Monday, August 11, 2008

Searching high and low

O where be the "definitive" 9/11 novel?

What is the "definitive" WWII novel? What's the "definitive" novel of the Holocaust? What's the "definitive" [insert large cultural and/or political event/era] novel?

The whole idea of "definitive" novels is stupid and anti-literary. The reason most of the 9/11 novels have thusfar been underwhelming is precisely because their authors are caught up in this game, too. Too often they read like knowing prequels, winking at the reader with casually dropped details designed to provide a frisson of foreboding.

I picked up Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children this summer – at random, knowing nothing about it – and enjoyed reading it in a kind of low-yield, grasp-well-within-reach kind of way... right up until the moment when I realized that 9/11 would be its narrative money shot. "Oh, those self-absorbed upper middle-class New York intellectuals and their self-absorbed, upper middle-class intellectual ways... will they pursue them forever, or will some CATACLYSMIC EVENT bring the triviality of their lives into sharp focus and inject into their existences a needed sense of gravitas and mortality? Why look: it's a beautiful morning in September 2001!"

Revenge of the Sith felt less nakedly manipulative...

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