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After the tragedy, lives imagined

By Danielle Dreilinger
September 11, 2011

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After 9/11, the big question facing fiction writers involved how to write about a tragedy of this scale, with its massive destruction and loss of life, its unfathomable grief, and its political and cultural upheaval.

The answer was both obvious and not. In Sue Miller’s “The Lake Shore Limited,’’ bereaved playwright Billy “was sure she would never write about it. How could she? To write about it would be to claim it in some way, and she had no claim.’’ But, of course, she did. And so did Miller, as did others.

How? By employing the strategy of all fiction writers: reaching for the universal through the particulars, through specific tales of individual characters.

That’s not to say that all these writers told the same story in the same way. Some found it impossible to get the flaming towers out of their imaginations; for others only the shadows remained, silent but unmistakable.

■ Don DeLillo, “Falling Man’’ (2007): In retrospect 9/11 seems like a product of DeLillo’s imagination - a terrifying dystopic event. Protagonist Keith, who worked in the towers, tries to find solid ground as he keeps re-experiencing the horror, flailing between his ex-wife and a fellow survivor whose briefcase he accidentally took.

■ Deborah Eisenberg, “Twilight of the Superheroes’’ (2006): Aspiring architect Nathaniel moves to a spectacular Manhattan sublet with dreams of creative success. After 9/11, he struggles to make sense of it all. “When they’d moved in, it probably was the best view on the planet. Then, one morning, out of a clear blue sky, it became, for a while, probably the worst,’’ the narrator says. “But now it’s unclear what they are, in fact, looking at.’’

■ Julia Glass, “The Whole World Over’’ (2007): New York chef Greenie Duquette takes a job at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe - bringing her young son but leaving her downer husband behind. She falls in love with an environmentalist; the husband reinvigorates his life. But 9/11 brings them back together, showing Greenie what really matters. That’s one heck of a deus ex machina.

■ Ken Kalfus, “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country’’ (2006): Reconciliation after tragedy? Kalfus takes the opposite tack. On 9/11, warring soon-to-be-ex-spouses Joyce and Marshall Harriman are both devastated to hear the other has survived. In this dark comedy, the couple’s vicious divorce battle comes to mirror the violence and conflicts of the post-9/11 world.

Benjamin Kunkel, “Indecision’’ (2005): Perhaps every generation needs its confused slacker novel - as if to make the point, Michiko Kakutani reviewed this one in the voice of Holden Caulfield. Dwight (and the rest of society) can’t make life choices despite that - or because - he’s constantly reminded of “the eternal endingness of everything by Ground Zero down the street.’’ But he finds a way forward, gaining a belief in political efficacy and, of course, a girl.

■ Claire Messud, “The Emperor’s Children’’ (2006): Remember how shallow it all seemed right after the attacks: gossip and Agnès B. suits and pretending you’re not from small-town Michigan? Messud’s New York intelligentsia are busy having affairs and starting magazines and writing mean “cultural exposés’’ when 9/11 explodes their world. (Or does it?)

■ Sue Miller, “The Lake Shore Limited’’ (2010): Hard-nosed playwright Billy is wracked with guilt after her boyfriend, Gus, a naïve sweetheart she was planning to leave, is killed in one of the Boston planes used in the 9/11 attacks. A handful of years later, Billy debuts a drama about a coolly intellectual man whose wife may have been killed in a terrorist bombing of a Chicago subway in this exploration of life, art, and grief.

■ H.M. Naqvi, “Home Boy’’ (2009): Three hip, entirely modern, and thoroughly assimilated Pakistani-American “Metrostanis’’ love the good life and hate Al Qaeda as much as anyone in New York City. But when narrator Chuck gets caught in the new abnormal, he finally understands what his favorite rap singers mean when they talk about being treated like criminals just because they’re brown.

■ Joseph O’Neill, “Netherland’’ (2008): Hans, a Dutch equities analyst and amateur cricketer left by his wife and baby one month after the attacks, befriends Chuck Ramkissoon, a cheerful, maddening Trinidad-American schemer whose motto is “think fantastic’’ and who, we learn early on, is eventually found dead. At least one character in this look at contemporary immigrant life in America gets a happy ending: Hans’s wife reconsiders.

■ Nicholas Rinaldi, “Between Two Rivers (2004): Romanian immigrant Farro Fescu, an observant New York City concierge, has survived World War II, cancer, and the soap operas of fancy Echo Terrace, the Battery Park condominiums over which he runs herd. He feels connected to this building, which he sees as “an organism, feeding and growing, a life-form that moves and breathes’’ - and he stays with it amid sudden tragedy.

■ Jonathan Safran Foer, “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’’ (2005): Perhaps the ür-9/11 tale, told by an improbably precocious child whose father dies in the attacks. The book incorporates modish yet thematically appropriate postmodernist techniques such as doodlings, calculations, and that famed, creepy flipbook of a body falling back up. Love him or hate him, Safran Foer made a statement.

Danielle Dreilinger can be reached at djdreilinger@gmail .com.