A 9/11 firefighter.

The Deaths Of Others: Why 9/11’s Great Novel Still Hasn’t Been Written

On September 19, 2001, an obscure Chicago politician was afforded three hundred words in the Hyde Park Herald to react to the September 11 attacks. “Even as I hope for some measure of peace and comfort to the bereaved families,” he wrote, “I must also hope that we as a nation draw some measure of wisdom from this tragedy…We will have to make sure, despite our rage, that any U.S. military action takes into account the lives of innocent civilians abroad.”

A few days earlier, President George W. Bush had stood in the wreckage of the fallen Twin Towers, bullhorn in hand. “America today is on bended knee,” he said, “in prayer for the people whose lives were lost here.” A rescue worked shouted, “I can’t hear you!” Bush paused. He leaned backward, his eyes settling on the far area of the crowd. Then he brought the bullhorn closer to his lips. “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!” The crowd broke into chants of “USA! USA! USA!”

Nine years later, on August 31, 2010, the obscure Chicago politician, by then President Barack Obama, thanked Bush as he announced the end of the American combat mission in Iraq. Since the week of Obama’s comments in the Hyde Park Herald and Bush’s emotional cry to arms in Lower Manhattan, between 500,000 and 1,000,000 Iraqis had lost their lives in a war justified by claims known to be untrue at the highest level of the Bush Administration.

That night in August 2010, Obama tallied the costs of the war. He spoke of thousands of American soldiers killed and tens of thousands injured. He spoke of relations “strained” abroad and “tested” at home. He said America had spent a trillion dollars on war and it was time to “strengthen our middle class.” He said the Iraq War had been “contentious,” but that it was time to “turn the page.” Nowhere in his elegy to the Iraq War did the man who a decade earlier had so presciently worried that the tragic death of American innocents on September 11 might lead to the tragic death of innocents abroad mention the hundred of thousands of Iraqis whose lives the war had claimed.

That Obama did not acknowledge Iraqi deaths is not exceptional. It has become commonplace to regard the Iraq War as a mistake but rare to dwell on the human suffering it inflicted. If leading academic studies are accurate, the Iraq War rivals in its claim on human life every conflict since the end of the Cold War, with the exception of the Second Congo War. Death in Iraq roughly equals that in Rwanda, and exceeds estimates for the Syrian Civil War (470,000 deaths) and Darfur (300,000 deaths). But Iraqi victims of the war are rarely heard from. On the week of March 21, 2018, the fifteenth anniversary of the invasion, The New York Times carried just four articles on the war. Only one, by the Iraqi novelist Sinan Antoon, dwelt on the deaths of Iraqi innocents. Seventeen years after Obama worried for ‘innocent civilians abroad,’ the Iraqi dead are less than ghosts in our national memory.

Our descent into Iraq, guided by alternative facts and Islamophobic overtones and a decidedly America First demagoguery, seems in retrospect the first signs of illiberalism now ascendant in the Trump Era. Political leaders have their reasons for not engaging in public soul searching, but it seems exceptional that more complex cultural mediums have been so untroubled by the long shadow of September 11. Moments of this magnitude tend to draw bards and talmudists. The nuclear event has John Hersey and Kurt Vonnegut; Vietnam has Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, Michael Herr, and many more. The journey from September 11 to Iraq is decidedly fictionesque, but American fiction has not yet narrated it. That story is uncomfortable and unnerving and challenges basic precepts of the American character. But with an alarmist and alarming Administration trafficking once more in professionally curated misinformation, manipulating public fear of terrorism to deepen xenophobia in general and Islamophobia in particular, casting aspersions on freedom of the press, and cutting a war path toward Tehran, the time for a different story about September 11 — one that includes not only the suffering of American innocents but also the suffering of Iraqi innocents killed in their name — is now.

Part 2. ‘What Would I Say?’

Skepticism that American fiction can speak meaningfully to September 11 and its aftermath has been voiced consistently since 2001. In his essay “Art and Atrocity in a Post-9/11 World,” the novelist Thane Rosenbaum wrote that in “our collective numbness…silence must be the loudest sound of all.” When Jay McInerney told Norman Mailer he was writing a novel about September 11, the older novelist told the younger, “Wait ten years.” In his comprehensive study of September 11 fiction, Kristiaan Versluys concludes that the event is “unsayable.” The late V. S. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature one month after the attacks, quickly pronounced fiction inadequate to address the questions raised by September 11. So while the Bush Administration spun one fiction after another until collective trauma metamorphosed into the invasion of a country that bore no responsibility for the attacks, American fiction endured its self-imposed silence.

Since the insistence of the Nobel Laureate in Literature that fiction cannot speak to contemporary dilemmas, there have been many moving novels concerned with September 11. These novels dwell on the close and near, and many capture the exceptional unity of New York City in the weeks after the attacks. In Jay McInerney’s “The Good Life,” a firefighter stumbles out of the station house and into the embrace of a stranger. “I don’t even know what city I’m in anymore,” he says. McInerney’s novel follows two mid-forties Manhattanites who meet while reaching for more meaningful lives as volunteers at Ground Zero, and slip into an affair that fails to relieve either of them of middle age and its discontents. The sweep of the novel is toward the safe and familiar: ultimately, both Corrine and Luke return to their banal domestic lives. “For a few weeks, they had all found it impossible to believe that anything would ever be the same,” McInerney observes as the lovers see one another at their children’s school play and realize their affair is over. McInerney’s novel captures the paradoxes that follow tragedy, the way in which we are caught between finding new terms by which to live and holding nearer what is already ours. But by the end of “The Good Life” one feels Corrine and Luke might have learned this lesson by any number of ways unrelated to the most politically significant event of the young century.

“The Good Life”’s preference for intimate personal portraits over public narrative marks September 11 fiction more broadly. Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud and Incredible Close” follows a precocious nine-year-old, Oskar, as he searches for clues about his father’s death in the Towers. As a colorful cast of New Yorkers helps Oskar, his journey becomes parable for the warmth and resilience of New Yorkers after September 11. Oskar’s search ends not with new revelations about his father, but with a reminder of what he already knew. “I only spoke with him for a few minutes,” a final stranger tells Oskar, “but that was long enough to see that he was good. You were lucky to have a father like that.” Anyone who has lost a parent will find Oskar’s search moving. But just as “The Good Life” seems more a narrative of mid-life crisis, so too does “Extremely Loud” seem more to do with grief in general and less with September 11 in particular. While Foer gestures toward the universality of suffering through Oskar’s grandparents, German victims of American bombing in Dresden, the choice feels flat. It is revealing that, as the American war in Iraq was creating hundreds of fatherless Oskars every day, Foer was not interested in relating their suffering to Oskar’s. The novel is, in Versluy’s words, “shorn of much of its (9/11’s) direct political impact.”

Perhaps the most intensely private September 11 novel is “Falling Man,” Don Delillo’s treatise on the ineffability of trauma. As Keith Neudecker stumbles out of the smoke and rubble of the collapsing Towers, his instinct is toward his estranged wife and young son. But after escaping death he finds nothing recognizable in domestic life. He feels aloof even from Florence, a survivor whose briefcase Keith happened to carry from the Towers and with whom he makes the halfhearted gestures of an affair. Turned silent by memories he cannot name, Keith drifts steadily into an addiction to poker. In dim Vegas casinos, where it is never clear if it is night or day, Keith finds a landscape that speaks to his inescapable isolation. He knows other players only by tics and shorthands: the Dwarf, the blinking woman. Once he sees a friend who used to play at a weekly game Keith hosted before the attacks. He waits a day to acknowledge him, then learns the man saw him a week earlier. “You were deep in your game,” the old friend tells him. “What would I say?” This numb world of bleak rituals permits Keith to forget what he has witnessed, or at least forget that he has not forgotten. By novel’s end, his isolation is complete. “There was no language,” DeLillo writes of Keith’s relationship to his wife and son, “to tell them how he spent his days and nights.” Like “The Good Life” and “Extremely Loud,” “Falling Man” is a moving work of private suffering. But unlike roving DeLillo masterpeices such as “Underworld,” “Mao II” and “White Noise,” which grapple with major themes of 20th century life –– the Cold War, terrorism, nuclear destruction, consumerism–– “Falling Man” does not try to make political sense of September 11 and its aftermath. When Lianne reluctantly takes her son to a demonstration against the Iraq War, she hears someone say it is Charlie Parker’s birthday and wishes she was home teaching her son about jazz rather than democracy.

But even as Delillo, Foer, and McInerney’s novels focus on private suffering rather than public mood, violence simmers at their margins. In “The Good Life,” a volunteer worker punches a teenage boy in the face after he complains about how long it will take to pack meat for the rescue crew. The deli crowd cheers as the volunteer breaks the teenager’s nose, but seems less pleased when he continues to kick the boy on the floor. “Maybe kicking him was a mistake,” the volunteer later muses. In “Falling Man,” Keith strikes a stranger in the face after his eyes linger on Florence. In another episode, Lianne attacks a neighbor who plays Arabic music. Later she tells Keith, “You want to kill somebody. It’s a thing you carry with you.” He laments that he is too old to join the Army, “or I could kill without penalty and then come home and be a family.”

These acts of violence are the closest these novels come to portraying a traumatized nation on the precipice of unleashing explicable rage in inexplicable ways. Like Lianne at the anti-war demonstration, these works engage the political implications of September 11 reluctantly. Writing of the fiction that emerged from September 11, Michiko Kakutani says, “None possess the vaulting ambition of, say, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic ‘Apocalypse Now,’ or the sweep of Mr. DeLillo’s ‘Underworld.’” Kakutani argues that because September 11 is “an event that seemed to defy representation” the most “powerful works to emerge about 9/11 and its aftermath have been documentary or fact-based.”

But perhaps the opposite is true: our journey from the experience of collective trauma on September 11 to the infliction of collective trauma abroad is too fictionesque for fiction. The raw facts of the case ––that a terrorist attack organized from Afghanistan and Germany led the United States to kill hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq — would be absurd even in the hands of Vonnegut or Kafka. The tragic arc from moving unity to misplaced vengence, from Lower Manhattan to Baghdad, feels for some too sensitive to be plied by a medium as inquisitive as the novel. In “White Noise,” DeLillo masterfully dissects the language of consumerism and authenticity. If he applied an equally vigorous critique to the war on terror, he might have to do what Keith Neudecker resists and face the simmering trauma left where the Towers once stood.

Part 3. Corrections

It is difficult to speak about September 11 fiction without addressing more broadly the unsure status of fiction in our public life. September 2001 marks not only a pivotal event in global politics, but also a seminal moment for the American novel. On September 1 of that year Jonathan Franzen published “The Corrections,” the culmination of his decade-long attempt to “span the expanse between private experience and public context,” as he put it in his impassioned 1996 Harper’s appeal for the relevance of the social novel. Franzen lamented that the rise of television had “killed the novel of social reportage” and led us to forget that “literature has a function, beyond entertainment, as a form of social opposition.” But he wondered how a novelist was supposed to critique a culture of frenetic fascinations when his mode was neither the most frenetic nor most fascinating. Franzen describes his own journey through despair that the novel has any public purpose, and his reinvigoration in conversation with the linguistic anthropologist Shirley Brice Heath, who returned Franzen to his belief that, in her words, fiction is “the only place where there was some civic, public hope of coming to grips with the ethical, philosophical, and sociopolitical dimensions of life that were elsewhere treated so simplistically.”

“The Corrections” centers on Enid Lambert’s campaign to recall her three adult children from the flashy east for a comfortable Christmas holiday in their midwestern hometown. But there’s an unsettling quality to Enid’s campaign. She seems more invested in convincing her neighbors that she is hosting the perfect family gathering than in taking anything more than a prescriptive interest in her children’s lives. If wealth is the faux status of the east, in the midwest family itself is both currency and comodity. But Franzen’s story doesn’t end with this canny insight. He wants not only to deconstruct American idealism but also to reconstruct it. Both the elder and younger Lamberts are more compassionate than they know, and Franzen’s novel eventually allows their gentler instincts to correct the superficiliaties into which they have been seduced by a culture of relentless competition, impractical standards, and the guiding illusion that each of us has the freedom to be as perfect as the advertisements suggest.

Despite Franzen’s ambitious work, American fiction since the eleven days that saw both the publication of “The Corrections” and the collapse of the Twin Towers has not yielded narratives which, in his words, “serve as voices of conscience in times of political and religious fanatacism.” The intense privacy of September 11 fiction becomes even more apparent when contrasted to the fiction that emerged from comparable periods of cultural upheaval. In the two decades after the Vietnam War a cadre of writers –– Ron Kovic, Tim O’Brien, Michael Herr, James Webb–– brought the most morally harrowing moments of the war into public consciousness. These novels swirl with charred legs and dead babies and burning mothers, offered as contrast to the rhetoric of freedom, democracy, and anti-communism that otherwise narrated the war.

In “Born on the Fourth of July,” Ron Kovic is propelled by an idyllic middle class childhood into a war he believes will allow him to live out President Kennedy’s challenge to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” But on Kovic’s pages American idealism always undercuts itself. In one scene, Kovic’s company mistakenly opens fire on a classroom of toddlers: “the floor of the small hut was covered with them, screaming and thrashing their arms back and forth, lying in pools of blood, crying wildly.” As Kovic relates this to his lieutenant, the man barks, “Where are their rifles?” What is remarkable in Kovic’s story is that his idealism does not die in Vietnam, but rather is reborn as civic courage. Instead of honoring democracy by fighting a war whose illicit justifications flout the thing itself, he does so by bearing witness to the war’s horrors.

For the Tim O’Brien of “The Things They Carried,” the American war in Vietnam unfolds as a series of moral inversions. O’Brien’s eponymous narrator opposes the war but fights in it anyway because he “is too embarrassed to do the right thing.” At the heart of O’Brien’s novel is his uncertainty that he should be writing it. His daughter tells him to write about a girl who finds a million dollars and buys a pony. But O’Brien has no other self than the one who lived through Vietnam. He cannot forget burnt villages and shot dogs and kicked corpses. His only escape is to reimagine the humanity of the war’s victims.

Kovic and O’Brien each write in the ”ethical, philosophical, and sociopolitical dimensions of life” in which Heath believes the novel finds purpose. Their novels both unravel and reconfigure American ideals. Neither is comfortable to read. In their passion and their pain these novels reveal themselves as written by people who believed their work mattered. In a thriving democracy it is easy to see politically provocative fiction as necessarily self-righteous or inevitably heavy-handed. But where democratic values can be taken less for granted, where young men are sent to kill and die for reasons that turn out not to be reasons, and those who ask the wrong questions are considered weak at best and unpatriotic at worst, when heads of governments speak lustfully of barring particular religious minorities and censoring the press, fiction retains a rare power to restore the humanity of people overrun by the times. Literature becomes, in Franzen’s words, a form of social opposition.

Social opposition means not only standing against something but also for something. Critical September 11 fiction might not only address how history went but also how it might have gone. There are many hints of the path not taken. These are in the courage of ordinary citizens who, despite a hostile public atmosphere, believed that in a democratic society dissent mattered and marshalled their own against long odds; in young people who demonstrated a willingness for public service, despite the cynical end to which their idealism was put; and in the lives of Muslim Americans who refused to let unkind times interfere with their rightful claim on the American story. There are also the millions of Americans, almost all of us, it seems, who responded to September 11 with kindness and care and love for strangers before we were told that the proper response was to reenact the violence done to us against an unrelated party. These are the people who lived by our most precious values when those in power were merely saying their names. Their example gives hope that it not too late, in Obama’s words of September 2001, to draw some measure of wisdom from tragedy. We will need their stories in the time ahead.

It is naive to believe that any one novel or any set of novels, no matter how elegant or piercing, could keep the United States out of Iran or halt the Trump Administration’s attack on democratic norms or reverse the Islamophobia that has become endemic since September 11. But it is more naive to believe that fiction has no power to shape the way we understand ourselves. September 11 brought down not only the Twin Towers, but also our illusion that we were living in the comforting twilight of the End of History, whose denouement would be an indefinite Pax Americana. In the last seventeen years we have been thrust back into history, and it has proven more troublesome than we remembered. The narratives that have emerged to make sense of America’s place in this new order have largely been hostile or indifferent to human suffering not our own. Those who traffic in fact have failed to make sense of our post-September 11 age. It falls now to fiction to tilt in a new direction the course of a great nation adrift in the first fragile years of a new century.

Sam Sussman is a writer living in New York. He holds degrees from Swarthmore and Oxford and won the BAFTA New Writing Contest in 2016.

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