How 9/11 Shaped American Fiction

How 9/11 Shaped American Fiction

Or not. Part of what Akhtar gestures at in his book — this novel-as-memoir, or memoir-as-novel, which gently skirts the demand to take your pick — is that one’s identity isn’t a matter of argument but experience. That experience isn’t static; it exists through time, absorbing and responding to the world in which it moves.

Among the legacies of Orientalism observed by Said was a compulsion to draw invidious distinctions. We are this; we are not that. They are this; they are not that. But in “Homeland Elegies,” Akhtar slips between identities, between ideas, between worlds. Like Julius in “Open City,” he bristles at those who try to lay claims on him. “It was why I only ever voiced my thoughts indirectly,” Akhtar writes, “through that particular prevarication called art.”

In the six pieces below, the critics choose additional works and themes to help parse everything from the immediate reaction to 9/11 to more long-term changes in literary culture.

Robert Stone called the Vietnam War “a mistake 10,000 miles long.” The fiction that’s emerged from America’s post-Sept. 11 misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan has largely taken a similar tone. It took Denis Johnson three decades to give us, in “Tree of Smoke,” the kaleidoscopic novel that Vietnam deserved. We don’t yet have that novel about more recent wars. What we do have are Kevin Powers’s novel “The Yellow Birds” and Phil Klay’s stories in “Redeployment,” both about life on the ground in Iraq, both sensitive and pulverizing. We have Ben Fountain’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” a sardonic and disillusioned portrait of a wartime hero come too briefly back home. Two outliers stick with me. One is the Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi’s “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” a bitterly funny fable about a junk peddler who unwittingly creates a sentient monster out of the body parts strewn in the streets by explosions. The other is John Wray’s “Godsend,” about a young American woman who, disguising herself as a boy, becomes a Muslim and works her way to the front lines in Afghanistan. Fountain said it in his novel: “Americans are children who must go somewhere else to grow up, and sometimes die.” —DG

Deborah Eisenberg’s story “Twilight of the Superheroes” is one fictional response to 9/11 that I keep rereading now and again. There’s a compressed intensity to it — a channeling of the larger world that she conveys in the amount of space that a full-length novel usually takes just to warm up. The story starts out funny and intimate, set in a New York City where everyone is fixated on the looming Y2K apocalypse. With the 9/11 attacks, it radiates outward, as the bloodshed moves offshore and what happened on that Tuesday morning becomes a source of both unresolved trauma and background noise.

“Things, in a grotesque sense, are back to normal,” one character thinks. But normal isn’t the same thing as real. Even if all the levity (“good-hearted, casually wasteful”) may resemble the New York that existed before the attacks, that old reality was itself a fantasy: “You can’t help sort of knowing that what you’re seeing is only the curtain. And you can’t help guessing what might be going on behind it.” —JS

Mario Puzo, the author of “The Godfather,” died in 1999. Among his last words, according to a friend, were: “Thank God I won’t have to deal with the internet.” Sept. 11 was the first world event experienced communally online; it changed how technology threads through our lives. The next morning, everyone who didn’t have a cellphone bought one. As Joshua Cohen wrote in “The Book of Numbers,” “Suddenly, to lose touch was to die.” Luddite semi-holdouts like Shirley Hazzard (“the audible nightmare of the cellphone”), Stephen King (who wrote a novel about zombies set loose by bad cell signals), Jonathan Lethem and some of the characters in Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections,” who worried that cellphones were vulgar, fell by the wayside. Crime novelists were affected: It became harder to get people alone. A new kind of anomie was detected and appraised. In “Motherhood,” Sheila Heti described “the empty-internet feeling inside me.” Jennifer Egan, in “A Visit From the Goon Squad,” noted how “everybody sounds stoned, because they’re emailing people the whole time they’re talking to you.” Yet there were new forms of connection, too. In Joseph O’Neill’s “Netherland,” a father who’d had his son taken from him hovers over his son’s house nightly, “flying on Google’s satellite function,” searching the “depthless” pixels for anything, from thousands of miles away, he can cling to. It’s unbearably moving. —DG

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