Hide And Go Seek

Novelists, unsure how to deal with 9 / 11 in their stories, try to find their way by playing games with language and images.


September 04, 2005|By Donna Rifkind | Donna Rifkind,Special to the Sun


By Chris Cleave. Alfred A. Knopf. 288 pages.


By Jonathan Safran Foer. Houghton Mifflin. 326 pages.


By Lynne Sharon Schwartz.

Counterpoint. 295 pages.


By Philip Beard. Viking. 196 pages.


By Ian McEwan. Doubleday. 289 pages.

Anxious times call for anxious entertainment, and so, for better or worse, we live in the age of the 9 / 11 novel. This year, we've witnessed the publication of an armful of these feverishly publicized books, each presenting different imaginative responses to the World Trade Center attacks and their repercussions. Scores of reviews, both withering and obsequious, have followed. There also has been plenty of workaday journalism on the subject, from compare-and-contrast roundups to an Aug. 22 New York Times article about trends in the 9 / 11 novel's book-jacket design.

These days, what isn't a 9 / 11 novel? While the five fiction books discussed here are among the first to grapple with this enormous event, more and more novels with contemporary themes use 9 / 11 in some way, often as a backdrop. An event that effected so many sweeping changes in American life cannot but seep into nearly every cultural pore.

Trickle-down anxiety has caused both readers and writers to expect more from these novels than they are perhaps ready to deliver. Some novelists believe that tackling the subject of 9 / 11 is a question of duty. Chris Cleave, the author of the novel Incendiary, said in a recent interview that "it is right that novelists should be engaged with the times they live in -- that's the job, as far as I can see." And Jonathan Safran Foer, whose Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close has probably received the most attention of any 9 / 11 novel to date, told a Mother Jones reporter: "I think it's risky to avoid what's right in front of you."

Of course, novelists should be free to choose any theme that inspires them. But the minute a subject turns into an obligation, authors risk downsizing their work from literature to a mere creative-writing exercise: Write about the worst thing that ever happened to you. It's not a surprise that Cleave's and Foer's books are the weakest offerings in this particular group. Incendiary, a London terrorism fantasy whose British publication date (July 7) fell on the same day as the Underground and bus bombings, suffers from some gapingly implausible plot twists. For its part, Extremely Loud buries traces of its author's talent in an irritatingly gimmicky narrative that overwhelms its audience's patience.

Regardless of what readers might wish, none of these five novels, which range from satisfyingly good (Saturday) to decent (The Writing on the Wall and Dear Zoe) to disappointing (Incendiary and Extremely Loud), are ever going to solve any problems, change any minds, or make our bewildering political and social environment any less chaotic. That is not literature's job. Literature, in fact, has its own problems here.

Most formidable among those is the fact that in the beginning was the image: How can language hope to compete with the television tape loop through which most Americans experienced 9 / 11? The repeating images of the planes smashing into the towers have been burned so deeply into our consciousness that verbal descriptions seem feeble.

In Extremely Loud, Foer depicts his 9-year-old protagonist watching a grid of televisions in the window of an electronics store on the fateful day: "all but one of them were showing the buildings, the same images over and over, as if the world itself were repeating ..."

Along similar lines, Lynne Sharon Schwartz remarks in The Writing on the Wall that overnight, it had "become everyone's favorite disaster movie," while Philip Beard writes in Dear Zoe: "The only emergency in the world is on television. The second tower comes down. Again and again." Henry Perowne, the doctor hero of Ian McEwan's Saturday, notes that, 18 months after 9 / 11, "airliners look different in the sky these days, predatory or doomed," and sees television news as "a condition of the times, this compulsion to hear how it stands with the world, and be joined to the generality, to a community of anxiety."

Justifiably, readers might expect these novels to deliver something more than recycled news images. Insufficient as language is here -- and this is the primary theme of Schwartz's Writing on the Wall -- it is the only weapon in a novelist's arsenal, and he or she has no choice but to try to make it effective. All five of these novels use different tactics to attempt to skirt the problem.

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