The last thing I wanted on Sept. 12, 2001, was to read fiction about what had just happened. The events of the previous day, and what followed in the months afterward, were so spectacular, so horrific, that they defied narrative.
I also felt like I was drowning in real-life stories. I lived a mile from the towers, and we all traded in tales then. My neighbor, who called in sick that day and woke after his floor had been destroyed; my girlfriend's co-worker, who escaped the building so traumatized she left New York City the next day; the stories on all those missing-person posters.
A few years later, I moved away from Lower Manhattan, and I found myself desperate to read. My memories were already merging with the recycled images I'd seen on television, and I wanted to understand before the two completely combined.
Not surprisingly, the best novels about Sept. 11 came from writers whose previous work had touched on the danger of war's technology, of absolutist rhetoric, and the primacy of family in times of catastrophe.
Novelist and native New Yorker Don DeLillo's reckoning with the events of Sept. 11 comes in his new book, Falling Man.
At its core is the story of Keith Neudecker, a man who survives the attacks on the World Trade Center, walks down out of the North Tower — bloodied and dazed — and returns home to his estranged wife and young son.
The novel starts with the image of a man carrying a briefcase and walking through a storm of dust and ash. As DeLillo tells Melissa Block, it was that image that compelled him to sit down and start writing.
"I didn't know who the man was at first," DeLillo says. "But what I did know was the fact that the briefcase he was carrying was not his and that seemed to suggest a mystery that needed to be solved."
DeLillo also tells the story of the day's events — reluctantly — from the viewpoint of one of the terrorists. He says he didn't want to write about a terrorist, particularly since it involved the deaths and injuries to real people in a city DeLillo loves.
"But, I also felt a sense of what we might call 'novelistic responsibility,'" DeLillo says. "I didn't think I could tell the entire story without the presence of at least one of the men — or a fictional version of one of the men — who was involved in those attacks."
DeLillo says writing Falling Man was a "grim responsibility."
"It was the toughest novel I've done — not at all in terms of length or research or building structures, but in this emotional sense," he says. And yet, he says, he felt a "writerly responsibility to follow it to the end."