NEW YORK — Ten years later, and our imaginations are still catching up to Sept. 11, 2001.
"I don't think art can 'compete' with something like 9/11," says Jess Walter, whose post 9/11 novel "The Zero" was a National Book Award finalist in 2006. "What could be sharper than our images of that day, whether we saw it in person or witnessed it on TV? Who could make a movie as vivid as the picture we get when we close our eyes — the smoking tower, the clear sky, the second jet banking toward the other tower?"
Scores of books, films and plays have narrated and analyzed the terrorist attacks, the causes, and the emotional, cultural and political effects. The responses have evolved from the quiet grief of Anne Nelson's play "The Guys" to such international thrillers as the film "Babel" to Joseph O'Neill's reflective novel "Netherland." But no fictional character or invented story has forced itself into our minds like the events themselves. No movie has matched the power — and the horror — of the snufflike footage of the plane hitting the World Trade Center's south tower or the iconic Associated Press photograph of a man falling from one of the skyscrapers.
Sept. 11 invented a new way to fear. Since the days of Puritan sermons, the American mind has summoned a wrathful god, ghosts of sins past, nuclear Armageddon, Cold War spies, lone assassins and invasions from outer space. The attacks were a different kind of nightmare: plotted from thousands of miles away; masterminded not by a head of state but by an exiled fanatic; and carried out not by a professional army but by a disparate band of suicidal volunteers.
Our terrors are now global, as in Salman Rushdie's "Shalimar the Clown," a novel about a tightrope walker-turned-killer set everywhere from California to Kashmir. In "Syriana," a film starring George Clooney and Matt Damon, parallel story lines include an energy consultant in Geneva, a CIA officer in Iran and unemployed migrant workers in Pakistan. "Babel," with a cast featuring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, joins the fates of a goat herder in the Moroccan desert to an American woman from San Diego.
"Since 9/11, there's been this free-floating paranoia about danger coming from anywhere, anyplace," says performance artist Karen Finley, who is reviving "Make Love," a riff on post 9/11 New York featuring Finley as Liza Minnelli. "It brings the mind back to that stage of childhood where you're afraid of the dark, of the monsters under your bed."
"Americans have this long sense of isolation and impregnability and 9/11 was the end of the blind American sense they had won the Cold War," says Jonathan Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which just released Amy Waldman's "The Submission," a novel about a Pakistani-American winning a contest for designing a Sept. 11-like memorial. "And all of a sudden we had different kinds of enemies, different kinds of problems that were worse in a way, much worse."
Entering the mind of another is a feat for any fiction writer, but some have attempted to dwell in the thoughts of an extremist. Martin Amis' "The Last Days of Mohammed Atta" tracks the end of one of the 9/11 hijackers. John Updike's "Terrorist" begins with a teenaged Muslim taking in the temptations of the West: "These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair."
Waldman's "The Submission" is the story of architect Mohammad Khan, a nonobservant Muslim subjected to harsh accusations that he is a terrorist sympathizer with a secret plan to build a religious shrine. Waldman said she had read some novels about terrorists, including a few pages of Updike's book, and took a different approach.
"In some ways, I felt like I was writing a little bit in response to books like Updike's. There was a lot of interest in getting inside the minds of terrorists and much less interest in getting inside the minds of Muslims who were not terrorists," Waldman says. "I wanted to write about someone like Mohammad Khan, an American born and raised here, secular."
Waldman, a former New York Times reporter, said she first thought of the book in 2003 and began working on it four years later. Reality scooped her in 2010 when plans for an Islamic community center near the World Trade Center — the so-called "ground zero mosque" — led to the kind of public argument she had been thinking up in private.
"It was very strange," she says. "Lines I had written in the book suddenly were in the newspapers, even though the circumstances were not quite the same. It felt like my novel had come to life."
Novels such as "Netherland" and Walter's "The Zero" have received strong reviews, but critics debate how well writers have responded. Michael Rothberg, writing in 2009 for the journal American Literary History, titled his essay "A Failure of the Imagination" and faulted American authors for being too self-absorbed. In a 2007 essay in Esquire, Tom Junod reviewed Don DeLillo's "Falling Man" and concluded that the author had done a better job capturing the post-9/11 world in such pre-9/11 novels as "White Noise" and "Mao II."
"Falling Man," Junod wrote, "offers the best test case yet for the idea that when the planes hit and the buildings went down we entered the 'age of nonfiction,' when journalism ... is able to grasp what's happened — and, more to the point, what's happening — to us more than fiction can, even fiction by our most accomplished and ambitious writers."
John Freeman, editor of the literary journal "Granta," believes "there is no art form which can compress a dynamic so complex into a single narrative or a form." Like Junod, he credits nonfiction writers for "beginning to grasp the long context of these events, and how it is so much bigger than New York City or Osama bin Laden." But he also defends "Falling Man," DeLillo's brief novel set in part at ground zero on the very day, as the "one book which captures the eye of the storm."
"Everything else I've read or seen looks for redemption, or sense," Freeman wrote in an email. "With its eerie, disembodied style, that sad tale of people trying — and failing — to get home in the aftermath, 'Falling Man' is the only book brave enough to remind us there is no making sense to that kind of trauma."
John Duvall, a professor of English at Purdue University, is another admirer of 'Falling Man." Duvall is compiling the new edition of "The Cambridge Companion to American Fiction After 1945," due in December. He praises "Falling Man" and "The Zero" as politically and socially relevant and believes that 9/11 affected so many people in so many ways that it's impossible for any book to capture everything.
"It's a little like asking, 'Which writer today best sums up the African American experience?'" he wrote in an email to the AP. "There is no such thing as a monolithic African American experience and I don't think there's a monolithic American mood regarding 9/11. And even if there were one today, it's not the same as the mood in 2002."
The books are numerous and diverse, a metropolis of responses. Walter's "Zero" is a street-level, streetwise take about a police officer just after a terrorist attack. O'Neill's "Netherland" pictures post-9/11 New York through the eyes of a cricket-playing Dutch immigrant. The inventive 9-year-old son of a 9/11 victim narrates Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close."
Some "9/11" stories predate the events, or never mention them directly, such as DeLillo's 1985 novel of disaster, "White Noise," and Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America," a dystopian historical novel set during the 1940s, but widely seen as a warning about the post 9/11 era. The attacks are a given in Jonathan Franzen's contemporary epic, "Freedom." Walter mentioned the post-apocalypse of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." Mohsin Hamid, whose novel "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" tells of a Pakistani immigrant and his ruined American dream, believes "Charlotte's Web" is ideal for contemporary readers.
"It's entirely made-up, yet provides an incredibly honest account of the inevitability of death, its cyclical nature, the fact that it's sad and the fact that it's accepted," he says of E.B. White's children's classic.
"If I had to prescribe a book about Sept. 11, certainly 'Charlotte's Web' would be high on the list. Because in secular societies in the West, the discourse about death has been marginalized as something for religion to deal with. I think we should plop 'Charlotte's Web' in the middle of that and say, 'Look, we have to accept we are going to die, and that a certain amount of courage is required.'"