Almost as quickly as the US military geared up to unleash America’s retribution, the publishing industry jumped into active duty, too. A nation seeing with rage and incredulity felt desperate to know how the attacks of 9/11 happened, who carried them out and why. Within days, previously published books — such as Ahmed Rashid’s “Taliban” and Yossef Bodansky’s “Bin Laden” — shot up on the bestseller list. Sales of Bibles, Korans, spiritual guides, prophecy titles and works on comparative religion ascended toward the heavens.
Advances in technology allowed the production and distribution of an unprecedented number of new books in record time. On Oct. 1 — while Ground Zero was still burning — students and professors at the New York University Department of Journalism published “09/11 8:48 am,” an anthology of accounts by survivors and witnesses.
But of course, readers wanted more—so much more. Journalists and scholars, politicians and photographers, along with spiritual leaders, self-help gurus and conspiracy theorists, all rushed to their computers. Dozens of 9/11 books appeared before the end of the year; as many as 150 more by the first anniversary. If paper could have saved our wounds, we would have been healed.
There was certainly an exigent need to record, analyze and explain Sept. 11, but it was not at all clear if there was a parallel need to fictionalize Sept. 11. Indeed, hours after the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, the novelist Ian McEwan confessed the limits of fiction. “Even the best minds,” he wrote in the Guardian, “the best or darkest dreamers of disaster on a gigantic scale, from Tolstoy and Wells to Don DeLillo, could not have delivered us into the nightmare available on television news channels yesterday afternoon. ” And before the year ended, DeLillo himself suggested in Harper’s that the destruction of the towers was “a phenomenon so unaccountable and yet so bound to the power of objective fact that we can’t tilt it to the slant of our perceptions.”
Literary novelists, so many of whom lived in New York and couldn’t get the ash of death out of their clothes, faced a barrage of practical and theoretical threats to their creative enterprise. Martin Amis wrote that, in the aftermath of 9/11, “The so-called work in progress had been reduced, overnight, to a blue streak of pitiable babble. . . . A feeling of gangrenous futility had infected the whole corpus.”
The moment Flight 11 tore open that gorgeous September morning, a marker dropped on the timeline of American history as unavoidable as Dec. 7, 1941. It no longer felt tenable — no longer felt tolerable — to create a story in our present tense that didn’t ‘t acknowledge the singular, shared agony of that day. And yet who needed a fictional representation of the catastrophe we had all lived through and were still enduring? Why create an unreal version of the calamity that had hypnotized us into muttering, “It’s unreal”?
As investigators picked through the wreckage in Manhattan, Arlington and Shanksville, Pa., the idea of a 9/11 novel sounded obscene in its redundancy, its obviousness, its galling superfluousness. What would be the purpose of such a work of fiction beyond rank sentimentality or tasteless exploitation?
But if novelists were defeated, they weren’t defeated. Although their nonfiction colleagues reached Ground Zero far earlier, fiction writers eventually risked treading on that hallowed space and integrating it into their own work. Some wanted to re-create the initial surprise of the destruction — not an easy feat when any description of a clear fall day was enough to make readers brace for impact. Others caught the planes out of the corner of their eye, so to speak, tracing the contrails of grief left behind. And a few novelists ventured right into the flames to imagine the unimaginable.
Their efforts were alternately profound, moving and earnest — some triumphs and some cringing misses. But within a few years, it was clear that 9/11 would leave an impact on contemporary fiction as deep as its impact on every other aspect of our culture. The selection of novels below gives a sense of the wide variety of approaches writers have taken over the past two decades:
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
This devastatingly tender novel is about a precocious 9-year-old boy grieving the loss of his father, who died during 9/11. Foer traces the precedence of terror from New York to Dresden, Germany, and when words fail—as they must—a few of the novel’s pages go entirely blank.
“Saturday,” by Ian McEwan (2005)
McEwan once said, “It could well be that the great 9/11 novel — if there ever is one — will be written halfway through this century.” But he offered his own contender just four years after the attacks. The carefully crafted story is contained in a single day, Feb. 15, 2003, when a neurosurgeon in London sees a plane fall from the sky. Full of mundane activities and subterranean anxieties, it’s a chilling representation of what it means to live in an era transformed by 9/11.
“The Writing on the Wall,” by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (2005)
The story about a linguist at the New York Public Library is a bracing reminder that the plans may have sailed out of the blue, but the 9/11 attacks traumatized some people who were already traumatized by earlier tragedies. Schwartz explores what it felt like to live in a city suddenly thick with markers of grief and loss.
“The Emperor’s Children,” by Claire Messud (2006)
Contradicting claims about the death of irony, one of the best novels to incorporate 9/11 into its plot was about a glib coterie of cultural elites in New York. But then: “Look at that,” one of them says while staring out a window. “It must be a bomb or something.” In a flash, we know this story has crossed from satire to tragedy, into the trajectory of our own history.
“A Disorder Peculiar to the Country,” by Ken Kalfus (2006)
When the World Trade Center collapses, Joyce and Marshall Harriman have their own separate reasons to be grateful: She thinks her husband was in the South Tower, and he thinks she was on United Flight 93. Alas, they’re both alive to continue tormenting each other. In this grimly comic novel, the Harrimans’ failing marriage is an emblem of larger hatreds ripping the world apart.
“The Zero,” by Jess Walter (2006)
New York policeman Brian Remy survived the collapse of the towers, but now he’s experiencing bouts of memory loss, possibly caused by a self-inflicted head wound. He’s not certain what’s happening to him, even as he gets roped into a mysterious government mission. This darkly satirical novel examines how a nation exploits its own trauma.
“Falling Man,” by Don DeLillo (2007)
Six years after saying in Harper’s, “The writer wants to understand what this day has done to us,” DeLillo published a novel “to give memory, tenderness, and meaning to all that howling space.” The story involves a lawyer who barely survives the collapse of the towers and seeks out his estranged wife from him. The fragmented plot and abrupt style reflect a newly shattered world.
“The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” by Mohsin Hamid (2007)
In a cafe in Lahore, a Pakistani man tells an American about his once successful life in the United States before 9/11 and the resulting explosion of xenophobia. This emotionally complex story explores the conflicted feelings inspired by America’s actions and suffering.
“Netherland,” by Joseph O’Neill (2008)
In this poignant, pensive novel, a Dutchman living in New York after the 9/11 attacks seeks relief from his loneliness by playing cricket. The game — a curiosity in America — provides a singular lens through which to examine the immigrant experience in an altered landscape.
“Next,” by James Hynes (2010)
A seemingly rambling day trapped in the mind of a dude who has sneaked away from his girlfriend in Michigan to apply for a job in Texas. Hynes’s genius is the way he keeps the anxiety fueled by 9/11 in the margins until the story finally hurts us down the asymptote of terror.
“The Lake Shore Limited,” by Sue Miller (2010)
If Henry James had written about 9/11, he might have produced something like this thoughtful book. At the center is a young playwright who lost her boyfriend de ella on Sept. 11 — just before she was about to break up with him. Saddled with that complicated grief, she struggles with how to represent feelings she isn’t supposed to feel.
“The Submission,” by Amy Waldman (2011)
As construction finished on the real 9/11 Memorial, Waldman published this novel in which a similar memorial design competition is won by an architect who happens to be an American Muslim. It’s a profound and unsettling consideration of how we sanctify our national suffering and who gets to be involved.
“My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” by Ottessa Moshfegh (2018)
In Moshfegh’s acerbic novel, a miserable New Yorker uses drugs to avoid the world by sleeping for months. She awakens later in 2001, still wondering how to spend her time. Later, whenever she doubts that life is worth living, she re-watches a videotape of the planes crashing into the towers. She can see a woman leaping from the 78th floor: “She is beautiful,” Moshfegh writes. “There she is, a human being, diving into the unknown, and she is wide awake.”