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 105.

    Is there a novel that 'defines' 9/11?Depends what you are looking for?
    If you want truth then find the truth at or search on relevant search engines for Alex Jones or David Ray Griffin.These guys have done their home work,apart from the conspiracy theorists. The most recent shocking news,is that ALL the first responders to 9/11 have been EXCLUDED from the 10th anniversary ceremony!

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    The most imaginative work of fiction about the whole event is called Loose Change 9/11.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    For me, the novel that truly captures 9/11 is Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn's 102 Minutes: The Untold Story Of The Fight To Survive Inside The Twin Towers. It follows what happened from when the first tower was hit to when the second tower fell as experienced by the people inside. Paragraphs are marked with a time stamp so even as you read you know how close the end is. That made 9/11 more real to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    99 sindexter
    Ah yes "the truth"
    Wasn't that called pravda in a former time ? tell me, was "Star Trek" really shot on location ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    For me, a book that really captured what happened on 9/11 is Jim Dwyer and Kevin Flynn's novel 102 Minutes: The Untold Story Of The Fight To Survive Inside The Twin Towers. It follows the day from when the towers were first hit through to when they collapsed, each chapter being time stamped so that even as you are reading you always know that the inevitable is getting closer and you can't stop it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Shame an interesting literature article has been taken over by an argument on conspiracy theories! Can you not find somewhere else to play?
    Not specifically about 9/11 but certainly made me think about the aftermath was "When God Was A Rabbit" by Sarah Winman.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    Yawn go bk to sleep little lamb 'rhymer'

    for the rest of you that are willing to study the subject, instead of running scared at the first sign of a flaw in the official story check out

    I challenge anyone to watch the video of WTC7 collapsing and tell me a fire caused it !

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    I offer a new and more plausable conspiracy theory- - -
    The"mole men" burrowed from below, thei lluminati cast spells,
    the space aliens used ray guns and Josha marched around while
    blowing a trumpet. (The aeroplanes were mirages caused by the heat)

    Makes as much sense as the rest of the silly theories.

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    95 sindexter
    Your right M8 - your comment is not fiction, just total rubbish.
    2000 engineers andarchitects ?????
    How about 4 out of 5 dentists ?
    Check with the AAA or any engineering organisation
    and they will laugh in you face.

  • Comment number 96.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Here is something that isn't fiction nearly 2000 architects and engineers don't believe about the official story of 911 involving the WTC7's destruction. 911 was an inside job and this pathetic cover up will never work. You can't hide from the truth forever !

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    My recommendations for best 911 novel is The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud (2004). It is a reworking of War and Peace with 911 substituting for the battle of Borodino. Another contender is The Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Just watched the BBC 9/11 conspiracy programme. What an excellent programme. Clear and unbiased.What struck most was the look on that boys face when he when presented with the true account of the downed plane in the field.He look confused and totally lost. It clearly shows the true character of this people who continually seek to promote themselves over the truth. Without regard to the victims.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    91 dovidw
    nice bit out of context there.
    The next word is.. . however

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    If you can stand the truth, BBC"s own documentary "Conspiracy Files 9/11 WTC" gives some very interesting insights. In part 2, after about 5 mins., Richard Gage a Californian architect set up Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth with 390 members worldwide. He states that "no steel frame high rise building has ever collapsed due to fire and we have over 100 examples from which to choose."

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Oh bluesberry
    your thoughts about reality are fiction

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    The BBC asks if there is a novel that defines the 9/11 decade. I’d like to nominate "The 9/11 Commission Report" – gaps, unanswered questions, lack of cooperation among and between relevant authorities...
    And before you say this is non-fiction, read it.
    It is fiction, bad fiction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    There is another BBC site on 911 conspiracy theories.
    Hilarious. It was the illuminati or an attack by aliens from space
    are my favorites so far. As a bonus we also had one character who thinks the Beeb is run by jesuits and controlled by the vatican.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    83 sam

    I believe you.

  • Comment number 86.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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