The word "plot" can mean a secret plan, or it can refer to the storyline of a film or novel. Almost as soon as the first hijacked plane hit the north tower of the World Trade Center, 10 years ago on Sunday, people were remarking on the resemblance of the all-too-real calamity striking New York — one kind of plot — to the spectacular moments from another: the action blockbusters that had made a fetish out of blowing up the White House or the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the most banal of observations: "this was just like a movie".
It was also, unquestionably, a nearly universal first response; witness the anonymous bystander to horror in Jules and Gédéon Naudet's documentary 9/11 (2002), remarking wistfully, as the towers burnt in front of him, that the scene reminded him of the 1970s Hollywood disaster extravaganza The Towering Inferno.
For novelists, filmmakers and other storytellers, the tragic events of September 11 posed an inherent difficulty: how to represent a story already so familiar?
"There will always be something so unreal about what happened on September 11 that it will always be a challenge for us to really tell the truth," says Dana Heller, editor of The Selling of 9/11: How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity. "That event has already become part of the world of fiction, even though it really happened."
The books and movies born of September 11 were torn between the compulsion to look, and the equally strong desire to look away. How much could be revealed about the horror of the day itself? What would it tell us about ourselves? About the United States? While journalism, much of it about the unfamiliar Muslim world, filled the immediate gap after September 11, feature films and novels on the subject required a number of years to germinate.
The first films on it - Oliver Stone's World Trade Center (2006) and United 93 (2006), directed by Paul Greengrass - mingled realism with moral uplift, intending to soothe as much as reanimate the hardly dormant terrors of the day. United 93's story is one of tragedy and heroism intertwined, a quasi-documentary look at the hijacking with no frills and no stars. The film is agonisingly tense, but its tension stems not from our not knowing what is to happen, but from our knowing precisely what is to take place. In its hushed intensity, United 93 is a thriller with a preordained ending, a patriotic exercise of near-spiritual acuteness.
Trapped in the wreckage of the twin towers, the two police officers of World Trade Center (Nicolas Cage and Michael Peña) lie pinned beneath the rubble, side-by-side like two boys at the world's most hellish slumber party. But Stone wants to have his tragedy and duck it, too, and so they are both victims and survivors, all at once.
This is world-historic calamity with a sunny ending.
"You're not seeing people dying in the towers, burning to death," says David Simpson, author of 9/11: The Culture of Commemoration, about this crop of films. "You're not seeing them jump."
Films explicitly about the events of September 11 generated little audience enthusiasm, and nor did many about post-September 11 America, such as In the Valley of Elah, Rendition and Redacted, all released in 2007.
"Films that deal with 9/11 directly haven't done very well at the box office," says Jeff Birkenstein, co-editor of Reframing 9/11: Film, Popular Culture, and the "War on Terror".
These stories were also torn between the desire to comfort and the desire to complicate. There was much that they could not, or would not, say. Like the Holocaust, the events of September 11 were deemed too horrific to depict head-on. It was an absence that could only be approached from the margins, whether it was the disjointed sound and image of Alejandro González Iñárritu's short Mexico, from the omnibus film 11'09''01 - September 11 (2002), the glimpses of ground zero — a scar covering a cavernous emptiness — in Spike Lee's 25th Hour (2002), or the underrated comedy The Great New Wonderful (2005), in which the memory of the attacks, unmentioned and unmentionable, haunt life in New York in the fall of 2002. Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) provided sound — shouts and screams and journalists' reports from the World Trade Center site — but no image, the stark power of the black screen summoning the familiar host of memories.
The spirit produced by September 11 — angry, defiant, paranoid, patriotic, vengeful — was present almost before the pile at ground zero had burnt itself out. Paranoia was in the air: in the revenge-minded outlaws of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill (2003/2004) and Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, killing their way to justice; in the battle-scarred urban refugees of M Night Shyamalan's The Village (2004), fleeing their own memories; and later, in the unbearably charged pas-de-deux between Christian Bale's Batman and Heath Ledger's Joker in The Dark Knight (2008). None of these films was about September 11, precisely, and yet they all were reflections of a changed landscape, in which all the tamped-down unease of American life had come roaring back to the surface.
A small fleet of films wrestled with the post-September 11 milieu of war and insecurity and fear. Referencing the trauma only indirectly, they were films for the anguished liberal conscience — tentative explorations of a complex world beyond American shores. In films like Michael Winterbottom's A Mighty Heart (2007), or Stephen Gaghan's Syriana (2005), the mood was perilous, offering the vertigo-like sensation of Americans stumbling into the morass of the world's sufferings and resentments.
The mingled sorrow and anger were a reflection of "being drawn in two ways, wanting to tell the story in such a way so as to preserve this sense of national integrity, national pride, national strength and the preservation of American empire and American might, and then this sense that the nation was so deeply wounded and caught off guard", says Heller.
The patriotic lockstep of post-September 11 American politics lent its art an ideological tinge. They were either with the country's march to war, or against it.
"Just choosing to write about 9/11 is itself a political act," says Ken Kalfus, author of the satirical September 11 novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country, published in 2006. "I wanted to create a counternarrative. I wanted to puncture the official line, the story that we were telling ourselves."
In truth, most of the September 11 stories being told were actually about what happened after September 11. "Even in writers who confront 9/11 more directly, like [Jay] McInerney or [Claire] Messud, they're asking the question, 'Is it right to go back to ordinary life, and how does one do that?'" says Simpson.
The best novels on September 11, like Kalfus's Disorder, McInerney's The Good Life, Messud's The Emperor's Children, both 2006, or Jonathan Safran Foer's 2005 book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which has been given the feature film treatment, starring Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock, and is due out before the end of the year in limited US release), were about picking up the pieces, their deliberately small-bore stories of individual suffering and redemption reflecting the larger process of American recuperation after calamity. Meanwhile, the giants of American literature such as Don DeLillo and John Updike struck out, their novels Falling Man (2007) and Terrorist (2006), respectively, surprisingly unable meaningfully to conjoin their traditional concerns with the 21st century's most resonant event so far.
At their best, as in McInerney's compelling tale of a wealthy, disaffected New Yorker finding purpose amid the emergency workers at ground zero, or David Foster Wallace's novella The Suffering Channel (2004) the literature of September 11 was cathartic; at their worst, they were exercises in the narcissism of turning history into a self-absorbed monologue. "In a way," says Simpson, "9/11 [literature] has devolved into questions about life after September 11, and that's very hard to write about, since we're still in the middle of it."
Ten years after that Tuesday in September, a few months after the killing of the plot's mastermind, we seem to have reached a turning point in the story we have been continually telling ourselves about September 11.
"We begin it when the planes hit the tower," says Heller. "That's when we usually begin the story. Will we end it now that Bin Laden is dead? Does the story have closure now? That's an interesting question for us to think about on the anniversary."