Every critic, I’d venture, has written something that he or she would like to take back. For me, it’s my expression of astonishment, in a column written on the third anniversary of September 11, that no important fiction dealing with that day had yet appeared. Blame it on the fever for documentation that arose in the wake of the attacks, perhaps, or on my naïveté about the amount of time required to write a book—not to mention to sell and publish it.
Since 2001, fiction based on September 11 has become almost de rigueur among major novelists writing in English. In the aftermath of the attacks on the Word Trade Center, many of the most famous authors of our time have weighed in on the attacks, depicting the ways large and small in which they altered people’s lives. Some hypothesized possible motivations behind the terrorists’ actions: John Updike in Terrorist (2006) and Martin Amis in the short story “The Last Days of Muhammad Atta” (2006).
Don DeLillo’s 2007 novel Point Omega begins with an anonymous man, standing in the Museum of Modern Art, watching Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho, which stretches the Hitchcock film to diurnal length, turning mere frames into emergent stories. “Suspense is trying to build,” DeLillo writes, “but the silence and stillness outlive it.” DeLillo says Point Omega was inspired by his own accidental encounter with Gordon’s work.
One of the running jokes in On Beauty, Zadie Smith’s third novel, is that its main character is philosophically opposed to beauty. Howard Belsey is a professor of art history at Wellington College, and like all middle-aged professors in campus novels, he is a ludicrous figure--unfaithful to his wife, disrespected by his children, and, of course, unable to finish the book he has been talking about for years. In Howard’s case, the book is meant to be a demolition of Rembrandt, whose canvases he sees as key sites for the production of the Western ideology of beauty. “What we’re trying to ...
The Black Veil: A Memoir With Digressions by Rick Moody (Little, Brown, 288 pp., $24.95) Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation. I apologize for the abruptness of this declaration, its lack of nuance, of any meaning besides the intuitive; but as I made my way through Moody's oeuvre during the past few months I was unable to come up with any other starting point for a consideration of his accomplishment. Or, more accurately, every other starting point that I tried felt disingenuous, nothing more than a way of setting Moody up in order to knock him down.
The Haunting of L. By Howard Norman (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 326 pp., $24) Howard Norman’s novels are hard to like. Starting in 1987 with The Northern Lights, each novel has featured a taciturn, antisocial male protagonist, as disconnected from his own inner life as he is from the people around him. Norman’s landscapes mirror the emptiness of the characters who inhabit them: this American writer is unique in setting his books in the bleakest regions of Canada, from the expanses of northern Manitoba to turn-of-the century Newfoundland. And his prose is as inhospitable as the terrain.
I. If anyone still had a longing for the great American "social novel," the events of September 11 may have corrected it, merely through the reminder of an asymmetry of their own: that whatever the novel gets up to, the "culture" can always get up to something bigger. Ashes defeat garlands. If topicality, relevance, reportage, social comment, preachy presentism, and sidewalk smarts—in sum, the contemporary American novel in its big triumphalist form—are the novel's chosen sport, then the novel will sooner or later be outrun by its own streaking material. The novel may well be, as Stendhal wrot