Friday, September 11, 2009

Driving Under the Influence of Books

And you thought texting while driving was dangerous.

Post-9/11 Novels: Adding The Zero

There's been lots of discussion today about post-9/11 novels -- which of them are good, which are bad, and which are timeless. In that final, transcendent category of literature built to last, Ian McEwan's superb Saturday and Joseph O'Neill's lyrical Netherland seem to be the clear leaders, while the rest remain a mixed bag of hotly debated also-rans: Don DeLillo's Falling Man, John Updike's Terrorist, Jay McInerney's The Good Life, and Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision, among others.

My take? I'll enter the fray with two of my least favorites: Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which I found cloying and virtually unreadable) and Ken Kalfus's A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (which I found sour and unfunny but mercifully short).

As for favorites, I'd like to put in an enthusiastic word for a title that isn't often mentioned in conversations about post-9/11 literature, or at least not often enough: Jess Walter's The Zero.

Despite being shortlisted for a National Book Award, The Zero somehow fell through the cracks after it was first published in 2006. Partly this had to do, I think, with Walter's willingness to write a comic novel about 9/11, and partly with the spectacular public implosion of his then-publisher, the Regan imprint at HarperCollins. I remember speaking with Judith Regan's assistant at the time, who also loved the book and who just shook her head sadly in acknowledgment of Walter's raw deal. "Bum luck," she called it. "Such a great novel, too."

Here's the blurb I wrote for the bookstore shortly after The Zero was released in hardcover:

What Catch-22 did for Joseph Heller and Slaughterhouse Five did for Kurt Vonnegut I suspect The Zero, in time, will do for Jess Walter. In what some may view as an act of post-9/11 literary hubris ("the Zero" refers to ground zero in New York City), Walter has written a novel of darkly comic genius that is plot-driven, suspenseful, heavy on the dialogue, and above all, funny. No small feat for a novel that opens with street cop Brian Remy waking up to find he's shot himself in the head, then slowly discovering that he's somehow involved with a nefarious U.S. intelligence agency called the Department of Documentation. Unfortunately, Remy can't remember if he's one of the good guys or one of the bad guys. The novel's amnesia premise and jarring narrative gaps may wear thin at times -- Memento, anyone? -- but the real prize here is Walter's language. He has an unerring ear for dialogue, and his descriptions of the work that goes on atop the smoldering rubble of the Twin Towers -- and the men who carry out that work at their own peril -- are hellish, beautiful, and occasionally heart-stopping. A remarkable, highly recommended read.

What do you think? Which are your picks for best and worst 9/11 novel?


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