Words Return: The Best of 9/11 Fiction

Isthmus | September 8, 2005
On Sept. 13, 2001, just two days after the collapse of the World Trade Center, New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani penned a piece entitled “Struggling to Find Words for a Horror Beyond Words.” It began with the line: “Language failed this week.”

Many were at a loss to describe what had just taken place, the wounds still too fresh to be excavated in any meaningful way. Yet some writers who sat down to work soon after found themselves unable to write about anything else, and so began peeling back the layers of disaster-movie clichés, maudlin truisms and empty rhetoric to reveal the sometimes disquieting truths of the situation. Now, four years later, the first generation of fiction related to the event has hit the shelves. Writers are beginning to broach the event in some serious novels, largely avoiding any whiff of capitalizing on it. And while it’s still a difficult subject to make sense of, language is regaining its footing.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is one of the most popular Sept. 11 fictions so far.

Foer follows 9-year-old New Yorker Oskar in his tireless search of the city for a lock that fits a key he found in the closet of his father, who died in the World Trade Center. Much of this book’s appeal lies in Foer’s ear for the voice of the precocious (though not cloying) Oskar as he attempts to make sense of the confusing world of adults in the aftermath of his father’s death — a device employed to both comic and poignant effect. The platitudes that the adults in his life resort to when confronted with incomprehensible loss are all but lost on Oskar, who describes what the reader assumes to be his intense grief as wearing “heavy boots,” the weight of which varies daily.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close raises interesting questions about the nature of trauma and how it manifests in both a personal and a collective sense, especially when the losses incurred are related to major world events. The book draws parallels between the World Trade Center attacks and the bombing of Dresden, where Oskar’s grandmother lost her sister.

Though the unselfconsciousness of the prose feels organic, authentic to Oskar’s character and to the somewhat surreal aspects of childhood, at other times the narrative trips over its own contrived quirkiness (Oskar carries and plays a tambourine most everywhere he goes) in a way that rings false. This is a fairly minor quibble with the novel, a uniquely affecting meditation on loss and connection.

While Foer, like others, concentrates on the effect the attacks had on someone not in the towers, French writer Frederic Beigbeder dares to imagine what the scene was like in the north tower for those 102 minutes before it collapsed.

Beigbeder’s Windows on the World presents parallel narratives. One is told from the perspective of a father who dies in the attacks — Carthew Yorston, a divorced real estate developer from Texas, who has brought his two young sons to Windows on the World — the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center — on Sept. 11. The other is from the point of view of a French novelist and cultural critic who is attempting to write a novel about the same subject.

Beigbeder creates a cast of characters that includes an adulterous couple out for a breakfast rendezvous, a trader whose wife learns of his bisexuality from his lover, and a host at the restaurant. He imagines the kinds of conversations these people might have had during their last moments, as well as Yorston’s interior monologue, a stream of thought both philosophical and mundane. Beigbeder bravely ventures into that uncomfortable territory that acknowledges that at the end of one’s life, all one’s thoughts might not be generous or altruistic or even terribly profound, even daring to imagine what people regret in their final moments, a narrative brave enough to ask: What does it feel like to die if you haven’t really been living anyway?

With both honesty and humanity, the novel chronicles the last moments of those trapped in the north tower, depicting the corporeal reality of being trapped in a structure that is essentially melting: the intense heat emanating from every imaginable surface, the likely hallucinations people experienced from lack of oxygen, the burned, melted bodies and office machines. Beigbeder explores what may have been going through the minds of the “jumpers,” as they came to be known, asking why it was considered poor taste to publish pictures of the bodies falling from the towers, wondering if those people who jumped would have consented to “being expunged in this manner.”

The horror of the scene inside the building is mitigated somewhat by alternating chapters of Beigbeder’s insightful, entertaining critique of and homage to American culture. At turns thought-provoking and witty, the analysis includes meditations on those oft-cited but seldom agreed-upon “American values,” mega toy stores, absentee parenting, boredom with commitment, superficiality, materialism, ingenuity, enthusiasm and innovation. Far from being an overarching indictment of the United States, his knowledge and appreciation of American culture make these sections read more like a love letter from a wise, clear-eyed admirer.

Beigbeder turns the machete on himself as well, musing on what it means to be a writer, the unease and distastefulness that are inherent in attempting to write about the tragedy: “I circle the building like a vulture in search of corpses. I wander the vertical streets breathing in fresh calamity. A writer is a jackal, a coyote, a hyena.” Questioning the necessity of yet another book, he concludes that these written records of places that once existed are ultimately all we have: “When buildings vanish, only books can remember them. This is why Hemingway wrote about Paris before he died. Because he knew that books are more durable than buildings.”

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, in her The Writing on the Wall, is also concerned with the use of language. The novel is told from the perspective of Renata, a 34-year-old linguist at the New York Public Library, who is walking across the Brooklyn Bridge when she sees the planes hit the World Trade Center. In perhaps one of the most arresting and unexpected descriptions of the explosion, Renata observes that it looked “like a marigold.”

Because she is a woman obsessed with language, Renata clues into the inconsistencies and ironies of the rhetoric in the wake of the event, as well as the ways that language can fail us at times. Fluent in a number of obscure dialects, Renata finds herself looking to other vocabularies to articulate her complicated, sometimes conflicting thoughts and feelings, presenting a compelling argument for learning other languages: If we can’t find the exact words to express ourselves in our own language, perhaps they can be found in a different one. Schwartz has obviously done her research on linguists, and while Renata’s insights on how language serves to illuminate or obscure truth are relevant to the narrative most of the time, in other moments her observations feel somewhat forced.

Schwartz has created one of the most complex, believable contemporary female characters in recent memory, and despite a promisingly subtle though emotionally complex beginning, the novel devolves into melodrama, with a jumble of scarcely connected characters and plot twists. As is so often the case with single, childless, career-oriented women in recent movies and literature, a baby (whose mother perished in the World Trade Center) is foisted upon Renata, and when she is forced to return the aforementioned baby to his family, she takes in a mute teenage runaway who she believes may be her long-lost niece. Though the prose itself is often beautiful and painstaking in its precision, the narrative begins to feel patched together, stumbling over its bizarre plot twists and shoehorned-in bits of back-story.

Despite these flaws, the book’s emotional restraint and resistance to easy sentimentality is admirable, the novel rich with incisive observations about the fragility of connection.

Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham’s anxiously awaited follow-up to The Hours, employs three novellas in three genres (a historical fiction, a contemporary detective story and a futuristic, sci-fi imagining of New York) in its literary exploration of the societal cost of industrialization and technological advancement. The poetry of Walt Whitman plays an integral role in each novella (all of which include the central characters of a man, a woman and a boy), though it is used to different effect in each.

Like both Beigbeder and Foer, Cunningham offers a historical perspective on the events of Sept. 11. Set during the Industrial Revolution, the first of the three novellas concerns Lucas, a boy who takes a job in the iron works where his older brother was killed in an accident the week before. In a scene with chilling resonance, he witnesses the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, where women jumped from the windows of the burning factory, their skirts in flames. A boy so obsessed with Whitman that he quotes him almost constantly in conversation, Lucas seems to use poetry as a barrier, the beauty of the language forming a buffer between him and the brutal reality of his life.

The novella most directly related to the attacks on the World Trade Center is told from the perspective of Cat, a forensic psychologist working for the NYPD terrorism task force assigned to the case of a child suicide bomber. Cunningham imagines what might motivate a homegrown terrorist operation, daring to place some of the most rational critiques of American culture in the mouth of the character who is raising Whitman-quoting suicide bombers, not, she claims, out of a hatred for the country, but out of a deep distress about the direction in which it seems to be headed. Reading these passages and finding oneself agreeing with her line of reasoning places the reader in a curious, if somewhat uncomfortable, position, raising questions about the power of language to manipulate.

In the last novella, Cunningham delves into a futuristic imagining of New York (complete with hovercrafts and lizard-like alien immigrants), a city so sanitized of violence and crime that people are contracted out to play the junkies and derelicts of “Old New York,” while tourists pay for the opportunity to be threatened and robbed. Science fiction writers have often used the genre to make subtle social and political commentary, and this seems to be what Cunningham is up to in this section. While it’s interesting (and terrifying) to be privy to his bleak view of a post-9/11 America, this is the section where the book seems to lose its emotional core. As the only writer of this group to explore the long-term reverberations of the attacks on the World Trade Center, albeit in a surreal way, Cunningham seems to be keeping the subject of the future of the United States at arm’s length — perhaps for good reason.

After a brief hiatus, language returned in the wake of Sept. 11. Although most often writers have chosen indirection to address the unspeakable, one instance of grappling with the actual horror (oddly — or perhaps understandably — by a writer who is not American) is very effective. In each case, these novels attempt to tell one of the myriad stories surrounding the event. All leave the reader with greater understanding of how the event resonated with a particular character, giving a glimpse of the private face behind the very public tragedy.


Isthmus is Madison, Wisconsin's alternative newspaper. Since 1976, Isthmus has built a foundation of fearless reporting, forthright opinion, excellent arts coverage, and innovative perspective. These efforts have been rewarded by numerous sources including the Milwaukee Press Club's statewide Excellence in...
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