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Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Impact of 9/11 on Contemporary Novels

Writing a contemporary novel in the last nine years is writing under the shadow of 9/11. You cannot write any kind of book about American life and not have the impact of that day inform the work. To do so it as the author's peril. The world changed, America changed, people changed after that day. Life pivots around the day the planes struck the World Trade Center and you have life before and after and there is no comparison. Everything changed. Values. Lifestyles. Economics. Where we live. How we live. The spectre of 9/11 as a precursor of eventual Armageddon did not start to fade even five years after the event. Even if you did not put duct tape and  plastic on your windows, you excepted the other shoe to drop any minute.

And so that leaves the novelist. How to get your hands around such a monstrous event? Earlier writers had to deal with World War II in much the same way. It was too big to handle, yet it changed writing itself. As did World War I. But 9/11 was not a war in a classic sense and so war novels will not do. There has been no Naked and the Dead. There has been no Thin Red Line or From Here to Eternity. Jonathan Letham and a few others have taken stabs at parts of mushroom cloud that is 9/11, but no one has nailed it per say. Even Jonathan Franzen sidestepped it in Freedom. It is just too big

But novelists must factor in 9/11 into their landscape. It did affect people. It does affect people and where that fits into your particular fiction will be determined by the skill of the novelist. People literally changed the way they lived after that day. People moved out of cities. They moved into the country to get away from a potential mushroom cloud and then nine years later could not remember why they moved. But they do know. It is there every time the anniversary rolls around. Our very polarized schizophrenic society is a testament to that day. Glen Beck, Tea parties, Sarah Palin...these are products of our troubled times and must be recognized by the novelist.

So we may stick our head in the sand and say 9/11 belongs to an era. But it does not. It is the Perfect Storm of the Twenty First Century, informing every aspect of American life. For the novelist the trick is to deal with  this Perfect Storm, but not let it engulf and overwhelm the story. Anyone who lived through that very dark day can tell you that is no easy task.

William Hazelgrove's latest novel Rocket Man is due out in September.

Books by William Hazelgrove