The Chat Room

DeLillo, Literature, and 9/11

Ruth Franklin and Meghan O’Rourke trace the intersections of art and world-changing tragedies.

Slate literary editor Meghan O’Rourke and New Republic senior editor Ruth Franklin were on on Thursday, May 24, to examine Don DeLillo’s new book, Falling Man, and how writers and artists have reacted to world-changing events, including the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. An unedited transcript of their chat follows.

Meghan O’Rourke: Hello, and thanks to everyone for joining us for some discussion about fiction and art about 9/11 and its aftermath.

Springfield, Ill.: Does Falling Manseem more like an elaboration of the terrorist/cultural themes of Mao II, or the exploration of the inner life of characters involved in actual events (Libra)? Parts of both, I sense from your writings … but I find Libra to be one of of DeLillo’s best … Mao II, not so much.

Meghan O’Rourke: I’ll be curious to know what Ruth thinks, but for me the book is something of a mix of “Mao II” and “Libra.” It is a little less conspiratorial and paranoid than “Mao II,” but it is also tries to update some of the thinking that DeLillo did in “Mao II” about the role of terrorism in our media-saturated culture, and about the state of contemporary life in America. The novel expresses some interest in the inner lives Keith and Lianne, to use your phrase, but I think, as Ruth put it in our discussion, DeLillo is mostly interested in them as figures who can express some of his ideas about the search for purity in a confused world. In important ways, too, “Falling Man” is really not like either novel, too. It is perhaps even more fragmented than either “Libra” or “Mao II.”

Ruth Franklin: I agree with Meghan that “Falling Man” is a new direction for DeLillo entirely. Thematically, Meghan is right that DeLillo is updating “Mao II’s” approach to terrorism; but the new novel is almost strenuously unpolitical. It also has very little of the humor that characterized novels like “White Noise” and even “Cosmopolis.” The novel it’s most similar to, I think, is “Underworld”—it also has a fragmented structure and moves forwards and backwards in time, and is similarly somber in tone.


Night Fall: When I picked up Nelson DeMille’s book I knew it was about TWA 800 but had no idea where it was leading. When the Corey sets up the meeting for Tuesday morning at Windows on the World I was practically screaming “NO!” at the book. And then the way DeMille describes that beautiful, clear, cool, crisp early fall morning … it brought back a flood of feelings and emotions. I thought he did a great job of incorporating those events into his novel.

Ruth Franklin: Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with the Nelson DeMille book. But I find it interesting that, as you say, the visceral details of the morning of Sept. 11 are so important in all these novels. I have yet to read one that took any liberty in imagining the weather on that day, although there are small details that some novelists (including DeLillo) have altered. In DeLillo’s book, for instance, the characters watch a video of a plane striking the first tower, but I don’t remember there being such a video, precisely because the attack was a surprise.

_______________________ Ruth, you’re writing about the Holocaust, a well-tread but potentially touchy topic. How do you approach the subject in a fresh way? How much effort goes into avoiding offending?

Ruth Franklin: Well, you’re right that Holocaust literature is a very well-tread subject. I’m mainly interested in two areas. First, the way Holocaust survivors have negotiated the distinction between fiction and memoir in their writing; and second, the way readers approach the Holocaust as a fictional subject. I’m afraid I have managed to offend some people, perhaps mostly because I believe that fiction can be as useful and important as memoir when it comes to historical events like the Holocaust or 9/11. The fiction on 9/11 hasn’t quite borne me out yet in that regard, but I’m hopeful that it still will!

_______________________ A few films (World Trade Center, United 93) have tackled the events of Sept. 11 head-on, while others (Syriana, etc.) have come at the subject from the background. How much more difficult is the former? How much more impact can the former approach have?

Meghan O’Rourke: It’s a really interesting question. It would seem to me that each approach has its own set of difficulties, but instinctively, I’d said that the head-on approach Paul Greengrass took with United 93 in particular presents a more rigid set of problems to navigate. It is surely hard to convince viewers (and oneself, as a director) that there is something meaningful—and artistic—about reproducing a story that we know very well from television, newspaper accounts, and books like The 9/11 Commission report. Of course, United 93 was also juxtaposing factual material about what happened in the air traffic control centers with imagined material about what happened in the plane itself (we know only a few things about what took place). And that requires a lot of control to do well. Same thing with World Trade Center. Syriana, on the other hand, is much freer to invent, rather than reproduce and document—but that places a new kind of burden on figuring out (and producing) the story itself.


Horsham, Pa.: Ms. Franklin, what pieces of Holocaust fiction do you think are most valuable to the understanding of that event, and what gives them that quality? In your view, why have no pieces on 9/11 achieved this yet?

Ruth Franklin: Interesting question. Because time is short, I’ll just give a couple of examples. Primo Levi’s Survival at Auschwitz—a memoir that provides an almost absurd amount of information about the actual conditions in the camp, but simultaneously draws on literary tradition to contextualize the narrator’s experience. To pick a more recent book, W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz is the fictional story of a man who discovers that he has been haunted through his entire life by wartime experiences he hadn’t even fully remembered. It’s an amazing depiction of the profound resonances that historical events can carry into contemporary life, often without our even recognizing them.

As for why no fiction on 9/11 has yet achieved this—I think it’s too soon to tell whether they have or haven’t. I suspect Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel about 9/11, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, will be a book people turn to in future generations to try to understand that day, and DeLillo’s as well.

_______________________ One of the topics you’ve tackled in your back-and-forth has been the detachment exhibited in some of the post-9/11 literature. Given that some of the greatest writing to come out of World War II were first-person accounts (Night, Hiroshima) will this need to be overcome to produce a book that really gets to the heart of the attacks.

Ruth Franklin: Very interesting. I have yet to read a first-person literary account of 9/11 (certainly there were a lot of first-person journalistic accounts). I suspect that part of the reason is that it might seem redundant for an average person to write a memoir of 9/11 (rescue workers and others excepted). There isn’t really a need for “testimonials” when we have the 9/11 Commission Report! The first writers to write about the Holocaust—Primo Levi already in 1945, Wiesel just a few years after—were driven by the need to recount what wasn’t already general knowledge, but even they were self-conscious about possibly repeating facts that everyone already knew.

Meghan O’Rourke: I remember that I read a very powerful first-person essay written some months afterward by a young man who had been in the building; it was submitted to the magazine where I worked. I’m not sure it was ever published but it has stayed with me. But that, too, was nonfiction; it’s interesting that novelists haven’t tried to do this. There is one passage that tries to do some of this in the DeLillo—Florence, who is briefly Keith’s lover, describes descending the stairs in the tower. It’s quite interesting to see him try to inhabit that viewpoint, even in dialogue.

_______________________ What would each of you say are your favorite works of writing, film, art, etc. that address these sorts of world-changing events? What are some of the older examples?

Ruth Franklin:The Iliad! In all seriousness, this is what bothers me when people wonder if fiction about 9/11 is necessary. People have always been making art about world-historical tragedies—wars, plagues, famines … These works have always been crucial to helping people understand the problems of our own times: you can read Julius Caesar, for example, to get some bearing on the political corruption and scandals of this decade.

Meghan O’Rourke: Great question. There’s a lot of film about war that I find very powerful—from The Seven Samurai to Letters From Iwo Jima. In art, there’s Guernica; and a lot of Goya. (It’s funny, I tend to go to 20th century examples.) For books, I’d have to say the Iliad, too. Then there’s A Farewell to Arms. From Here to Eternity might be an interesting novel to reread now, since it’s all about the lead-up to war.


Washington: Hi guys. I read DeLillo’s short story in the New Yorker called “Still Life” back in April. I thought it was really great. Was “Still Life” an excerpt from The Falling Man? It seemed quite self-contained. Also, if the only of his novels that I’ve read is White Noise, where should I turn next?

Meghan O’Rourke: Hi there. DeLillo is one of those writers it can be hard to recommend; readers tend to vary in what they most like, I’ve found. For example, some DeLillo fans love White Noise and some like it the least. But I certainly think Libra, his book about Lee Harvey Oswald and JFK, would be a great place to go after White Noise. It’s not as long as Underworld, but it’s excellent. I love the first half of Mao II; it does get more and more fragmented as you go, but if you like the gnomic DeLillo, the one given to vague koans and mysterious pronouncements, you might find this book to be quite brilliant. New York Magazine has a useful summary of all the DeLillo novels up on its Web site: it divides them into several categories, including the necessary ones and the ones that maybe only diehard fans will want to read.

Ruth Franklin: “Still Life” was definitely an excerpt, or at least an adaptation, of “Falling Man.” Interesting that you found it self-contained. It didn’t include any of the parts of the novel that depict the terrorists, or another important subplot that Meghan and I also didn’t get to on Slate: the affair Keith has with another 9/11 survivor.

It asks a lot of the reader, but I definitely have to recommend Underworld. I prefer it to Libra for the fascinating way it’s structured and also just the sheer quality of the language. Falling Man is more terse than DeLillo usually is, and doesn’t give much of a sense of the poetry of his language. Also, the set-pieces in this book—the reconstruction of the famous baseball game, or a huge art installation in the desert—really showcase his imagination.


New York: Do we really need an expansive 9/11 novel that tackles Guantanamo and Iraq as well? Do we want a post-9/11 Middlemarch? As you say in your discussion, not enough time has passed for us to fully digest what has happened and what it means. It seems to me the most affecting 9/11 narratives are not the ones that put that day right in the author’s crosshairs, but the narratives that quietly acknowledge how the minutiae of everyday life has changed. On a recent episode of 30 Rock, Tina Fey and her boyfriend are entering the subway, when the police ask to search their bags. When the cops get too chatty about the contents of her purse, she rolls her eyes and says, “forget the subway, let’s just walk.” The scene is slight and funny, but made my skin crawl more than anything else I’ve seen and read since 9/11 precisely because of how non-chalant it was about acknowledging the threat of terrorism and the conflation of the personal and political in the past six years.

Meghan O’Rourke: I think there’s room for many different kinds of approaches—and what I was trying to get at in talking about the “post 9/11 novel” was that a novel that dealt with the day’s after-effects (Guantanamo, etc) need not be one that put the day itself in its “cross-hairs.” I absolutely agree that some of the most striking post-9/11 TV, movies, and books I’ve read contain small but piercing moments like the one you describe from 30 Rock. Those moments of nonchalance are quite telling, absolutely. Part of what I want to see, in such an expansive novel, would have to do with how people are dealing with these after-effects, some shadowy, some not. As for the question of digesting, Willa Cather wrote “One of Ours” only four years after the First World War, I think; admittedly it’s not a great Cather novel, but it’s one I’m glad exists.

Ruth Franklin: I feel compelled here to bring up Suite Francaise, a book that I have problems with but does succeed amazingly well at depicting the changing landscape of France during World War II in something close to real time.

One problem with moments like the one you describe from 30 Rock is that the rules we live under change so quickly. Ten years from now, will anyone still remember that we couldn’t take fluids on airplanes, or that our bags were constantly searched? Will it still matter? By then, the conflation of the personal and the political could well look extremely different.


Bar Harbor, Maine: Meghan—how are the questions raised by 9/11 self-evident? Are the (largely academic) debates about late modernity, spectacle, the dissolution of identity—to touch on just a few nodes of contemporary academic discourse—really “self-evident” to a moderately well-informed but casual reader of DeLillo? Did 9/11 do its work in displacing Western dominance, or has it only reinscribed this dominance in the West’s singular fetish for it? The shoring up of national identity in the wake of 9/11 leads me to believe that the more nuanced questions are precisely not self-evident, that a radical reappraisal of our times has not been accomplished, at least in the popular realm of the novel, and that DeLillo’s work—which I am not entirely familiar with, beyond White Noise and Mao II—addresses these questions on grounds where they have not, but need to be, addressed.

Meghan O’Rourke: Thanks for your question. I’m afraid the sentence you’re referring to in the first entry must have been a little unclear. What I said was that the “challenges” presented in writing a 9/11 are self-evident—by which I meant the formal challenges of writing a 9/11 novel (as opposed to, say, a World War II novel). Even that assertion may be spurious! But God knows, I didn’t mean that the “questions raised” by that day are self-evident, for all the excellent reasons you raise. These are the big questions that I talk about wishing a novelist would get into in my second entry.


Great Books, Va.: I loved, loved, a couple of novels that are about 9/11, explicitly and somewhat obliquely. Those novels are Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, which was wonderfully cathartic, and Ian McEwen’s Saturday, which is a lean, mean look at vengeance vs. diplomacy, and how we should react when a violent act is committed against us. As wonderful as the same author’s Atonement is—and it’s a favorite of people love Novels with a capital “N”—give me Saturday any day.

Ruth Franklin: I’m with you on Saturday! Although I wouldn’t call it a 9/11 novel exactly, but more a novel about the ways the world has changed since 9/11. I could be wrong about this, but I’m not sure it ever explicitly mentions 9/11, even though that’s the obvious backdrop for everything that takes place. (As we all know, the Iraq war was not intrinsically connected to 9/11 …)

As an American, one thing I found most interesting about Saturday was the way it gives a British perspective on the Iraq war. Things look a little different over there.

Meghan O’Rourke: I do think that one of the funny things about the “9/11 novel” nomenclature is that it seems to exclude a lot of novels that are, as you say, in some sense about 9/11, but less directly. Saturday is, for me, one of those novels that tries to deal with the post-9/11 climate, large and small. He even captures the way every plane in the sky can seem a kind of menace.


Washington: In some ways, I’m wondering if we need a pre-9/11 novel that focuses on its pre-9/11-ness. I’ve often thought how I will explain to my (not-yet-born) children what life was like before the anxiety and security and control born on that day. I mean, there are details and levels of consciousness that no novel before 9/11 would have considered documenting, and yet now we are focusing on what life is like post-9/11, when there is this undocumented relic that is getting further and further away.

Ruth Franklin: This is a great point. I’ve often thought of The Corrections as just such a novel—it came out just around the time of 9/11. I read it in the few days afterwards, and found it extremely consoling as a vision of a lost America. Of course, Jonathan Franzen didn’t plan it that way! I think The Emperor’s Children, which takes place in the months before and after 9/11, might be the pre-9/11 novel you’re looking for. This book does a tremendous job of capturing the bright superficiality of New York in those days, and making it feel like a lost Eden of innocence.


Washington: One of the obvious pieces that differentiates “9/11” fiction from “Holocaust” fiction is time—Levi and Wiesel’s books, as well as post-WWII movies, talk about the gradual realization of and adjustment to the reality of the concentration camps, including a portrayal of the difficult job of protecting a tiny flame of hope. 9/11 is a burst, that allowed for neither a gradual adjustment nor any personal heroics of hope. Because novels rely so heavily on time, perhaps it never will be possible to write 9/11 literature that is not fragmentary. I love DeLillo, particularly The Names—a sense of language as both divider and binder flows throughout his novels—it is the central force. It seems, in this novel, that he has found a force greater than language in controlling our lives. Thank you.

Meghan O’Rourke: Your point about time is a crucial one, it seems to me. I suspect it will be possible to write a good 9/11 novel that isn’t fragmentary, but the idea that it’s impossible is a really interesting one. Of course, we’ve seen some novels that aren’t fragmentary, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close; whether you admire them is a different matter, but I do think that, as Ruth says, future readers will return to them to see how we made sense of the event in the immediate aftermath.