Critic’s Notebook: In pursuit of the great 9/11 book

On March 11, 2002 — the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — I found myself at two very different commemorating events. First was an open-air memorial service in Manhattan’s Battery Park for those killed when the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell. There were the usual speeches, by then-New York Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but the moving part of the ceremony came at 8:46 a.m., the exact time the first plane had slammed into the north tower: a moment of silence followed by the tolling of a small brass bell. It was as if, in that instant, all of us in attendance allowed ourselves to understand the inability of language to console us in the face of a tragedy so dislocating and vast. All the rhetoric faded, and we were left with a feeling of loss that was unutterable, in the sense that it defied words.

The second came a few hours later, at a symposium on the role of literature in a post-9/11 world. In retrospect, the idea seems ridiculous: How could we say anything definitive, six months afterward, about a cultural terrain that was then in the earliest stages of re-forming, let alone what it might suggest for literature? Yet there we were, listening as novelists and essayists and critics debated whether stories could be relevant anymore. For one, the problem was that literature had become inadequate in the face of history, while for another, it was a matter of timing: How to reflect a moment in which we could no longer say what tomorrow, or even this afternoon, might bring when it might take a year or more to see a book into print? Such sentiments reminded me of what I’d felt in Battery Park — the discomforting sensation that, in the new world we had now come to occupy, language, writing, narrative, might never again be enough.

Ten years later, we know this is not what has come about. Whatever else the legacy of Sept. 11 might be, its effect on literature appears, at best, diffuse. Yes, there was a time, in the middle of the decade, when nearly every work of fiction seemed to contain an echo of the tragedy, from the fiercely fragmented vision of Deborah Eisenberg’s “Twilight of the Superheroes” to the impending doom with which Paul Auster ends “The Brooklyn Follies.” And yes, the debate over literature’s relevance lingered; in 2005, V.S. Naipaul told the New York Times that “if you spend your life just writing fiction, you are going to falsify your material.”

Where, though, is the transformative book about Sept. 11, the one that, like Erich Maria Remarque’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” or Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” evokes its emotional resonance? O’Brien calls this “story-truth,” which he distinguishes from “happening-truth”: “I want you to feel what I felt,” he writes. And: “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.” That’s what literature has traditionally provided — “the buzz of implication,” as E.M. Forster put it — yet for whatever reason (the scope of the event, its ambiguity and chaos) such implication has been, in most writing about Sept. 11, hard to find.


Or maybe I’m just looking in the wrong place. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been re-reading “The 9/11 Commission Report: The Attack from Planning to Aftermath” (W.W. Norton: 640 pp., $14.95 paper), which, in its calm, considered way, encompasses all the implications of the disaster, literary or otherwise. First published in 2004, the work of a bipartisan federal commission chaired by former New Jersey Gov. Thomas H. Kean and former Indiana Congressman Lee H. Hamilton, it has been reissued with a new afterword by the commission’s executive director, Philip Zelikow, and it’s stunning to encounter it again.

“The 9/11 Commission Report” opens with a vivid re-creation of the hijackings, then shifts into extended discussions of the rise of Osama bin Laden, the development of American counter-terrorism efforts, and the escalation of the conflict between Al Qaeda and the United States. Throughout, the commissioners pause to comment on threat assessments, failed initiatives and missed opportunities, including several aborted efforts to capture or kill Bin Laden in 1998 and 1999. After offering extensive context, the report returns to the events of Sept. 11, covering emergency and military responses and the need for greater flexibility in reacting to future risks. “We believe the 9/11 attacks revealed four kinds of failures,” the commissioners write: “in imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.”

Why does this work? It shouldn’t really; it’s a government report. Literature, we’re told, requires a point of view, a perspective, a way to encourage empathy: We must be able, in other words, to enter the experience and make it our own. Yet what “The 9/11 Commission Report” offers is a strategy for inhabiting an event as amorphous, as overwhelming as this one, an event that, with all the threads and tendrils of its devastation, repels the personal — even, I’d suspect, for those who were there. How does one even begin to tell this story? By pursuing the broadest possible point of view. In that sense, the mandate of the commission, “to prepare a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks,” is what enables the report to be so connective, by breaking down the terror of the moment into a story that shows us how the pieces fit.

Indeed, to read “The 9/11 Commission Report” is to read what is almost a classic narrative, with heroes (counter-terrorism expert Richard Clarke, for one, and the passengers of United 93, who prevented what may have been an attack on the White House or the Capitol) and villains, with overlapping plot lines and tragic flaws. There are missed connections, disastrous betrayals, ambition and arrogance and hubris on every side. Most important, there is an authority to the language, not only in regard to the story it is telling but also in the way that it is told. The report’s authors move with great deliberation through a sequence of events; they invoke history and trace the relationship between past and present; they eschew emotion in an area where, even now, emotion remains a prevailing filter. Still, by writing in the voice of the collective, they make the story everyone’s, reclaiming what our own fear once insisted might no longer be possible, restoring the power of language to make sense of the world.

In that regard, “The 9/11 Commission Report” may be as close as we’ve yet come to the great Sept. 11 novel, in the manner of O’Brien and Remarque. As for “happening-truth” and “story-truth,” that’s a more complicated conundrum, but it’s useful to remember that both Vietnam and the Great War involved elaborate, if contradictory, narratives, whereas Sept. 11 seemed to defy narrative altogether — just as it defied perspective because it was without prior context in our lives.

Perhaps this is why our sense of Sept. 11 as story has had largely to do with its aftermath: the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; the Patriot Act and the erosion of civil liberties: Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and enhanced interrogation, and what this means in terms of how we see ourselves. The implications are much clearer; we understand the narratives, or at least the stakes. That’s less true of Sept. 11, but if “The 9/11 Commission Report” has anything to tell us, it’s that here, too, narrative remains if not always consoling then essential — a victory of humanity over fear.