I thought it was wonderfully kaleidoscopic in its picture of individuals of different ages and life experiences, with an ending that surprised me.

The other novel, which was seconded by the earlier chat hosts, is Ian McEwan's "Saturday," a brilliant take on what happens when an unexpected incident leads to unforeseen consequences. It comments on violence, retaliation, nationalism -- all of the things America continues to debate more than 5 years after 9/11.

I read "The Emperor's Children" hoping it, too, would illuminate the 9/11 experience in some way, but I found the book meandering and overrated, with 9/11 closer to an afterthought than a central premise of the book. What am I missing?

Posted by: Discman | February 15, 2008 10:00 AM

I completely agree about Jonathan Safran Foer. I think that both his novels captured something no one else did: a sense that seemingly small life stories can connect not only globally, but across generations. (And he wrote these before the release of the movie "Babel," which makes the same point.) Foer's strikes me as an essential post-9/11 sensibility. He was reviewed very positively on our pages.

I haven't read Claire Messud's book, but isn't it more about the opposite? The blissfully self-centered urbanites who don't manage to connect at all?

I do recall a blazingly positive review by Carolyn See of Hugh Nissenson's "Days of Awe," which is a novel more about how 9/11 changed the way we live and think than about the day itself. Here's what Carolyn had to say about it:
"Would you rather live as if "God's in His Heaven -- all's right with the world?" It's up to you. The best art hurts. It's excruciating. If you crave it, take a look at The Days of Awe."
That novel was published in 2005, so must be in paperback by now.

Posted by: Marie Arana | February 15, 2008 12:02 PM

Not a novel, but the play Recent Tragic Events, set in a Minnesota apartment on 9/11/01, was fascinating - it played at the Woolly Mammoth here in DC. It veered between slapstick and heartbreak - some of the funniest, wackiest scenes I have ever seen, yet also evoked the slow realization of what had truly happened that I remember most from that day.

Posted by: Elizabeth T | February 15, 2008 12:38 PM

Yup, "The Emperor's Children" was not a book to help the reader make sense of 9/11. It's a really compelling book on its own terms, in my opinion. But the way it deals with 9/11 - basically, by having almost all the characters transform in some unlovely way - is in keeping with its own fictional materials but not with most people's visions of The Great 9/11 Novel, whatever that is.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" seemed extremely cute and incredibly insufferable even for me when I read reviews of it, but several people have convinced me that I may not have been fair, and now I think I have to read it at some point.

Posted by: Lindemann | February 15, 2008 2:02 PM

Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" had inched up to number 2 on my long list of favorite books, except that I didn't read it. I listened to it on CD. It was AMAZING. So, Lindemann, why don't you try that, because I would never have used the word 'cute' to describe ELAIC. I have never even seen the book. FYI, I got it at the library. I would advise listening to the final CD alone and somewhere else besides your car. hard to navigate when you can't see.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 15, 2008 3:37 PM

For the record, I, too, read Foer's book "with my ears," although a friend advised me that the book contains illustrations that obviously don't come across in audio. I've paged through it at the bookstore and considered adding it to my shelf, but I haven't taken the plunge. If I ever do re-read it, it'll probably be the paper-and-ink version, just to see how it compares.

Posted by: Discman | February 15, 2008 5:16 PM

Read "Brick Lane" by Monica Ali. It helped me to understand the world we live in post 9/11.

Posted by: Gail | February 16, 2008 6:36 PM

Last semester, I taught a course called "9/11 And The Novel", focusing on many of the books mentioned so far. In the first class I threw down Ghost Wars and after the loud boom, I said "this is what 9/11 Non-Fiction sounds like." The I threw down Delillo's Falling man and said now listen to the noise 9/11 fiction makes.

I thought Kalfus' book was a well needed dose of satire and savagery and the last 50 pages are some of the wittiest writing I've ever read, but the novel stops short of a bigger picture. Saturday was loved by some, but the novel was so schematic and contrived that it ended up being outclassed by the Bellow quote that preceded it. John Updike's Terrorist was simply a bad novel. Whatever your opinion of his stance, any novel where a late 50's early 60's man can simply materialise on a busy New Jersey highway, run down a truck, jump in and SAVE AMERICA!! is just stupid. My students loved Foer's book, and there's a good book in there, once you get past the self conscious bells and whistles and the other 200 pages of him trying to impress you with synchronicity. A Day at the Beach couldn't rise above its considerable technical flaws. This left us with three books. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which captured post 9/11 American better than any other book I've read. Cormac McCarthy's the Road, where the suddenness of Armageddon and the line "[Godspoken] men have taken with them, the world" pretty much summed up the nature of the conflict. The third novel, the only recent work of fiction to nail the heart of a possible terrorist, was one written before 9/11: Jennifer Egan's Look At Me.

The great 9/11 novel has not yet been written and may not be for a very long while. I'm still not convinced that an American writer is even capable of it, despite the even happening here. The event in its own way still laughs at America, refusing to be put in timeline or context, which is why Foer's attempt at contextualising, failed. Norman Mailer said it takes 10 years to process and event and he may be right. 9/11 is still very much a present tense event. Fine ground for the journalist and the non-fiction writer, but not yet fertile enough for the novelist.

Posted by: Marlon James | February 17, 2008 9:06 AM

Last semester, I taught a course called "9/11 And The Novel", focusing on many of the books mentioned so far. In the first class I threw down Ghost Wars and after the loud boom, I said "this is what 9/11 Non-Fiction sounds like." The I threw down Delillo's Falling man and said now listen to the noise 9/11 fiction makes.

I thought Kalfus' book was a well needed dose of satire and savagery and the last 50 pages are some of the wittiest writing I've ever read, but the novel stops short of a bigger picture. Saturday was loved by some, but the novel was so schematic and contrived that it ended up being outclassed by the Bellow quote that preceded it. John Updike's Terrorist was simply a bad novel. Whatever your opinion of his stance, any novel where a late 50's early 60's man can simply materialise on a busy New Jersey highway, run down a truck, jump in and SAVE AMERICA!! is just stupid. My students loved Foer's book, and there's a good book in there, once you get past the self conscious bells and whistles and the other 200 pages of him trying to impress you with synchronicity. A Day at the Beach couldn't rise above its considerable technical flaws. This left us with three books. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, which captured post 9/11 American better than any other book I've read. Cormac McCarthy's the Road, where the suddenness of Armageddon and the line "[Godspoken] men have taken with them, the world" pretty much summed up the nature of the conflict. The third novel, the only recent work of fiction to nail the heart of a possible terrorist, was one written before 9/11: Jennifer Egan's Look At Me.

The great 9/11 novel has not yet been written and may not be for a very long while. I'm still not convinced that an American writer is even capable of it, despite the even happening here. The event in its own way still laughs at America, refusing to be put in timeline or context, which is why Foer's attempt at contextualising failed. Norman Mailer said it takes 10 years to process and event and he may be right. 9/11 is still very much a present tense event. Fine ground for the journalist and the non-fiction writer, but not yet fertile enough for the novelist.

Posted by: Marlon James | February 17, 2008 9:07 AM

That's a masterful and heartfelt summation; I wish I'd had more teachers like Marlon James. My sneaking suspicion is that 9/11 fiction, no matter how good, will remain less poignant than 9/11 non-fiction for many readers. This is very much a matter of individual sensibility, of course. But to me, non-fiction about the Holocaust (memoirs, especially, such as Martin Gray's "Au nom de tous les miens")is more moving than fiction set in the same context. Ditto for Stalinist terror: for me, Gulag Archipelago trumps Ivan Denisovitch; Robert Conquest's "The Great Terror" is more throat catching than Yuri Trifonov's "House on the Embankment" (which is no slight to Trifonov; quite the contrary).

Posted by: Alan Cooperman | February 19, 2008 1:49 PM

I second, third, eighth the praise for "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer. I may be true that "The Great" 9/11 fiction may not be written for decades to come, but this one presently stands above the rest.

Posted by: Anonymous | February 20, 2008 10:27 PM

How about "The Zero," by Jess Walter? A cop who helped with Ground Zero cleanup keeps getting weird bouts of amnesia. Very good.

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close." I found it a difficult read in some parts. But I cried when, near the end, the boy says that all he really wants to do is put birdseed shirts on everyone he loves.

Posted by: acorn | February 21, 2008 1:50 PM

"Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" by Jonathan Safran Foer is the only 9/11 fiction I have been able to bring myself to read, I trusted the author enough to dive into such a sad memory. It definitely puts the reader there and lets us feel the full range of emotions from that day and the ongoing aftermath, but also leaves us with many, many laughs and hope. I doubt I am alone in my reluctance to relive 9/11 in my recreational reading, so I agree that the best fiction is probably yet to come. JSF made a brave and poignant foray into the theme.

Posted by: kat | February 21, 2008 2:55 PM

9/11 may be an event best approached obliquely in fiction.

The father of the heroine in William Gibson's "Spook Country" disappeared in New York on 9/11; his absence and his fate are a brooding factor in this novel.

Posted by: Phil Saunders | February 29, 2008 12:42 PM

Another post 9/11 book that slipped under the radar is "Absent Friends" by S.J. Rozan, better known for her mystery series featuring dual detectives. While well-received by reviewers who noted it, it was never reviewed in the WashPost or NYTimes. Not part of her mystery series, and only partly a "mystery" in the classic sense, it gives a very good sense of place of NYC just after 9/11 and its impact on firefighters and ordinary citizens.

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