How September 11 Shaped American Fiction

Or not. Part of what Akhtar nods to in his book – this novel-as-memory, or memory-as-novel, which gently sidesteps the demand for your c...


Or not. Part of what Akhtar nods to in his book – this novel-as-memory, or memory-as-novel, which gently sidesteps the demand for your choice – is that identity is not about argument but experience. This experience is not static; it exists through time, absorbing and responding to the world in which it evolves.

Among the legacies of Orientalism observed by Said, there was a compulsion to make odious distinctions. We are this; we are not that. They are this; they are not that. But in “Homeland Elegies” Akhtar slips between identities, between ideas, between worlds. Like Julius in “Open City,” he bristles at those who try to claim him. “This is why I have never expressed my thoughts except indirectly,” writes Akhtar, “through this particular prevarication called art”.

In the six plays below, critics choose additional works and themes to help analyze everything from the immediate reaction to 9/11 to longer-term changes in literary culture.

Robert Stone called the Vietnam War a “10,000 mile long mistake.” The fiction that emerged from the post-seven. 11 misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan largely took on a similar tone. It took Denis Johnson three decades to give us, in “Tree of Smoke”, the kaleidoscopic novel that Vietnam deserved. We don’t have this novel about more recent wars yet. What we have are Kevin Powers’ novel “The Yellow Birds” and Phil Klay’s stories in “Redeployment,” both about life on the ground in Iraq, both sensitive and pulverizing. We have “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” by Ben Fountain, a sardonic and disillusioned portrayal of a war hero who has returned home too briefly. Two outliers remain with me. One is that of Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi “Frankenstein in Baghdad”, a bitterly funny fable about a scrap dealer who unwittingly creates a sentient monster from body parts strewn across the streets by explosions. The other is “Bargain” by John Wray on a young American who, disguising herself as a boy, becomes a Muslim and makes her way to the front lines in Afghanistan. Fountain said in his novel: “Americans are children who have to go elsewhere to grow up, and sometimes die.” —DG

Deborah Eisenberg’s story “Twilight of the Superheroes” is a fictional response to September 11 that I keep rereading. There is a compressed intensity – a pipe of the larger world that it carries in the amount of space that a full novel typically takes up just to warm up. The story begins in a fun and intimate way, taking place in a New York City where everyone is obsessed with the looming apocalypse of the year 2000. With the 9/11 attacks it radiates outward, so as the bloodshed moves off and what happened that Tuesday morning is becoming a source of both unresolved trauma and background noise.

“Things, in a grotesque sense, are back to normal,” thinks one character. But normal is not the same as real. Even though all the levity (“good heart, flippant waste”) may sound like the New York City that existed before the bombings, that old reality itself was a fantasy: “You can’t help but somehow know that what you see is only the curtain. And you can’t help but guess what might be going on behind it. —JS

Mario Puzo, the author of “The Godfather”, died in 1999. Among his last words, according to a friend, was: “Thank God, I won’t have to worry about the Internet. September 11 was the first global event experienced collectively online; it has changed the way technology creeps into our lives. The next morning, everyone who didn’t have a cell phone bought one. As Joshua Cohen wrote in “The Book of Numbers”, “Suddenly to lose touch was to die”. Ludicite semi-resistance fighters like Shirley Hazzard (“The Audible Cell Phone Nightmare”), Stephen King (who wrote a novel about zombies unleashed by bad cell signals), Jonathan Lethem and some of the characters in “The Corrections” from Jonathan Franzen. who feared that cell phones were vulgar, fell by the wayside. Detective novelists have been affected: it has become more difficult to have people alone. A new type of anomy has been detected and evaluated. In “Motherhood”, Sheila Heti described “the feeling of Internet emptiness in me”. Jennifer Egan, in “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” noted how “everyone looks stoned because they’re emailing people all the time they’re talking to you.” Yet there were also new forms of connection. In Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherlands”, a father whose son has been taken away flies over his son’s house every night, “hovering over the Google satellite function”, looking for anything in the “no pixels” pixels. depth ”, thousands of kilometers away, it can hang on. It is unbearably moving. —DG

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