How 9/11 Shaped American Fiction?


Or not. Part of what Akhtar points out in her book – this memoir as novel or novel-as-novel gracefully dismisses the demand to make your choice – is that one’s identity is a matter of experience, not discussion. This experience is not static; it exists in time, absorbing and responding to the world in which it moves.

There was an imperative to make unfair distinctions between the legacies of Orientalism that Said observed. This is us; we are not him. They are this; they are not like that. But in “Homeland Elegies” Akhtar slides between identities, between ideas, between worlds. Like Julius in “The Open City,” he takes offense at those who try to lay claim to him. “So I only expressed my thoughts indirectly,” Akhtar writes, “with that particular lie called art.”

In the following six pieces, critics select additional works and themes to help parse everything from the immediate response to 9/11 to longer-term changes in literary culture.

Robert Stone described the Vietnam War as “a 10,000 mile mistake”. America’s post-September fiction. The 11 misfortunes in Iraq and Afghanistan took a largely similar tone. It took thirty years for Denis Johnson to give us the ever-changing novel Vietnam deserves in “The Smoke Tree.” We don’t yet have that novel about more recent wars. We have the stories in Kevin Powers’ novel “The Yellow Birds” and Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” both about life in Iraq that is both fragile and crumbly. Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is a cynical and disappointed portrait of a wartime hero coming home too briefly. Two outliers are sticking to me. One by Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi “Frankenstein in Baghdad” A sad, funny tale about a junkie who unconsciously creates a monster from body parts littered with explosions. the other “Godsend” by John Wray It’s about a young American woman who disguises herself as a Muslim and goes to the front lines in Afghanistan. Fountain said in his novel: “Americans are children who have to go somewhere else to grow up and sometimes die.” -DG

Deborah Eisenberg’s story “The Twilight of the Superheroes” is a fictional response to 9/11 that I have occasionally read over and over again. There is a compacted density – it channels the larger world that a full-length novel usually conveys in the amount of space it takes to warm up. The story begins funny and candid in a New York City where everyone is fixated on the impending Y2K apocalypse. With the attacks of 9/11, spilled blood spills outward as the blood spills away from shore and what happened that Tuesday morning becomes a source of both unresolved trauma and background noise.

“Things are back to normal in a grotesque sense,” one character thinks. But normal is not the same as reality. Even if all the lightness (“benevolent, haphazardly wasteful”) resembled the New York that existed before the attacks, this ancient reality was itself a fantasy: “You can’t help but know that what you’re seeing is real. just the curtain. And you can’t help but guess what’s behind it.” —JS

Mario Puzo, author of “The Godfather,” died in 1999. According to a friend, his last words included: “Thank God I won’t have to deal with the internet.” 9/11 was the first world event to be jointly experienced online; changed how technology advances throughout our lives. The next morning, anyone without a cell phone got one. As Joshua Cohen wrote in “The Book of Numbers,” “Suddenly losing touch was death.” They’re half conservative, like Shirley Hazzard (“the audible nightmare of the cell phone”), Stephen King (who wrote a novel about zombies unleashed by bad cell signals), Jonathan Lethem, and some of the characters in Jonathan Franzen’s movie “The Corrections.” Those worried that their cell phones were rude fell by the wayside. Crime novelists were impressed: It became harder to leave people alone. A new type of anomie was identified and evaluated. In “Motherhood,” Sheila Heti described the “empty internet feeling inside me.” Jennifer Egan stated in “A Visit From the Goon Squad” that “everyone seems to be going crazy because they’re emailing people the entire time they’re talking to you.” Yet there were also new forms of connection. In Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherlands,” a father who takes his son away from him flies over his son’s house every night, “flying with Google’s satellite function,” searching for anything thousands of miles away in “depthless” pixels, able to hold onto. It moves irresistibly. -DG


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