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March 14, 2005

Fragments Shored Against Our Ruins

by Ron Hogan

So I've been hanging on to that NYT article from last week about how the "literary" writers are "finally" dealing with 9/11, after several years in which the tragic events have already been considered and turned over in "a handful of mysteries, spy novels and other works of mass-market fiction." You can practically hear the sniff, though, as the article goes on to say, "[O]nly now are books being published that some literary critics are saying take the substantial risks needed to give them staying power." One such critic, Columbia professor James Shapiro, observes, "A novelist has to sustain a story that feels right to people who actually lived through the event, who have a sense of what really happened. It has to be more than just a recounting of the event."

This is an interesting standard for literary quality, although I suspect a highly limiting one. After all, my experience of 9/11, which involved not only trying to figure out what the hell was going on in Manhattan but worrying about family members who'd been on a American Airlines jet that flew out of Logan within minutes of Flight 11, is going to be different from that of somebody who actually had a loved one in the Towers, which will be different from that of somebody in the Pentagon, which will be different from... You see my point here. There is no "right version" of 9/11 (although conspiracy theorists are coming up with any number of "wrong" ones). Some of the "literary" novels that treat the subject head on may be quite good; it's hard to imagine, for example, that Reynolds Price is going to do anything less than his usual high-quality work in The Good Priest's Son. At the same time, it's hard to see the "substantial risks" in the barebones description of story about "an art conservator whose flight back to the United States is diverted to Nova Scotia on the morning of September 11, while his apartment in Lower Manhattan is blasted with debris." Of course, I freely admit this may be a problem with trying to condense a novel into a sentence, and I look forward to reading the novel itself, just as I look forward to reading Jonathan Safran Foer and Ian McEwan.

But what got me thinking about that Times piece intently enough to finally say something about it was a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article about the social relevance of mysteries, which may have come to mean more since 9/11 because, as sociologist William Edwards puts it, "the crime novel reminds us of our vulnerabilities in an uncertain world." Actually, the genre isn't confining its social commentary to life after terrorism but, as Sarah Weinman points out to the reporter, deals regularly with "differences of class, family structure and social imbalance." And it's hard, in reading the best of these writers... I can understand why critics wouldn't put the gung-ho counterespionage wish fulfillments on the same pedestal, but I wouldn't have any problem recommending mystery writer Jim Fusilli and his second novel, A Well-Known Secret, to anybody wanting to try to understand what it felt like to live in New York City in the months immediately following the terrorist attacks; the attacks aren't the main story, but they dominate the atmosphere in a way that they did for all of us in late 2001 and early 2002, no matter what our stories were.

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