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The 9/11 attacks as a literary watershed

The 9/11 attacks as a literary watershed
04-Sep-11, 10:00 AM | Myriam Chaplain-Riou, Agence France-Presse

PARIS - Ten years on, the dust from the twin towers hasn't finished settling on the literary world and continues to feed a growing body of fiction exploring the moral and physical loss the attacks left behind.

Initially, few writers dared get too close to the horror that the entire world was able to imagine after watching the World Trade Center go down live on television.

The first one to choose hyperrealism and attempt a description of the fateful moment itself -- the planes crashing, the fire, the panic, people jumping off the towers -- was Frederic Beigbeder.

In "Windows on the World" (2003), the French author said he wanted to "tell what could not be told".

"The only way to know what happened in that restaurant on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center's North tower on 11 September 2001 between 8:30 and 10:29 am... was to invent it," he explained at the time.

Many of the world's greatest living authors have since tackled the post 9/11 trauma and written in an effort to comprehend the scope of the tragedy and its place in history.

"September 11 entrained a moral crash, planetwide... let's not suggest that our experience of that event, that development, has been frictionlessly absorbed and filed away. It has not," Britain's Martin Amis wrote in 2007.

"September 11 continues, it goes on, with all its mystery, its instability, and its terrible dynamism," said Amis, who wrote "The Second Plane", a collection of essays and short stories on the attacks.

Don DeLillo, who made his mark on literature with epic, panoramic novels on American society, was no less influenced by the 9/11 watershed.

As early as November 2001, he reflected on how writers would deal with the horror of the attacks in an essay for Harper's, "In the Ruins of the Future."

"There is something empty in the sky," he wrote. "The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space."

"People running for their lives are part of the story that is left to us," DeLillo said. Eventually, he wrote Falling Man (2008), about a survivor's daily life, his relations with his estranged wife, his new love interest.

A recurring character in the novel is a performance artist who suspends himself in business attire from high buildings in the pose of the man falling headfirst from the flaming North Tower in a famous photograph by Richard Drew.

The same year, John Updike wrote "Terrorist", a book which was to be his penultimate and explores Islamic fundamentalists' motivations in a first-person account by an American-born Muslim teenager who embraces jihad.

Another US literary giant, Philip Roth, wrote "Exit Ghost" in 2007, in which his alter ego narrator Nathan Zuckerman is revived one last time and moves back to New York after agreeing to a house swap with a couple who "don't wish to be snuffed out in the name of Allah".

In 2006, Jay McInerney published "The Good Life", in which a group of friends who had dinner together on 10 September 2011 are plunged into the horror of the attacks the next day.

Many writers gradually moved away from the contention that the scale of the attacks, the depth of the trauma and the scope of the consequences were too big for any fiction to be relevant.

Paul Auster, who saw the World Trade Centre collapse in an avalanche of dust and smoke from his balcony, made his contribution to the literary monument growing in place of the fallen towers in 2008 with "Man in the Dark".

In Auster's scenario, the attacks never happened but civil war rages.

US author Jonathan Franzen, who incidentally published "Corrections" -- his immensely successful protrayal of America -- on the week of the attacks, delivered a somber fresco of the following decade with "Freedom" last year.

The best-selling saga of the Berglund family doesn't deal with 9/11 directly but the attacks and their fallout are the backdrop for a society where family, relations, morality are all collapsing.

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