I was in New York City the week before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. There were some police on the streets, of course, but there always are police, and nobody thought anything of it. The crowd at Arthur Ashe Stadium “evacuated” the stands, and the players returned to the safety of their locker rooms, for quite some time, but that was only because of the heavy rain, and the danger of lightning, and nobody thought anything of it. Those days are over. New York has changed, and the way tourists relate to the city when they visit it has changed.
D.G. Myers, now blogging for Commentary, has a long list of 9/11 novels. Emily Rooney broadcast a shorter one including nonfiction books from Boston Steve Almond (video and a link to the text version of the list). Most of them are ordinary “social novels,” about people who lived in New York in 2001 or are otherwise affected, in one way or another, by the events of that day. Adam Kirsch, in the newish Jewish magazine The Tablet, has a different list of novels. He argues, along with some of Myers’s Twitter followers, that The Plot against America should be considered among them, though Myers begs to differ.
I think Kirsch has a point. What is most memorable about The Plot against America is, in part, the fear of the adults, and the way that a horrible political event seemed to license behavior that, under normal conditions, those adults would barely consider acceptable even from their children: the panic that event inspired. And the fascist elements of the alternate society Roth imagines—which so scare the adult characters in the book—are, arguably, only an extension of the armed soldiers that appeared in airports and on city streets, and of the vigilance (and lessened concern for civil liberties) that seemed threatened by the emphasis on security implied by the words “after 9/11, everything is different.” The novel just isn’t a plausible one in a world where 9/11 has not taken place.
Similarly, I would argue that Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day is a 9/11 novel, at least in one chapter (the one that begins on page 149): in which the boy adventurers of the zeppelin Inconvenience fail to prevent a dangerous monster-enfolding meteorite from being brought into an unnamed city. The details are different, but the reader’s knowledge of what’s being described will derive from the news stories about that day.
“This city, even on the best of days, had always been known for its background rumble of anxiety. Anyone who wittingly dwelt here gambled daily that whatever was to happen would proceed slowly enough to allow at least one consultation with somebody—that ‘there would always be time,’ as citizens liked to put it. But that quarterless nightfall, events were moving too fast even to take in, forget about examine, or analyze, or in fact do much of anything but run from, and hope you could avoid getting killed. That’s about as closely as anybody was thinking it through—everyone in town, most inconveniently at the same time, suffering that Panic fear. . . .
“On the night in question, Hunter Penhallow had been on his way out of town but, feeling something at his back, had turned to witness the tragedy unfolding along the horizon, stricken into remembering a nightmare too ancient to be his alone, eyeballs ashine with mercilessly sharp images in flame tones, so overbright that his orbits and cheekbones gathered some of the fiery excess.”
Pynchon’s vision here is a kind of anti-9/11: what could have been and maybe should have been, in a Manhattan of the imagination, a nightmare worst case, differing in idiosyncratic but important particulars from reality. And if there's a sense in which Against the Day might be a 9/11 novel, Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem, surely is. In Lethem’s novel, all of downtown is enveloped by a mysterious dark fog, which simply appeared one day and never left; and later, one of the characters becomes unreachable after his apartment building collapses, with no warning, leaving behind it only a deep pit and a police cordon. Both Lethem and Pynchon foreground the emotionality and weirdness of living under a threat that is nearly incomprehensible, not only in its vastness and in the unforeseenness of what motivated it, but in its vagueness, though neither of them says anything that might unambiguously refer to a real historical event.