9/11 in fiction

A few days ago somebody (Smart Bitches? Alison? Beth?) had a post about building references to 9/11 into a storyline, and how very delicate a proposition that is. Apparently somebody (and again, my memory is leaking) read a novel where there was a reference to somebody who died in September of 2001, and didn’t clarify until late in the story that it was not in connection with the hijackings.

So I’ve been thinking about this, and I realized that without much thought I have avoided this problem completely. Parts of Tied to the Tracks take place in Manhattan and northern Jersey in about 1998; the rest takes place in northern Jersey and Georgia in 2003. No mention or reference to 9/11 at any point. And it never occured to me to try to build that in. Was this good sense on my part? Sensitivity or cowardice? The short answer (from my perspective) is that the topic is not one I want to pick up in passing. It’s too big and painful to be used in a casual way, so I didn’t use it at all. I suppose in fifty years it might be possible to do that, in the same way that there is a shorthand in place now to make it clear that a character survived the holocaust. But not now.

The only novels I have read that dealt directly with 9/11 are Jim Fusilli’s Terry Orr novels (I reviewed one of them here). Terry Orr and his daughter live in a house less than five minutes walk from the Twin Towers, and all of the novels in the series deal to some extent with that event and its aftermath. Fusilli pulled this off with great sensitivity and in a non-intrusive, thoughtful way. I think he was able to do that in part because he himself is from that part of Manhattan. I am not, and so I leave those stories to the people who lived them.

And now I just realized why I stay away from any mention of the topic at all, and it’s pretty simple. My fear is that no matter how carefully I approach it, I will end up either trivializing the events or exploiting the emotions that are still so raw and close to the surface when we (all of us, everywhere) think of that day.

Of course, it’s also impossible to set any story any place in the days immediately following 9/11 and not mention it. You couldn’t start a story like this:

Dorothy gave birth to her seventh child at eleven in the morning on September 11 at Manhattan General and checked herself out of the maternity ward less than an hour later, taking nothing with her but a pack of cigarettes, two thousand three hundred twenty two dollars in cash laboriously saved up, and the lunch they had brought her, wrapped in a pillow case.

The reader is going to have questions, but probably not the questions you’d hope for. You’d want: what’s up with Dorothy? Post partum depression? Leaving her family for somebody else? Going to jump off a bridge? If so, why the lunch sack? Instead of those questions the reader is thinking: 2001? Was this 2001? And if it wasn’t 2001, why that date? Why pick that date of all dates? What’s the relevance? Did Dorothy leave the hospital because she feared for the rest of her children, and how they were coping with the panic and fear of the attack? Was her husband a fire fighter on duty?

If the answers to that second set of questions is no, there’s no connection between this story and the 9/11 attacks, the reader is most likely going to feel manipulated, and with good cause. It’s in very bad taste, just plain tacky, to flash that date just to get attention. So the only solution (for me, of course — everybody will figure it out for themselves) is to stay away completely. In fifty years time maybe I’ll rethink that (cough) but that’s my policy for the time being.