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Anis Shivani Headshot

Announcing the Death of the Post-9/11 Novel

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It was fun while it lasted.

Novelists didn't have to think much in the way of plot. 9/11 happened before, during, or after, to change everything (as Bush and Ashcroft had it, the world changed, nothing was the same after 9/11).

"Before" was the easiest scenario. Take any family or personal situation, let 9/11 strike, and see how everyone scrambles. It would expose rifts in psychology the protagonists weren't aware of before. In this case 9/11 becomes a terroristic psychiatrist par excellence, bombarding the subconscious to yield the hidden (untruths).

"During," as in Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children, really gave the novelist a lot of rope to hang herself with (not that Messud did, hers was one of the best productions in the genre). Still, there was the predictable climax, so that we could compare the before and the after, and decide that yes, indeed in the pre-9/11 period we were shallow, materialistic, greedy, superficial, Gary Condit/Chandra Levy-obsessed, shark-scared morons who didn't fathom that--gasp, people die! Yes, they suddenly die, even in America. Oh my God! That was easy.

"After" was the easiest of all. Simply let the narrative build to the predictable climax of 9/11, with people falling from the top of the towers, the image to end all images. The rhythm here was the easiest to calculate. 9/11 happens, the book ends, end of story.

By now every variation of the 9/11 novel has been exploited.

Immigrants carrying along with their cute patois and bashful ways, in love and in hate with America--then 9/11 happens and they become targets of racism, profiling, persecution, whatever. In the worst cases, they end up being tortured, taken to Guantanamo, or at least choosing voluntary deportation. Every variety of immigrant was described this way, from Latin Americans and Africans, to East Asians and Europeans. The 9/11 immigrant persecution complex knew no racial, religious, or ethnic boundaries. It was the gift that kept giving and giving.

On the surface, the exploration of persecution looks cool. Didn't 9/11 help us explore the hypocrisies of that aging whore America, who showers her benefactions on selective groups of people, but not all? Yes, that is a whore we can all love to hate. America, kick out your raggedy and poor, send them off to torturing shores, so that you may be purified. That whole immigrant-comes-to-America-and-makes-it-on-sheer-merit deal? It was a phony shtick. Now we know.

The most exploited variation was this. Dysfunctional family, grieving over all sorts of superficial things, split up over non-issues, maybe with children and parents inhabiting opposite coasts. Somehow 9/11 brings them all together. Of course it brings them all together. It is the event to end all interfamily disputes. The image of people falling off towers, flying to their death, somehow puts petty family grievances in their true perspective. A lot of novelists tried their hands at this genre, and no doubt will continue to do so until at least 2020. Or maybe until environmental collapse finally makes it into the novelist's imagination (it hasn't obstructed environmental apocalyptics from offering all but ready-made novels, so real novelists, take note!).

A lot of novelists, unwilling or afraid to take on Islamic terrorism directly, dusted off the Weather Underground and other terrorist groups of the 1960s and 1970s. The Baader-Meinhof gang, the Panthers, you name it, it was a field day for research in the late great days of the counterculture, the post-1968 unraveling. Nixon was an overwhelming brooding presence over the last decade's fiction. Nixon seems like a pussycat compared to the monsters who have followed him one after another, and we can never get enough of the polyester/disco 1970s, so this became really fertile.

The goofiness really took off in the last few years. Intrepid journalists. Underground missions. Stuff happening in the White House we would never have imagined. The attempt to present everyone--even the fucking war criminals who ought to be hanged by the noose--in sympathetic terms. Hey, it's the war on terror (like the Cold War, you know), so we can be forgiven if we merely carry out orders, it's bigger than us, this whole thing transcends any individual, it's the way our society has gone, and we're all just trying to do our job.

Exactly a decade ago, American fiction seemed in pretty dire straits. It was so bad that Jonathen Franzen's The Corrections--an okay book, if padded by 250 pages, monstrously self-obsessed, and in love with its own production values--was the greatest thing we were capable of. He dissed Oprah and we loved him all the more for it.

Dave Eggers had just published his memoir to end all memoirs, and we thought he was our best friend, because he told us that it was okay to be ironic, all-ironic-all-the-time, even if he was saying that with a touch (or more) of irony. He was the voice of our generation, and that generation, X or Y or Z or whatever--Bang! What was that? The sound of the falling towers! No more irony, Dave, you've gotta reinvent yourself in that serious, earnest, journalistic vein, you've gotta learn to tell us how we can get better, save this lost generation from its worst sins of affluence and iPod-mania and the FaceBook scam. We liked that very much. We wanted to hear about genocide refugees and African and Latin American civil wars and brutal dictators in Central Asia and the heartlessness of American tourists in Southeast Asia. We got a lot of that after 9/11. See, 9/11 changed everything!

It seems like NO fiction got written between 2001 and 2003. Absolute silence. Or so it seems now. Publishers were taking a break. Writers were taking a break. We had to let it all soak in, we were portentously warned (and if you were a fledgling writer pursuing editors in that dark, dark era of early Ashcroft, you'd know exactly what I mean). It was too early, oh yes, it was too early to decipher the meaning of 9/11, novelists who rushed to the event made a big mistake in judgment, the public wasn't ready for it, we had to let the event ripen, or very bad, undigested fiction would result.

And indeed we got very, very bad fiction from circa 2003 to circa 2007. Don DeLillo fell flat on his face. He had been writing about an undertone of terrorism all his life, but when the real thing (or whatever!) happened, his novels became compressed, pancaked, like the dust of the towers, unable to rise up and assert their concrete and steel narrative volume. John Updike tried very, very hard, and we were grateful to him at the time, but now his earnestness on the topic wears ill. Jonathan Safran Foer wrote an Extremely Bad and Incredibly Stupid novel, but anything else from him would have shocked me into permanent critical paralysis. They were all just flailing and failing, and we were making excuses for them, Oh well, the event is still too close.

Then came the good stuff, the really good stuff. Ken Kalfus, Mohsin Hamid, Claire Messud, Laila Halaby, Joseph O'Neill, H. M. Naqvi, and to up the ante, in 2009, Torsten Krol's Callisto, and now, finally, Teddy Wayne's Kapitoil. To change the tone here, I speak in awe of Krol and Wayne, two of the greatest writers of our time, whose books will far outlast the moment. As a fiction writer I am flabbergasted by what they've both accomplished. Callisto and Kapitoil are immense and unrepeatable, all credit to the editors who made these books a reality. It is almost worth it to live in this too-earnest, humorless, politically correct, terrified-of-our-own-shadows era if we can once in a while read books like Callisto and Kapitoil. Really, I have no words with which to go on.

But here we come to the end, because these two books--especially Kapitoil--are so good, so unimaginably good, that one fails to see what more can be done with the genre. Like James Joyce with the bildungsroman, they've killed off the fucking genre. There's nothing left of it. They've owned it, transcended it, made some sort of powerful fictional advance that I'm still trying to come to terms with, and done it all without breaking stride. I mean, speaking of immortals...

But the point again is that we have moved from 9/11 as a specific event to a generalized state of dread (its extreme form of generalization, so that it's both consummate myth and consummate reality, can be seen in James Hynes's Next, another very advanced form of the genre, one that predicts its decline and end).

So we've come full circle. We cannot possibly go back to where we were in 2000/2001 (remember, 9/11 changed everything), but we have exploited--as we Americans always will, we won't just dig out a few barrels, we'll take over the goddamn country that has the oil, yes we will!--the grief and terror and error of the day for all it's worth.

Meanwhile, life has gone on and novelists have ignored most of what's really interesting about the world.

Not that no one is writing about these things, but just as a reminder:

The American middle-class has all but ended, and it's not coming back.

We are in some sort of depression, but we don't quite know how it started and how it will end.

We have inaugurated a liberal regime which is more repressive on every measure than Nixon ever was--or at least dared to be, in good company.

The rise of China is inevitable (as inevitable as the rise of the seas by 200 feet in Al Gore's imagination--but I kid).

Immigrants are being deported in greater numbers than ever; immigrants are choosing not to come to our shores, they're voting with their feet (or stranded boats or camels or what-have-you), and so no more Google and eBay and California agriculture and whatever else they gave us.

There is a raging fascism gaining ground in all parts of the country; if the economy doesn't improve, or if we can't massage the numbers enough to prove that it has improved (more or less the same thing), then these movements are going to take center stage.

Somehow the quality of life in this country feels immeasurably impoverished. Everyone feels that. We don't know how that's happened.

To the extent that novelists participate in the myth of 9/11--that it was the most important event in the world since at least Pearl Harbor--they evade the trenchant reality around us. They empower the fantasists, they debase language, they prevent comprehension.

Why was it so easy to exploit 9/11? It was GRIEF written large, and it totally fit into our sense of victimization at the beginning of the millennium. That millennial anxiety--manifested in the absurd hunt for the Y2K bug which never showed up--didn't exempt novelists, and they moved in pretty quickly to seize the day.

9/11 has become filler, agitprop candy, drama's rape, the magician's cap (and cape) we all put on when we don't know what to do. It's default mode run amok, secondary input masquerading as primary insight. Enough with it.

It is time to move on. Don't nobody else try to compete with Teddy Wayne, he's done it already, he's finished the genre, okay? Now go home and read some Dostoevsky and Proust and clear your heads. There's gold in them there hills, fictional gold all around you, so go be wildcat prospectors again.

Around the Web

Where Is Our Best 9/11 Fiction? - Short Stack

The 9/11 Novels Worth Reading - Page 1 - The Daily Beast

Too soon to writethe post-9/11 novel? - The New York Times