I agree with so much of what you say—about the way that DeLillo was uniquely prepared to write a novel about 9/11 but also perhaps uniquely hamstrung—that I’m going to skip straight to the questions you raise at the end. The first: Is there something odd—even crass—about writing beautifully about the horrors of Sept. 11?
The argument that you can’t aestheticize horrific events always makes me slightly impatient. Everything we do when we relive a trauma or tell a story—and do you remember how often people engaged in the “where were you when” conversation in the months after Sept. 11?—is a version of bringing artifice and narrative to bear on “what really occurred.” The problem, I think, is when language functions merely as a decorative carapace (as it did, perhaps, in John Updike’s short essay in The New Yorker about watching the towers fall). I don’t ever find that to be the case in the descriptions in Falling Man. Even the “self-consciously lovely” phrases you single out—”bright day gone”—seem to me to have a visceral elegiac quality and, in this case, a monosyllabic bruteness. It’s not poeticized, even if it is pretty.
But I wonder what you, and other readers, thought of the (to my ear) powerful final pages of the book, which detail the last minutes aboard the plane that hit the North Tower. There, DeLillo brings us into Hammad’s point of view—allowing us access to a mental world most of us find unimaginable (and possibly even reprehensible). Yet DeLillo writes persuasively about it—maybe even beautifully. Here, Hammad is sitting with his back to the cockpit, bleeding from a wound in his shoulder, trying to steady himself for what is to about to come:
…….He didn’t know how he’d been cut. He’d been cut by one of his brothers, how else, accidentally, in the struggle, and he welcomed the blood but not the pain, which was becoming hard to bear. …
…….Recite the sacred words.
…….Pull your clothes tightly about you.
…….Fix your gaze.
…….Carry your soul in your hand.
…….He believed he could see straight into the towers even though his back was to them. He didn’t know the aircraft’s location but believed he could see straight out the back of his head and through the steel and aluminum of the aircraft and into the long silhouettes, the shapes, the forms, the figures coming closer, the material things. …
…….There is nothing between you and eternal life in the seconds to come.
This piece of writing invites us to identify with the spiritual quest of the hijackers—a bold move, and one that cuts through many of the pieties surrounding 9/11 (including the idea that there was something nihilistic about the event itself; this is not a nihilistic passage). Yet if you take the novel in its entirety, it seems to me it makes a clear attempt to describe the difference between the hijackers and those around them.
Perhaps the boldest element of DeLillo’s Falling Man is its attempt to talk about God and the appeal of faith from a multiplicity of vantage points. As you rightly point out, DeLillo is not merely taking what I called the “conventional” approach to writing about 9/11, since he abandons the intricacies of Lianne and Keith’s domestic negotiations in order to document what we might call their twin spiritual quests—quests that, crucially, take place in the absence of the other. Keith’s quest takes the form of an obsession with poker—and even with the physical-therapy exercises he does over and over, like reciting a rosary. For Lianne, the quest is more conventional (and perhaps more unusual for DeLillo). She finds herself contemplating the sources of life. “Human existence had to have a deeper source than our own dank fluids,” she recalls her father telling her. In search of faith, she considers reading the Quran, as some of her friends are doing. Though she “had her doubts,” she begins to attend church. Interspersed with the description of her search is the refrain This Book is not to be doubted—a line from the Quran.At times, she almost seems to envy the 9/11 attackers their spiritual certainty.
But I’m not sure that the book as a whole does (though at first I thought it did). In fact, for DeLillo, that certainty may ultimately contain a kind of impoverishment, a desire to deny the confusion of the real. Consider this description of the hijackers: “They felt the magnetic effect of plot. Plot drew them together more tightly than ever. Plot closed the world to the slenderest line of sight, where everything comes to a point. There was the claim of fate, that they were made for this.” In fact, you could say that it’s the very plotlessness of Keith’s and Lianne’s spiritual quests that distinguishes them from the quests (and actions) of Hammad and Amir. And I think this critique of the linearity of terrorism extends to the book itself; when DeLillo circles around to 9/11 in the final pages, it is in part to suggest that the humanist response to this event demands that we resist succumbing to a tidy narrative about redemptive healing or self-understanding. We are, instead, caught in a cycle of history that hasn’t let us go yet and is a little like a dream to us still. And perhaps that’s why the issue of aestheticized language never seemed to me to be a problem: He breaks the event open, rather than smoothing it out.
Finally, on to your question about why novelists write about 9/11—whether it’s merely because it’s a literary Mount Everest or because they think the novel is the form that truly could help us make sense of that day and its aftermath. I guess it seems to me to be both. It’s not surprising that people would write about 9/11—it is, after all, the event that has dictated so much of what has happened in American life since. And even now, it remains a stark dividing line, a deeply disorienting fissure leaving us with a profoundly unsettled new relation between public and private, past and present and future, America and the world. Just the sorts of things we hope fiction can help us make sense of.
What is perhaps surprising is that so many writers trying to deal with the day’s repercussions choose to frame them in a private context invaded by public horror, rather than the large-scale social novel. There has, as yet, been no great “post-9/11 novel”—a book that takes in not just the events of that day but also everything they have led to: Afghanistan, Guantanamo, the war in Iraq, FISA and wiretapping, governmental authoritarianism and divisive domestic politics, and so on. Perhaps that’s because the event itself was so cataclysmic in itself, and so destabilizing (because it was an attack on us at home), that it continues to overshadow all that has followed it, which certainly could not be said about the events that started the First or Second World Wars—even Pearl Harbor.
So much to say, so little time. A question: Is it possible that some 9/11 novels (or post-9/11 novels) deal with its shock wave more elliptically—and if so, would you count Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road among them?