Douthat on 9/11 Novels

Interesting article from Ross Douthat in the latest issue of National Review ($*). Douthat discuss three novels that tackle 9/11 or at least a post 9/11 world. Here is a taste of Douthat’s take on each:

– Ian McEwan’s Saturday:

Saturday has its aesthetic pleasures, written as it is with McEwan’s usual surgical skill. But neither the plot nor the characters justify the dexterity he lavishes on them, and the book never rises to meet the challenge of its moment, managing only to make a great and serious topic feel as small and unimportant as the book itself.

– Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close:

Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, on the other hand, is a Very Important Book – which we know because Foer has decided to take on not only 9/11, but the Dresden firebombings as well, and to cram the novel to bursting with an array of literary tricks and allusions. There are photographs and blank pages, typographical errors and deliberately illegible text, and a now-famous flip-book in which photographs of a falling man turn backward, so that he seems to rise to safety, or to heaven. The novel reads at times, too, like a compendium of other artists’ inventions: There are echoes of Herzog and Stuart Little; of Paul Auster’s chilly Manhattan fantasies and W. G. Sebald’s meditations on wartime destruction; of the wise-child profundity of Holden Caulfield and the hipster tweeness of Wes Anderson.

What there isn’t, unfortunately, is much of anything else.

– Frederic Beigbeder’s Windows on the World:

As a novel, Windows is hopeless: Its protagonist, the doomed Carthew, is a French intellectual’s notion of an American male, cobbled together from cultural cliches. His disaffection with suburbia is established by his affection for American Beauty; his sexual awakening summed up with references to Hustler and “cheerleaders with big tits.” Reminiscing about his Texas childhood, Carthew is careful to note – in case anyone in France ever doubted it – that “every year, we consume about four tons of crude oil,” and “there are a couple executions every week in my state.”

But once you accept that the book is less a work of fiction than a rambling patchwork of reflections, Windows on the World becomes intermittently interesting, akin to chatting about 9/11 over drinks (quite a few of them, probably) with an undisciplined but sometimes penetrating intelligence.

Interestingly, Douthat finds an older McEwan novel, the 1997 novel Enduring Love, better than any of the above:

This story, spare and polished and one of McEwan’s best, speaks more to the post-9/11 world than any novel written since – to the terrorist love affair with Western decadence; to the strange mixture of missionary zeal and murderous rage that spurs jihad; and above all to the dazed and fatal incomprehension of materialist man (as Beigbeder puts it, speaking of himself, “just a nihilist who doesn’t want to die”) in the face of an assault both physical and metaphysical.

From such strange collisions is history made – and great art as well, if we are fortunate. But not by this crop of novelists, or at least not yet.

*This is my new way of indicating that the article requires a subscription. I stole it from Micky Kaus.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).