Is there a novel that defines the 9/11 decade?

Statue in the rubble of the WTC

Many books have been written about 9/11 but is there one that embodies the era that the attacks inaugurated?

When Changez, the Pakistani hero of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, watches the Twin Towers come crumbling down, he smiles.

Little Oskar Schell, the nine-year-old at the centre of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, grapples with his father's death by creating a flip-book - 15 blurry stills, arranged in reverse order, of a man falling to his death from the World Trade Center. When he flicks through the pages, the flailing figure is restored to the top of the building - safe.

Five examples of 9/11 fiction

Book covers
  • The Submission by Amy Waldman - A jury in charge of choosing a ground zero-like memorial selects a design that turns out to have been created by a Muslim-American architect
  • Open City by Teju Cole - A dejected Nigerian-German psychiatrist wanders the streets of post-9/11 New York
  • Falling Man by Don DeLillo - A lawyer who survives the attack on the World Trade Center struggles to understand what has happened
  • Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer - A nine-year-old boy whose father died in the attacks finds a strange object in his father's cupboard
  • Netherland by Joseph O'Neill - A Dutchman living in New York after 9/11 takes up cricket and connects with the city's immigrant underclass

In Open City, writer Teju Cole describes Colonel Tassin - a (real) 19th Century figure - who kept count of the number of birds killed by flying into the Statue of Liberty, as many as 1,400 a night. The image is a reminder of another killing by collision, also in New York, two centuries later.

These are three books that have attempted to hew fiction from the fact of 9/11. According to Bowker's Books in Print database, which tracks print and e-books published and distributed in the United States, 164 such works have been written so far - they either directly address the event or use it as a peg to hang greater literary concerns about love, life and loss.

According to Erica Wagner, Literary Editor of The Times, such epoch-making events have traditionally proven to be great canvasses for the imagination.

"Everyone wonders: what if it had been me? What would I have done? It is the job of the novelist to think that through," she says.

Tragedy has often led to an outpouring of art. The Spanish Civil War spawned Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls; the bombing of Dresden, gave rise to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughter-House Five. The single bloodiest day in the history of human warfare, the Battle of Borodino in 1812, features in Tolstoy's magnum opus War and Peace.

The 9/11 attacks shook the world and the way we think about it. It makes sense for novelists to feature it in their works. But in the 10 years since, has there been one novel that has seized the imagination more than any other - and that stands out as the story of our times?


The search, it seems, is still on. It is tempting, at the turn of the decade, to hand out such accolades - but as an impetus for the imagination, says Wagner, such events don't come with a sell-by date.

"Ten years is not a long time from the standpoint of fiction," she says.

Books published on 9/11

"If you look at Dickens's novels, for instance, they appear to be contemporary to his times. But often he was writing about his childhood - that in itself is a distance of about 40 or so years."

War and Peace appeared more than 50 years after Napoleon invaded Russia. Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels, a fictional representation of the Battle of Gettysburg, took 120 years to arrive. By contrast, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was written in 1961 - just 15 years after the end of World War II.

According to John Sutherland, Professor of Modern English Literature at University College London, there is a "hand-in-glove" relationship between fiction and current events but "it is not like ping-pong - fiction doesn't necessarily provide a direct response".


It is possible, he says, that the novel which comes to define the 9/11 era may have nothing to do with the event itself - at least in terms of plot.

The imagination of disaster

For those who like to look at the very big picture in literature, socio-historical cataclysm has a particular interest. There are few great novels, for example, during great wars - they all have a flavour of what the French call arriere pensee, afterthought. Could Tolstoy have written War and Peace during the Napoleonic War?

What is most interesting about reverberation in fiction, however, is its obliqueness. It is like one billiard ball being hit by another - the direction is, typically, unpredictable, but clearly consequential.

The Vietnam debacle and the 1974 oil shock triggered a spate of disaster novels and films. They were thematically rooted in recent events, but unpredictably imaginative.

The horror of 9/11 is not something to be academic about. But one can feel the impact, remotely and symptomatically - but rarely directly - everywhere in works of the imagination produced after the event.

John Sutherland, Lord Northcliffe Professor Emeritus, University College London

"When the towers first collapsed, a book that shot to the top of the bestseller list was The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold [narrated from heaven by a murdered child] - signifying, perhaps, a general fascination with trauma."

Nostradamus, he says, regained popularity for similar reasons - as people began thinking about the end of the world.

Teju Cole, author of Open City, says his 9/11 novel is Elizabeth Costello by J M Coetzee - although it has nothing to do with 9/11 at all.

"It takes up the question of whether there are limits to what can be depicted of human suffering. In the US, we heard a lot about 9/11 but saw very little of it - little of the actual human damage of that day and little of the human damage that came out of the 9/11 wars," he says.

"Who decides what others may see? Even photographs of soldiers' flag-draped caskets were banned."

According to Mohsin Hamid, author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the very attempt to find definitive novels - works that define or specify precisely - is misguided.

"Events should have as many definitions as the number of people who experience them," he says.

When Japanese forces blitzed Pearl Harbour on the morning of 7 December 1941, this was not merely an event that forced the United States to officially enter World War II, he argues.

"Pearl Harbour was many other things also: it was a kiss, it was a swim in a lake, it was a fisherman wondering what the commotion was, it was a flock of birds taking flight."

It is natural for 9/11 to reverberate in fiction, he says.

But if what we want are answers and straitjacket definitions - "history in a hurry" - then are we looking in the right place?

"Fiction is a long, rambling encounter with many things," he says. "Fiction re-complicates what politicians wish to oversimplify."



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  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    @23 well you've proved my point. Did I say firefighters/1st reponse crews? No. I said Expert constrution workers and demolition men who job it was to find out why the towers collasped. The guys who pieced together the structures bit by bit to see what failed before any evidenced was shipped anywhere. Filmed and photographed and on file. Go speak to the companies involved. Don't take my word for it

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    The real conspiracy would seem to be how much money those who promote these half baked conspiracy theories have made via these books and videos out of gullible people.I just wonder how many of them have links with cultist,survialists both rightwing and leftwing radicals.Of course the BBC at this moment are on the hotline to the Pentagon passing on your users details?But you already know that

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    @22, construction workers didnt find any explosive evidence?? really? u mean the firefightrs/1st responders right? well if NIST didnt even search for such evidence, why would they then find any? of course, the steel was instantly shipped abroad, the steel girders at the base seemed to have been sliced with cutter charges, and people heard explosions in the basement before any plane hit! explain??

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    @18 'the user is afraid to discuss inconvenient or embarrassing facts' Would these include the fact that none of the construction workers/demolition experts tasked with clearing ground zero found any trace of either explosives or demolition related materials in any of the collasped buildings.Conspiracy logic seems to deny any actual facts which prove them wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I am sick of the endless articles about "9/11"on the BBC. It's a sad symbol of American cultural imperialism that the BBC and western media are still so fixated by it. What about the 100,000 (at the very least) Iraqis that were killed as the result of the unjustified American invasion of Iraq as misplaced revenge for the 9/11 attacks? I suppose they are not as important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    My personal favourity books (a trilogy) about the human results of 9/11 are by Karen Kingsbury, "'One Tuesday Morning', 'Beyond Tuesday Morning' 'Every Now and Then' (AKA) 'Remember Tuesday Morning'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    @17, sounds like you are very worried about the truth about 9/11 getting out, you might do better by actually explaining away all the oddities and impossible physics of 9/11 no? the terms 'crackpot/ tin foil hat wearing...', nutters, crazed conspiracy theorists, etc, are usually only used by ppl in the counter intel, and theres none of those here is there?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    @14 The term 'normal sane people' is like the term 'crackpot' or even 'terrorist' - it is a subjective term used to validate one's own position or undermine one's enemies' without having to engage in a logical, evidence-based argument. It's often a sign that the user is afraid to discuss inconvenient or embarrassing facts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Yep there is the proof below. How sad it must be to live ones life in an endless Scooby-Do Mystery.Pulling off the masks till until it comforms to your own personal bogyman of the moment then sticking on it.If it's not the Government,Oil Companies,or Media, it's the Commies, Zionist or NWO.Who are all puppets of our Aliens Masters.Carnut get your gun and hide under the bed their coming!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    The official explanations of the 9/11 attacks are obviously the greatest works of fiction in the history of mankind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    @14, if u could read again, i do not believe the crazy conspiracy theory at all, the one about the crazed saudis armed with cutlery, not even the FBI does, or OBL would have been named in their 10 most wanted, if you believe the consp theory then good for you, but i suggest you research 9/11 properly, its the reason we went to war after all! thanks

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    carnut1980....... Oh dear I thought this was an intelligent article about Books possibly inspired or inspiring regarding 9/11.
    It doesn't deserve reducing to a war between conspiracy theorists and normal sane people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Obviously "Grapes of Wrath" then
    "Stranger in a Strange Land".
    Nothing really since then........

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Strangely enough, and for reasons that are eternal, it seems that Tolstoy's third novel, "Resurrection", captured the spirit of the decade far better than any contemporary work. Fortunately,somebody at Radio 4's Classic Serial apparently thought so too, or else I would probably have never come across it.

    Thanks, Auntie!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Jay McInerney's 'The Good Life' should be mentioned in all of these such articles. It sets out the impact of 9/11 through a beautifully crafted set of inter-weaving stories on a number of individual's lives, rather through than any sweeping generalisations or knee-jerk theorising. It doesn't seek to apportion blame, and is all the more powerful for it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Probably a bad idea to allow comments on a piece about the 11th September attacks. It's almost inevitable that there will be some sort of argument about who is responsible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    'Let the Great World Spin' by Colum McCann is a seriously good work of 9/11 fiction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    10 years on and we now know 9/11 wasnt done by crazed muslims capable of getting around NORAD, and bringing the supposedly most powerful nation to its knees, its a shame the MMS will continue to peddle this lie! False flag terrorism happens and this was exactly what 9/11 was, i cant even find a clear shot of an airliner used that day, andd we are to believe 4 were used? impossible!

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    @1, i agree, theres a conspiracy theory attached to 9/11, and its truly ridiculous how some ppl can actually buy it, i mean...19 angry saudis armed with boxcutters turn 3 buildings to dust, controlled by a madman whos been dead since 2001, controlling them, making them hate our freedoms, arming them with sheer wit and fireproof IDs, making whole planes disappear, put options, molten steel, ETC...

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Hate to be pedantic but the first day of the Battle of the Somme (est dead and wounded on both sides 100,000+) saw higher causalites than Borodino, (est 70,000) as did the Battle Of Chalons (est dead alone 165,000) to name but two.


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