Wednesday, September 11, 2013

I'm Not Ready For 9/11 Fiction: On Putting Down EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE

I meant to start Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close today. You know, use a 9/11 novel to begin processing another year post-9/11. But I'm not ready.

I'm confused by my own reluctance to read 9/11 fiction. It's been 12 years- I didn't lose anyone in the attacks, I wasn't in New York or Pennsylvania. I grew up in Virginia Beach, 2 hours from the Pentagon and 20 minutes from the country's largest naval base. My city, like most military towns in America, went into lockdown. I was a junior in high school in my chemistry class when I heard what happened and, of course, we all spent the rest of the day watching the news in our classes.

But it was the first huge tragedy I had ever experienced. I went into the day a typical smart-ass but generally hopeful-about-humanity teenager, and left my school building coated in a cynicism I haven't shaken since. Some people identify their transition from childhood into being an adult pre-graduation/post-graduation, or pre-first job/post-first job. I divide mine walking-into-school-12-years-ago/walking-out-of-school-12-years-ago, as I'm sure many millennials do, and maybe that's the place I don't want to re-visit. The place where I learned the truth of what the world is, where I became harder and more defiant than I had been the night before.

I missed reading Amy Waldman's buzz-tastic The Submission because I wasn't ready to re-visit the TV screen in my head, all that news coverage we watched on a loop at school that day. When I pulled Safran Foer's novel off my shelf today, thinking that enough time had passed, it only took looking at the cover to know that I was wrong. I feel silly, almost, since I wasn't personally touched by the attack in a tangible way: I had no funerals to attend or rubble to clear. But now I have small children and instead of thinking about my own once-boiling, now-latent anger at the events of 12 years ago, I think about losing them in a situation I can't control, or them losing me. I think about how I've never promised them that I'll always be there, that I'm the type of mother who doesn't make those promises, and why that is. I think about them getting harder and more defiant than they should.

I believe in fiction. I believe all the corny bumper-sticker platitudes that bookish people say about literature: that it is truer than truth, that it is one of the most important lenses through which humanity processes itself, that it shapes and upholds and assesses culture. But in this thing, in just this one thing, I'm not ready for truer than true, I don't want to process the lesson, I don't want to assess.

So I'm putting Extremely Loud back on the shelf for another year, maybe for when my kids are older and we're not a nation contemplating another war. Perhaps it's cowardly of me to shy away from reading a book because I know it will make me face a complicated knot of thoughts about myself and my country and my family. But there is another thing I learned on 9/11: the truth of the world is that it is diamond-hard and diamond-cold, so (to quote Vonnegut) "God damn it, you've got to be kind." Even to yourself.


  1. I read ELaIC about two years ago, when my kids were one and three. I am the type that cries easily when it comes to TV and movies, but rarely when reading. I cried lots and lots while reading that book. I cried again when I watched the movie. About a year ago I was trying to tell someone about the book and I literally (literally!) couldn't finish sentences because I was getting so choked up. For me it wasn't as much as a brutal 9/11 book, but a brutal book about a child processing loss and keeping a soul-crushing secret. Ugh. I feel shitty just thinking about it again.

    That said, it was a remarkable novel and when you and your children are older then maybe it'll be time to take it off the shelf again. I'm a big believer in the idea that you read books when you're supposed to read them. It's obviously not the right time to read this one.

    Maybe my reaction to 9/11 was different than yours since I was 23 when it happened. I was already cynical about the world. I dunno. Things changed and they also stayed the same.

  2. My first tragedy was when Challenger blew up. I was a freshmna in high school then. While I can still see the video feed from that day in my head if I close my eyes, it pales in comparison to 9/11.

    I've read at least one book that at least indirectly relates to 9/11, The Emporer's Children. I confess that this book bored me so much that I anticipated 9/11 showing up just so that something would happen. There may have been others, but I can't think of any off the top of my head. While I wouldn't necessarily pick a book up because it deals with those events, I have a much easier time with 9/11 in fiction than I do on television. Last year Danny was watching a documentary about that day and I ended up leaving the house because I could not stand watching people jump out of those buildings one more time. I think it may always be too soon to return to the events of that day for me. I experienced it from a distance, but I'll never forget the fear and anger. I don't need to be reminded.

    Thanks for this post today. I struggled with leaving my blog silent. In the end, I posted a review like it was any other day. I appreciate you taking the time to write about 9/11 and your reading life. This was the perfect post for the day.

  3. This post and comments echoes a lot of my feelings. At the Newseum in D.C and they have exhibits on 9/11 journalism and when I visited,the group I went with was just fascinated by the whole exhibit and I just wanted to leave because it was all too much. Although they have this amazing display that has all the front page of every major national and international newspaper from 9/12 lined up side by side.

    I just happened to read the YA book Love is The Higher Law by David Levithan a few weeks ago and I think it is a really great book about 9/11. The book focuses less so on the tragedy and more on how people coped immediately after and the feeling of kinship that was going through New York at the time. The story follows 3 NYC young adults who experience they day differently and how their lives intermingle because of the events.

  4. I have the same type of visceral memory about 9/11 that you do. I was a sophomore in high school, and I know that day separates the me before and the me after in a similar way. I read ELAIC a few years ago and thought it was cathartic, but I couldn't get past the first few pages of The Submission because it was too much for me. It's interesting to think about how different those reactions were, but I'm still not sure why. I don't think it makes sense to read a book like that on until you feel ready. You'll read it when the time is right (if that time ever comes).

    I just did a quick search back through my blog archives and found my review of The Leftovers by Tom Perotta, which at the time felt like a novel about September 11 that I wanted to read (even if the connection to September 11 is one that I may just have made up based on some of the themes and ideas that Perotta was exploring).

    1. I absolutely agree that THE LEFTOVERS was 9/11-ish, even just in its dealing with grief and sudden loss, looking back on it. I think I spent so much of that book being irritated with the characters that I didn't pick up on it.

  5. Great post. I'm sorry that you'll be missing out on the book, because it really is great, but I understand. I didn't lose anyone either but I could see the smoke in the sky at the end of the street I grew up on. I'm just the kind of person that needs to face my demons head on. (This is also why I have to watch them give me shots and slip the giant needle in to take blood.)

  6. Thanks for posting that. I appreciate your honesty, your transparency. I didn't lose anyone either and it didn't happen anywhere near me, but we all lost something that day. Maybe we're more fearful about boarding a plane, maybe we don't trust as easily, maybe we have to fight our impulse to judge an entire race by the actions of a few people, but 9/11 made us all different. Some shattered people will grieve their losses for the rest of their lives, some will recover and move on; it's different for each person and that's ok. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's ok if you never feel ready to read the book. It's not important. What is important is that we be brave enough to keep doing good in a world where it often doesn't seem to matter.

  7. Thoughtful post, beautiful writing. Going to go away and think about it for a while.

  8. I was meant to meet the PM when the twin towers were struck, I can remember the event vividly, it was at the labour party conference and I was playing the steel pans. It was one of those moments where my world changed.

    I don't think it is cowardly not to want to read about this subject at all. It's like having to discuss a painful moment in life, sometimes it easier to survive without confronting those difficult feelings.

  9. I completely's is SUCH A GOOD BOOK! I loved this book!!!!!!

  10. Being kind to yourself is a sure sign of maturity, I find. I'm just starting to try to apply that kindness to myself .. and I'm a very old woman compared to you. I'm so glad I've read your post.

  11. Excellent post. The only 9/11 book I've read was DeLillo's Falling Man, but I didn't find it to be an overly emotional book. I think that had more to do with DeLillo's detached writing style, though, because I usually turn into a face fountain when I read anything about 9/11.

  12. What an open and honest post. I have many of the same feelings toward 9/11 as you do, though I'm a little older (was at my first post-university job at the time), was hundreds of kilometers away from any real danger and I'm not even American. There was something really psychological about that day and it has effected (and affected) at least two generations of North Americans in all sorts of subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

    I have yet to encounter any 9/11 fiction but I wonder whether or not I will experience something similar.

  13. I'm with you...I haven't watched a 9/11 movie or read a 9/11 book. And, like you, I don't have any personal connection to the tragedy, other than being a human being who also happens to be American. My daughter was seven on that day, and as a result I think she will have missed some of the loss of innocence you describe. I was 30, and had known for a long time that the world was not the nice place I used to hope, but that day...that day, what struck me most was the juxtaposition of the beautiful fall day and death, of the bright smiling faces of my 3rd graders who had no idea what was happening versus the awful pictures in my head. I just can't...not yet, maybe not ever...