© 2021
Prairie Public NewsRoom
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

Some Novels And Short Stories That Have Been Inspired By The 9/11 Attacks

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

9/11 shaped this country in so many ways, our politics, our pop culture, our national identity and the stories we tell about each other. The Jamaican writer Marlon James once taught a course called 9/11 and the Novel at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. We asked him to send us a list of books that he considers part of our post-9/11 reality.

MARLON JAMES: It was very much an instantaneous but permanent event. And a lot of novels reflect that.

MARTIN: Some of the books on Marlon James' list were about other life-altering events. He started with Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," which he says was inspired by 9/11.

JAMES: There's a very short line in "The Road" that I'm going to paraphrase where they talk about men of faith are men who believe. And they're all gone, and I'm one of them. And we are the ones who sort of took out the world. And that's different. We've never seen that before where apocalypse seemed to come out of nowhere, but it had something to do with belief. It had something to do with religion. It had something to do with a certain fanaticism. That's what makes it so different.

MARTIN: And so frightening because there's not a framework to understand it.

JAMES: Right.

MARTIN: You've got a short story collection by Deborah Eisenberg that you wanted to talk about. This is "Twilight Of The Superheroes." How does she take on 9/11 with this?

JAMES: I mean, she takes on 9/11 in a very sort of private and expansive way. My very, very unbiased opinion was that this was actually the finest work of post-9 11 fiction. "Twilight Of The Superheroes," in a lot of crucial ways, reflect the personal cost of something so quickly devastating. It's funny because it's all part of our language. We all know of the quick event with lasting consequences, a car crash or whatever. But this thing looked at it on such a quietly devastating way and also, in such a beautifully written way. It, for a short time, made me think that maybe the best works on 9/11 were short stories.

MARTIN: It's interesting that you say that. Is that just because the magnitude of the event was so large that the only way to digest it is with the smallest possible story?

JAMES: Yeah. I think big, cataclysmic events sometimes force us to go small. I don't know if it's a situation where we just simply cannot assess the damage because we don't have perspective yet. We don't have distance yet.

MARTIN: Right. And we can almost only understand it one individual at a time because each of us is still trying to make sense of that in our own lives.

JAMES: Yeah.

MARTIN: Let's talk about stories of the victims themselves. Are there novels that have captured that experience particularly well?

JAMES: It depends on what we call victim. People reeling from the physical and medical consequences of it came, I think, a little bit later. What I thought was how people reel from it is something that Pankaj Mishra talked about years ago, called it a sense of fundamental instability, particularly for - we haven't talked about this yet - the immigrant. A lot of immigrants suddenly felt unmoored. Novels like, say, "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" touch on how pretty soon after 9/11, that golden door that has been closing for a while really closed. And it left them a lot of - groundless and rootless.

MARTIN: This is Mohsin Hamid, we should say.

JAMES: Mohsin Hamid's work. And what happened is something that was pretty radical for the immigrant novel. It's the complete opposite of, say, "The Joy Luck Club," where the immigrant - because of 9/11 leaving them unmoored, 9/11 making them a suspect, 9/11 making them being entered - sent to Guantanamo without warning or just beaten somewhere in the street because they just have the wrong color. So many Latinos got beaten because they thought they were Arabs. So many Sikhs got killed because people thought they were Muslims. With this novel, the immigrant leaves. In previous immigrant novels, they find a way of coming to terms with America, their own way of being an American. "Reluctant Fundamentalist" - and this is a guy who was totally sold on it. This is a Wall Street guy. This is, like, yuppie. I'm not saying there was a rush of people leaving America after 9/11, but there were a rush of people who up to that point felt they were being absorbed into the fabric of America. And that fabric unraveled.

MARTIN: Right. It also, I will admit, felt strange even saying 9/11 fiction. Like, what happened on that day, the effects are everywhere. It's just in the air we breathe, right? I mean, is 9/11 fiction just fiction? You can see its fingerprints on everything.

JAMES: You can. It did shift us. It did shift us. Like, one of my actual favorite novels is "The Emperor's Children" by Claire Messud. One of the things that happens in that novel is 9/11 becomes almost the ultimate disruptor. It showed how an event can immediately disrupt turnaround on more people. And almost every trajectory that novel was going gets fundamentally disrupted. And it goes in another direction after it. In a weird way, it's the thing that "The Road" and "Emperor's Children" have in common. And I think it's something that we still deal with in different ways. What do you do with the immediately disruptive event? And it doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing. I actually think Colum McCann's "Let The Great World Spin" is a 9/11 novel, too, even though it's about Philippe Petit's tightrope walk across the towers. But here we go again, an instant event profoundly disrupting people. That was a glorious event. It's not just the bad events that do it. But it's that type of story - and of course, it existed before. But I think it became more common now. The singular event that profoundly changes lives is something that I notice, at least, happening a lot more after 9/11.

(SOUNDBITE OF TOM ASHBROOK'S "TACTUS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.