"not enough time has passed for any novelist to put the events of that day (9/11) and its shuddering consequences into historical perspective; perhaps not even enough time has passed for any novelist to grapple convincingly with those actual events, without being eclipsed by the documentary testimony (from newspaper articles, television footage and still photographs) still freshly seared in readers’ minds."Does that seem right to you? I've wrestled with that sentence since I first read it four years ago. Part of me thinks she is right. Even now, 10 years later, it's still impossible to "grapple convincingly" with those events with any degree of perspective and detachment.
Part of me also thinks it's a too-easy dismissal for why, Kakutani would likely argue, there hasn't been a truly great 9/11 novel yet. But many readers, me included, would argue that there have been many very good ones.* And so why is historical perspective such a critical criteria for a great novel about an event?
The Naked and the Dead, by Norman Mailer, was published a mere three years after World War II ended, is still hailed as one of the best examples World War II fiction. James Jones' From Here to Eternity was published in 1952, seven years after the end of the war. It's also still regarded as a classic of World War II fiction.
I'll admit, two novels published half a century ago is slim evidence for the notion that it's possible to write a great novel based on an event soon after that event. But my point here is this: Perhaps the historical perspective Kakutani referred to is required not by novelists to write a truly great novel about an event, it's required by readers and critics to recognize and appreciate the true greatness of such novels. Once the historical perspective for the event itself melds with the historical perspective on the novel, then, and only then, do we recognize a novel's greatness as a depiction of that event.
In that review, Kakutani goes on to pan Falling Man as "small, unsatisfying and inadequate" — a sentiment with which I whole-heartedly disagree. If were to wager on any of the 9/11 novels I've read standing as the 9/11 novel, it'd be this one. (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is a close second.)
Still, this question of what to expect from a 9/11 novel is one I think about frequently. And it's sort of shaped — positively or not, I have no idea — how I've read subsequent 9/11 novels.
What do you think? Is it reasonable to expect a great 9/11 still so relatively soon after an event? What would be the criteria for a great 9/11 novel? Or is a great 9/11 impossible until more time (how much) has passed?
* The list I've read includes: Falling Man, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Netherland, The Garden of Last Days (Slate put this one on its worst 9/11 fiction list, with which I also lustily disagree), The Emperor's Children, and Let the Great World Spin.
(By the way, the most emotionally stirring scene about 9/11 in any novel I've read is, strangely enough, in The Time Traveler's Wife. Henry knows what's about to happen, and gets up early just to quietly experience the world before it changes forever. Something about that scene really resonated with me. I think about it often.)