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.

8 Replies to “9/11 in fiction”

  1. I agree with your decision. I know I personally am not ready for it to be casually mentioned in entertainment mediums. There are a couple of films coming out this year that are about 9/11, one of them is on the Philly flight. I think that there needs to be more time between the event before I am ready for that. However, I may never want to see it in an entertainment medium.
    I recently read a novel that featured 9/11 from the Muslim perspective in England. This reference did not bother me though. I thought it was tastefully done. The novel was Brick Lane by Monica Ali. I have a description of the book on my blog. I recommend the book.

  2. I’m sure you know about Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close — a novel written from the POV of a boy whose father died in the World Trade Center attack. My first reaction on reading a synopsis was that it sounded like a cheap shot, and thinking about Foer’s other book (Everything is Illuminated), which was about the Holocaust, and which I found at times to be extremely, well, tasteless, I was initially not inclined to give ELAIC a try. But I did, and I was glad I did. I think Foer did as good a job as possible at handling a topic that goes very deep and is still quite current.

    Thanks for this post. I’m not an author and I don’t even play one on television, but I love your ‘craft of writing’ posts anyway.

    P.S. Now you’ve done it; I want a book about Dorothy.

  3. Rachel: maybe you should write Dorothy’s story. I don’t know really what she was thinking when she left the hospital, but maybe you do. What I mean to say is: sure you’re a writer.

    And I haven’t read Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for the same reasons you initially avoided it. I’ll put it on the list. As I will Brick Lane (thanks, Kelly Marie).

  4. I heartily recommend both Brick Lane and ELaIC, because if you read and review them then I’d actually recognise something you’d read.
    Both those books contained some irritating features, yet also some spectacular story-telling that sucked me in and shook me up.

  5. I should preface this by saying that as an Australian, I may have a different perspective…but other things happened on September 11 2001. People did have babies, and get married, and go on their first date – normal life events that, while occurring simultaneously with the wider tragedy of the day, were not actually related in any tangible way. I wouldn’t feel at all manipulated picking up a book to find Dorothy’s story opening in the manner above, any more than I would were I to pick up a novel set in Australia on January 18 2003 which didn’t make mention of the bushfires burning my city in its opening paragraphs. Perhaps Dorothy turned on the news later and saw it in passing – she’d just had a baby, a life-changing event. Turning the news on wouldn’t be the first thing on my mind after giving birth. But my point is that life keeps going, even in the midst of great tragedy, and as in all areas of life, there will be moments when the story of the one operates independently of the story of the whole.

    I really hope that no one is offended by what I’ve said; as an Australian, I doubt I could truly understand the impact September 11 on a national psyche. We have our own national tragedies, but we seem to reflect them differently in our literature.

  6. Meredith — I’m not offended. It’s a good and valid point you make about the situation in general.

    On the other hand, in my example it’s hard to imagine any American hearing “September 11” and “Manhattan” together in the same sentence who would not have an immediate and strong response. There was no overlooking what was going on, not by eleven in the morning, not for anybody in the city. And as an author, I would hope to be sensitive to that fact.

  7. dishuiguanyin — It’s possible that I read a lot of what you read, but don’t comment on it here. I comment on maybe one out of ten books I read.

    On the other hand, maybe our taste in reading material doesn’t overlap at all.

  8. Another novel including the events of Sept 11 2001 in Manhattan is “Forever” by Pete Hamill. I read it after hearing a radio interview in which he described finishing the manuscript (it takes place over >100 years in Manhattan) and getting ready to send it off to his editor. This was on the morning of Sept 11, 2001, and after the attack on the towers he decided he needed to include that in the book also(so back to work for another few months). There were a lot of things I didn’t like about this book but as a story it worked well. (the radio interview might still be on npr.org archives if anyone is interested)

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