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Review

Long shadow of a dark day

On the 10th anniversary of 9/11, new works reflect what we've learned and how we've learned to say it

(Shout for The Boston Globe)
By David Shribman and John Freeman
September 11, 2011

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NONFICTION

Time lapse is a technique of cinematography, but as we mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, we might pause and wonder about the application of time lapse to historiography. Has enough time passed to understand clearly what happened and why? Do we have enough of the pieces to be able to see how the whole thing developed? And as new parts of the truth emerge, will we discover new truths about that regrettable day and the remarkable decade that followed?

We knew the elements of the Versailles peace conference that followed World War I when the conclave ended in 1919 and yet it took until 2002, and the publication of Margaret MacMillan’s pathfinding “Paris 1919,’’ for us to see it whole. World War II ended in 1945, but it wasn’t for a decade and a half, in 1960, that William L. Shirer produced his landmark “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,’’ and even now we don’t understand Nazi Germany completely.

So how are we to look at the flood of books released to mark a date rendered infamous by four crashed airliners, 19 hijackers, nearly 3,000 victims (not counting, of course, those who died later of illnesses caused by the calamity), two wars, one ruined presidency, and untold questions unanswered in unknown darknesses of night, or of the soul?

To be sure, these works capture passion - but probably not permanent lessons. They’re chock full of facts - but may miss the greater truth. If journalism is the first draft of history, then these are polished second drafts, not finished works.

Which is not to belittle these attempts. They contribute to our understanding, widen our view, enrich our perspectives. But they are period pieces, produced in and by the decade that followed, unavoidably affected by the twin wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, by the deceit of the weapons-of-mass-destruction argument, by the lingering rage in a region only recently inflamed with hope, or even by the death, only four months ago, of Osama bin Laden.

Yet there is much to praise in these volumes. One captures the grief and loss of the period with uncommon intimacy. One captures the disillusion of the decade with unusual anger. And the third retells those events with unbridled drama. None of these three - or the scores of other commemoratives, perhaps the only growth industry in publishing right now - is in itself a one-volume work that captures this period of pathos and personal powerlessness.

Together they are a handful of pieces of a larger jigsaw puzzle, one still lacking sharper outlines and some defining detail.

But this is a start, and it is uncanny if not eerie that two of them, “A Decade of Hope’’ by Dennis Smith, with its undertone of uplift, and “A History of the World Since 9/11’’ by Dominic Streatfeild, with its overtones of anger, form perfect bookends for the period. And “The Eleventh Day’’ by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan is a broad-shouldered look at the deceit, destruction, and disaster that followed that fateful day.

“Decade’’ is about hope, as its title suggests, but the sort of hope that mixes with hurt and smolders in the wreckage of despair. Here are 25 portraits of survivors, who are in their ways themselves victims of the day, leaning heavily toward survivors of firefighters and police officers or siblings and spouses of the dead. These are stories that inevitably touch on the dead and on death itself. Very little is surprising, all of it is shocking, the sadness so deep, the recoveries so tentative. “But I keep going, and try to do positive things,’’ says Zach Fletcher, a New York firefighter whose twin brother was killed while performing rescue duties in the North Tower. They all keep going, and mostly try to do positive things, though the anger against Al Qaeda, and militant Islam, is palpable and an unavoidable subtheme.

In a book with measures full of grace notes, one rings clear and does not fade away. It is the story of Ada Rosario Dolch, principal of a high school two blocks from the World Trade Center, who helped build a school in Afghanistan in memory of her sister. She calls it a “miraculous happening’’ and perhaps it was. “Ms. Dolch,’’ a little girl said that morning, “I’m really scared.’’ So were we all. But the scared little girl was Charlene Hasan, the only one in the school with a head covering, and so it turned out that Charlene became for Dolch “my little angel who guided my heart.’’

“She guided my heart from ever being angry at Muslim people. I can’t be angry at Muslim people. I’m angry at some [people] who did some horrendous things, but I could never be angry at Muslim people.’’

But there was anger enough in Sept. 11, the event produced by anger and that itself produced even more anger. “A History of the World’’ is a study through case studies - eight episodes setting out what followed, presented as a painter might present a series of miniatures. Streatfeild warns us at the start: “This is not an account of what happened on 9/11. This is an account of what happened next. It’s scarier.’’

What happened next were faulty conclusions produced by faulty assumptions, a foreign-policy groupthink that reinforced American leaders’ impulses rather than examined the evidence of intelligence, the senseless bombing of an Afghan wedding - and much more, little of it good. The result is that US officials became not so much a gang that couldn’t shoot straight as one that couldn’t think straight - or remain on the straight and narrow, not only at home, but also in Iraq, in Afghanistan and beyond. Terrorism, for example, led American planners to embrace tyranny in Uzbekistan, because they needed a staging area for US operations in Asia. When Washington showed distaste for that regime, the relationship only soured, the repression only deepened.

With all these good intentions gone awry it isn’t surprising that Muslims so distrusted the United States that they spurned US-backed efforts to eradicate polio. What caused all this -the ill will and the deception - is outlined in “The Eleventh Day,’’ with its stunning suggestion, one among many, that the CIA didn’t communicate with the FBI about the Sept. 11 terrorists because it might have hoped to turn the perpetrators into double agents.

The book also raises uncomfortable but unavoidable questions about Saudi financial support for Qaeda and sets out how the 9/11 Commission was, in turn, misled and chose to overlook important evidence, sparing the public “knowledge of troubling factors and issues - perhaps because they were highly sensitive, perhaps because pursuit of them involved banging on doors that seemed best left closed, perhaps because they remained unresolved.’’

For a time we thought Sept. 11 might deliver, along with disaster, some eventual sense of clarity. But with all of these books, the reader more than ever comes away without clarity, with only questions upon questions. These questions might remain unanswered for a decade more, even longer. Sept. 11 isn’t over.

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com .

FICTION

There is nothing quite as disputatious as a prize of prestige alone. The lack of monetary value means judges are dispensing the ennobling embellishment of cultural worth, something no amount of money can buy.

Five years ago I found myself on a jury for just such a prize, at the height of a culture war, in the middle of a bonanza of publishing about 9/11.

I should have seen the end of a few professional friendships coming.

“The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11’’ was out that year, as was Ken Kalfus’s hilariously acidic novel, “A Disorder Peculiar to the Country.’’

Needless to say, in the middle of debating about Bruce Bawer’s “While Europe Slept,’’ a book that likened Muslim immigration in Europe to the rise of Nazism, lines were drawn. Either this book was the end of tolerance as we knew it, or a sensible observation in dire times.

In the end, many of us behaved appallingly to one another - I believe I told someone he was a liar; he decided to point out that my partner was Arab (true) and Muslim (false, more like lapsed Catholic turned atheist). The book in question didn’t win.

In fact, Bawer’s book was never going to win; as literature it was poorly researched and flabbily argued. But that didn’t stop us from spending most of our deliberation arguing about it.

I can see now why we were so absorbed in debating the merits of such an obviously bad book - at stake wasn’t just a prize, but a chance, in our small way, to publicly shape the meaning of 9/11.

As a spectacle of terror, the attacks were a symbol out of context.

America was not, for many of us then, a country at war. But to the attackers the United States had been on the offensive for some time. To bridge the gap between these two points of view, politicians, commentators, writers, and, yes, Osama bin Laden and his awful henchmen, created narratives.

Sept. 11 was payback for occupation of Muslim land; it was blowback for imperial overreach; it was the tip of the spear of a Muslim onslaught on American values.

All of these narratives about America and 9/11 jostle for primacy within Amy Waldman’s impressively charged debut novel, “The Submission,’’ which imagines that a contest to anonymously select the designer of a 9/11 memorial is won by a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan.

Here is New York in all its lumbering, post-attack grief and rage. The unifying shock of that day has worn off, leaving behind the tarnishing business of vengeance and mourning. Waldman fans out across the city, from the streets of Queens to the halls of Gracie Mansion, showing the political fault lines between grief and revenge about to slip.

Two 9/11 widows, a journalist, the brother of a fallen fireman, a public servant, and the architect himself - Mohammad, who goes by Mo - take turns carrying Waldman’s novel forward. In one intense scene after another, their lives overlap and entangle as the battle over the memorial heats up.

Mo is by far the most engrossing character. Born in Virginia and raised a secular Muslim, he enters the contest in secret, following a bad encounter with Homeland Security. He is a talented architect, and ambitious, too. The selection of his design proves an opportunity for a double validation: as an American, and as a professional. When this chance is taken from him - the jury did not foresee a Muslim entering, let alone winning - he understandably fights back.

Waldman manages to make the argument against Mo’s design seem just shy of redeemable, rather than simply racist and crazy. Sean Gallagher, the fallen firefighter’s brother, is its mouthpiece. A failure in life, he excels as a rabble-rouser of victimhood, traveling the circuit of VFWs and Rotary halls, turning the story of his brother’s death into a cause, one that thrills him but also fills him with shame. He knows he is using his brother’s death to give his own meager life purpose.

Alyssa Spier, the novel’s scrabbling tabloid reporter, is doing the same but with far less compunction. She breaks the story of Mo’s selection, and then uses actual, proffered, or invented information to keep the story going, because it is her ticket up the food chain at the New York Post. In one chilling scene, she browbeats a 9/11 widow into admitting that her support of Mohammad’s design may not be rock solid.

“Being a Columnist, trying to influence invisible masses, didn’t suit her,’’ Waldman writes of Alyssa in the close-third person she employs expertly throughout. “But using information, insinuation, and the right line of questioning to rewire a woman in front of her eyes - that was a scary rush of a high.’’

Waldman is a former South Asia bureau chief of The New York Times, and more than any novel written about 9/11 - from Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close’’ to Don DeLillo’s “Falling Man’’ - hers understands the way the attack catapulted American media from a slugfest into a shout fest, in which the actual outcome of shrill debate was less important than the debate itself.

Another fantastic scene in this book takes place during an interview Mo decides to give to Fox News, in which a conservative host baits and roasts him and manages to make these abuses sound somehow like friendly flattery. Afterward, sitting in the studio’s silence, the host confides: “Half the stuff I say on this show shocks me - it comes out and I think, ‘Well, Lou, that’s kind of appalling.’ But I don’t disown it, do I?’’

How quickly the acid reflux of righteous anger surges into the throat as one reads this book is a testament to its clever construction. “The Submission’’ is an exquisitely built novel, whose preoccupation with architecture is mirrored in the careful symmetries of its accelerating narrative. Just as Waldman moves close to overplaying a theme, she darts out to Queens and narrates a chapter partly through the eyes of Asma Anwar, a Bangladeshi woman widowed in the attack whose intense grief is one of this book’s grace notes.

Many arguments within this book have occurred not once, but several times since 9/11, most recently over the controversy about the construction of a downtown Manhattan Islamic center. Who should get screened at airports? Why should people who hate America be allowed the liberties of its Bill of Rights? At what point does the tragedy stop underwriting future action on behalf of a wounded America?

These questions are all familiar, and yet in the course of this novel, they don’t feel stale, which is an astonishing thing, because “The Submission’’ is a layer cake of argument, bloviation, and impassioned debate. There is hardly a scene in which some form of argument isn’t unfolding, from the first sentence to the last, and often within characters’ own heads. Waldman wisely never tips her hand too heavily, so a reader is left to referee the melee on one’s own.

Unlike so many of the novels to emerge from 9/11, “The Submission’’ feels determined not to rely on our emotions to move us. There is a steely logic to its construction. Only the characters within lose their heads, revealing how much manipulation can occur in the grey area between sentimentality and opportunity.

For a city full of cold-eyed players, New York has few observers with the resolve to reveal it at its worst. Joseph O’Neill comes to mind, but “Netherland,’’ his fantastic novel about a man unraveling in post-9/11 New York, also is stuffed with supple, gorgeous sentences, the likes of which Waldman occasionally attains. “Jealousy clings to love’s undersides like bats to a bridge,’’ she writes in one such moment.

These gifts carry Waldman’s novel far, but there are limits, too, to this form, and what it tells us about 9/11. Hurtling toward this book’s climax, one of the propulsive elements making one read faster is a certain eagerness to be free of this book’s carefully plotted maze of blame and grief. One hungers for messiness, a sense of the clarifying shock of the attacks; a feeling of actual prismatic interconnectivity.

The novel, by virtue of what it is, however, can only sustain so much disjuncture. A novel about 9/11 needs to have the logic and order of a garden but the feeling of an open field. In this way it can approach not just a reimagining of that day, which has its purposes and pleasures, but consolation to the knowledge that the roots of catastrophic occurrences are somehow, possibly, more mysterious than we know.

Sept. 11, in all but a few hands, has hardly been an event that lends itself to this treatment. The spectacle of the twin towers on fire and falling became that awful mystery; into the void they left behind we have plunged millions of words of journalism and reportage, hours upon hours of commentary and talk. And nothing, not even the most ferocious attempt to understand why it happened and who did it, and who gets to mourn, can bring the victims back. That fact is what gives Amy Waldman’s novel its black power, and sadly, it’s not something she had to invent.

John Freeman is the editor of Granta, the latest issue of which is themed “Ten Years Later.’’

NONFICTION

A DECADE OF HOPE: Stories of Grief and Endurance from 9/11 Families and Friends By Dennis Smith

Viking, 364 pp., illustrated, $26.95

A HISTORY OF THE WORLD SINCE 9/11: Disaster, Deception, and Destruction in the War on Terror By Dominic Streatfeild

Bloomsbury, 408 pp., $28

THE ELEVENTH DAY: The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama bin Laden By Anthony Summers

and Robbyn Swan

Ballantine, 603 pp.,

illustrated, $30

FICTION

THE SUBMISSION By Amy Waldman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux,

299 pp., $26