Monday musings on Australian literature: the Australian 9/11 novel

With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 having been commemorated on the weekend, I thought I might explore how 9/11 affected – if at all – Australian fiction. Before I start, though, I have two provisos: one is that my focus will be fiction, not literature, or culture more widely; and two is that, like many of my Monday Musings posts, this will not be a comprehensively researched post, but one intended to throw out some ideas that we all might like to think and share our ideas about.

So, here goes, starting with …

What, if anything, is the 9/11 novel?

I didn’t find a definitive answer, but I’d say the “genre” encompasses novels which speak directly of 9/11 and those which are (or which seem to be, even) inspired by it.

Arin Keeble, from Nottingham Trent University, discussed these novels in The Conversation back in 2016, in an article titled “Why the 9/11 novel has been such a contested and troubled genre”. Keeble discusses the intense debate that these novels engendered, including the concern by some that the focus on 9/11 has “undercut the complex prehistories and aftermaths of 9/11, giving it inflated importance in the world narrative”. He notes that the novels that came out around 2006/7, by Don DeLillo, Claire Messud, Jay McInerney and Ken Kalfus, all explored the event through marriage and relationship narratives. He quotes from a critique by Pankaj Mishra, who wondered whether we are “meant to think of marital discord as a metaphor for post-9/11 America?” Keeble writes that Mishra and others criticised these novels ‘for their “failure” to engage with otherness and the geopolitics of 9/11’. Other critics and commentators weighed in, disagreeing. Read the article – it’s short – if you are interested.

The point that Keeble makes is that, regardless of how “polarised” the debate became, the impact was to ascribe “great importance to the 9/11 novel” and, as a result, to reinforce “the idea of 9/11 as a defining moment”. Writers like Zadie Smith, however, saw this emphasis on 9/11 as an example of “American exceptionalism”.

Other novels did come out with a more political and/or international bent, like Mohsin Hamid’s powerful The reluctant fundamentalist, but marriage and relationships are still at their centre, and they “continue to explore the way privileged Americans absorb and respond to trauma”. Keeble concludes on a book that he believes most aligns with Zadie Smith’s views, Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding edge which “goes the furthest in challenging the singular importance attached to 9/11 in its intertwined historical narrative, weaving in the significance of the collapse of the dotcom bubble in 2000 and a history of the internet’s transition from an anarchic to a completely corporate space”.

I have read several non-Australian books “inspired” by 9/11, from Don DeLillo’s Falling man (2007) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely loud and incredibly close (2005) to Ian McEwan’s Saturday (2005) and the aforementioned The reluctant fundamentalist (2007). Each is quite different, but Hamid’s is particularly memorable because of its point of view and the tone he sustains throughout.

Unfortunately, none of this furthers my 9/11-in-Australian-fiction topic. My excuse is that it was in The Conversation and it provides a good introduction.

And, in Australia?

However, some Australian novelists have contributed to the genre. This 2010 article published in JASAL by Jen Webb sounds interesting, from its abstract:

Australian fiction is, arguably, as diverse as the fiction of any other culture or era. But in a globalised world, though the stories we tell may remain inflected by the local context, they will necessarily be informed by transnational relations and geopolitical events. Like writers in the USA, UK, Afghanistan and elsewhere, some Australian novelists have taken arms against a sea of troubles, and produced work that directly and consciously engages that new genre, the post September 11 novel. Only a small number of Australian novels have been published in this genre – perhaps inevitably, given our distance from the scene – and they can be read as relying on the familiar features of the thriller, the detective, or the citygrrl genres that readers find attractive. However, I will suggest that they do more than this. In a reading of Andrew McGahan’s Underground, and Richard Flanagan’s The unknown terrorist, I will discuss the ways in which a very local ‘accent’ is coloured by broader forces, and what contributions we can offer, here at the foot of the world, to the ongoing conflicts and human rights abuses in the hemisphere above us. 

Regrettably, I don’t know what ways and contributions he discusses, so we’ll just have to guess. Meanwhile, I have read Flanagan’s novel, and will throw two other novels into the mix, though they’re not set in Australia, Janette Turner Hospital’s Due preparations for the plague (2003) and Orpheus lost (my review) (2007).

Richard Carr, in ‘”A world of … risk, passion, intensity, and tragedy”: The post-9/11 Australian novel’ (Antipodes, 23 (1), June 2009), mentions the novels by Hospital, Flanagan (2006) and McGahan (2006), but adds two I didn’t know, A.L. McCann’s Subtopia (2005) and Linda Jaivin’s The infernal optimist (2006). He says that all these novels:

entered a world attuned to the destructive potential of the terrorist and wary of the terrorist desire to wreak havoc.

In fact, the terrorist as a symbol of a New Australia defined against an older, safer country is a recurring thematic pattern.

Carr discusses the novels, individually, and, while they are all different, they express some commonalities regarding our “contemporary obsession with terrorism”. To simplify muchly, these include fear of other (often encouraged by government) and lying about other, which result in actions like the scapegoating or oppression of innocent people and increasing reduction in liberty.

Carr also draws some broader conclusions – remember he was writing in 2009 – that I found interesting, and still relevant. He proposes that this obsession

sublimates long-standing sources of guilt and fear: the taking of the land from its rightful owners, the cruelty of the founding penal system, the inhumanity of the treatment accorded Aborigines into the present-day. Whatever the reason … Australian has followed America’s lead in assigning national security its highest priority and identifying the terrorist as the primary threat to that goal.

Do you have any thoughts about this and/or the 9/11 novel?

20 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: the Australian 9/11 novel

  1. Orpheus Lost is the only novel you mention which I have read – and I found it immensely powerful. 9/11 was a terrible shock to Americans, they had no idea they too might be vulnerable. Though I don’t think many of them saw it as inevitable consequence of their constant pillaging of the Middle East and support for Israeli expansion.
    The othering of Muslims by Americans and Australians following 9/11, and the astonishing reduction of civil liberties is being protested relatively widely in Australian Lit I think, though no example springs to mind.

  2. Hello Whispering Writer. Here I send you a link about the Review of my bilingual book on 11 Sept 1973 in Chile


    Heather Taylor Johnson reviews “Once Poemas” by Juan Garrido Salgado | Mascara Literary Review ( ________________________________

  3. I look forward to the novel that dares to grapple with unanswered questions surrounding the massive explosions that occurred in WTC 1 and 2 about an hour after the planes hit them, hurling steel girders 600 feet sidewards and entirely pulverising both buildings leaving only piles of dust and steel fragments. There is no official explanation as to how these explosions could have been caused by fire in the upper levels and why the buildings came down in free fall. There is also no explanation for why Building 7, which was not hit by a plane and had very small fires in the upper levels, also came down in free fall, as can be clearly seen in several videos. Interestingly, there is video and eye witness evidence that authorities knew that building was coming down as told to people they cleared away an hour beforehand. There is also video evidence that the collapse of Building 7 was announced on air 23 minutes before it happened.
    A courageous writer would write about the 8 families of the deceased who are filing a law suit against the US National Institute of Standards and Technology and the 15,000 architects and engineers who are demanding a full enquiry into the possible use of explosives in the collapse of all three buildings.
    I am not a conspiracy theorist and never have been, but the visual evidence, and evidence by many, many experts, I believe is absolutely astounding.
    If you visit the website, you will find a fascinating and challenging read:

  4. I read Safran Foer’s novel that you mention, and I know I read Luminarium by Alex Shakar, which is set five years after 9/11, and that’s important for some reason, but I forget. In general, I think there was a divide between folks who became super patriotic and those of us who were terrified for our friends and colleagues who were brown. After the Towers were hit, there was immediate concern at the local college for the safety of students who looked Middle Eastern. I read the nonfiction book See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love by Valarie Kaur in which she discusses Sikh people who were targeted after 9/11 because people thought they looked Muslim.

  5. I would tend to avoid novels that are JUST about 9/11. Several reasons for that: depressing and potentially exploitive. 9/11 may creep in and I’m ok with that as long as it’s not forced which unfortunately seems to be the case too often. Now it’s COVID which, as a topic, IMO can suffer from the same problems.

  6. Hi Sue,

    A topical post! I have been musing of late on the loss of optimism that came with 9/11 and Howard’s stupid fridge magnets.

    Kirsten Tranter’s ‘The Legacy’ is about 9/11. I quite enjoyed it, although it was a bit floppy towards the end.

    Also, JASAL is open access so you should be able to access Ian’s essay – you may have to go the issue itself in the archives to find the pdf.


    • Thanks Jess, and lovely to hear from you.

      I didn’t know about Kirsten Tranter’s book, so thanks for that. It was a difficult topic to search.

      And thanks re JASAL. You made me look again, because indeed I had accessed the journal and the 2010 issues, but delving further I discovered that somehow the abstract had the name Ian Henderson, but the piece was written by Jen Webb. I will now read it, albeit a bit late for this post!

  7. I might be in danger of sounding rather dense here but why exactly was it a problem that some books reinforced “the idea of 9/11 as a defining moment”. It WAS a defining moment surely, fo example completely changing American’s perceptions of the threats to their nation and their level of preparedness. Plus of course sowing the seeds of animosity to anyone who didn’t “look” or “sound” American.

    • No you don’t sound dense at all Karen. and in fact I’m inclined to agree with you, not with some of the critics. Some pankd to disasters that resulted in greater loss of life, like the Bhopal factory disaster, and said we didn’t end up with the Bhopal novel. But the thing is, as you say, this event did change the world. In addition to your points is its obvious impact on security at all levels but particularly re air travel. That has affected every traveller the world over I would have thought.

        • No, good point Karen. I do think the critics were reacting emotionally to America’s reaction rather than thinking rationally. Like you, I think it’s obviously been a defining moment. However I don’t think all defining moments are the same? The pandemic for example will probably be a defining moment/event?

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