September 11 is a day of particularly contradictory emotions at our house. My son, our oldest child, was born that day. So, each year, while we want to celebrate with him—want to celebrate him—we are ever mindful that it is a day of sadness for so many American families, and a day of sober remembrance for our nation.
Over the past 12 years, a number of novelists have attempted the daunting task of telling stories about September 11; see the end of this post for a partial list. Only a handful of those books deal with the day itself: two are Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, a story of three 30-year-old friends making their way in Manhattan before, during, and beyond that fateful day; and Hugh Nissenson’s Days of Awe, focusing on the relationship between a 67-year-old Manhattan book illustrator and his wife, but eventually encompassing friends, acquaintances, and others as they’re affected by the September 11 attacks.
Most of the other novels in the 9/11 category turn their attention to life in the aftermath, from Don Delillo’s Falling Man to Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, and John Updike’s Terrorist.
One of my favorite 9/11 novels instead takes us back to a time before that fateful day. Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin (2009) is set mostly in 1974, decades before the terrorist attacks of 2001. It interweaves the stories of several very different New York City residents, with a real-life French high-wire artist at the center. On August 7, 1974, Philippe Petit made a death-defying walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, committing what has become known as the “artistic crime of the century.” (Not everyone was mesmerized or delighted—the police promptly arrested him when he stepped off the wire 45 minutes later.) In McCann’s novel, Petit’s amazing feat forms the connection between various characters and events; in the same way that we now live in a “Where were you on September 11?” culture, the characters in the novel share the common, life-altering experience of Petit’s high-wire walk—watching it, judging it, imagining and reimagining it.
As readers in a post-9/11 world, knowing as we do that the World Trade Center is now gone, the Twin Towers can’t help but cast a long shadow over the events and the people of Let the Great World Spin. But McCann’s novel is ultimately hopeful. Petit’s walk represents a moment of triumph that helps these characters deal with the difficulties of life in 1974, and into the new millennium, when their home city will come under attack. One character, Jaslyn, sums up that feeling of triumph in the novel’s last chapter, which fast-forwards from 1974 to 2006:
A man high in the air while a plane disappears, it seems, into the edge of the building. One small scrap of history meeting a larger one. As if the walking man were somehow anticipating what would come later. The intrusion of time and history. The collision point of stories. We wait for the explosion but it never occurs. The plane passes, the tightrope walker gets to the end of the wire. Things don’t fall apart.
It’s as if, Jaslyn thinks, the high-wire artist foresaw the awful events of 2001, and gave his witnesses a memory that would help them—and us—rise above the terror. Things did fall apart on September 11, 2001, but they don’t always fall apart. And that’s worth remembering.
Postscript: If you have young readers, the story of Philippe Petit’s walk is told—and beautifully drawn—in a picture book called The Man Who Walked between the Towers, by Mordicai Gerstein. It makes for an uplifting bedtime story on the night of September 11. Like Let the Great World Spin, this children’s book ends on a happy note: “But in memory, as if imprinted on the sky, the towers are still there. And part of that memory is the joyful morning, August 7, 1974, when Philippe Petit walked between them in the air.”9/11 Novels: A Partial List Leave a comment below and let us know if you’ve read any of these and what your thoughts were after reading.
- Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
- Claire Messud, The Emperor’s Children
- Mohsin Hamid, The Reluctant Fundamentalist
- Hugh Nissenson, Days of Awe
- Don DeLillo, Falling Man
- Joseph O’Neill, Netherland
- Ian McEwan, Saturday
- Shirley Abbott, The Future of Love
- Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
- Frederic Beigbeder, Windows on the World
- William Gibson, Pattern Recognition
- Julia Glass, The Whole World Over
- Allegra Goodman, The Cookbook Collector
- Ken Kalfus, A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
- Jay McInerney, The Good Life
- Martha McPhee, L’America
- Sue Miller, Lake Shore Limited
- Reynolds Price, The Good Priest’s Son
- Francine Prose, Bullyville
- Nicholas Rinaldi, Between Two Rivers
- Helen Schulman, A Day at the Beach
- Lynne Sharon Schwartz, The Writing on the Wall
- Claire Tristram, After
- Jess Walter, The Zero
- Ward Just, Forgetfulness
- Carolyn See, There Will Never Be Another You
- John Updike, Terrorist
- Nadeem Aslam, The Wasted Vigil