So many novels include the attacks and their traumatic aftermath as a plot point. When you consider the ramifications of a tragedy like this, the artistic choice makes sense. The pain and pathos come ready-made; for many writers, a narrative involving such a catastrophe would be too poignant to resist.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s 2006 Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close follows Oskar Schell as he recovers from his father’s death in the World Trade Center. Don DeLillo’s protagonist in 2007’s Falling Man survives, but is overcome with horror: “He heard the sound of the second fall, or felt it in the trembling air, the north tower coming down, a soft awe of voices in the distance.”
Moshfegh’s novel, which came out this July, is not strictly about 9/11, but rather an intimate chamber piece which evokes, in startling detail, the particular complacency and excess that enveloped New York City at the beginning of the 21st century. The writer’s narrator is an affluent addict—the most loathsome breed of diligent layabout whose days revolve around the consumption of sleeping pills and pacifying her sole close friend, a self-help-obsessed bulimic named Reva.
Haughtily referring to herself as blonde and gorgeous, the protagonist is reminiscent of the notorious literary whirling dervish Cat Marnell. As time marches on and Moshfegh’s story seeps into 2001, the narrator buckles down to accomplish her goal of staying unconscious for a full calendar year, calling on assistants and her irresponsible psychiatrist to help her get the job done.
As the character grows numb to the world, the reader grows steadily more wary, searching sentences for clues of the calamity they know is right around the corner. Moshfegh’s prose is remarkable and propulsive, like a J train unexpectedly whipping out of the Marcy Avenue station:
“Any normal person would have worried about what the drugs would do to her health. I wasn’t completely naive about the potential dangers. My father had been eaten alive by cancer. I’d seen my mother in the hospital full of tubes, brain dead. I’d lost a childhood friend to liver failure after she took acetaminophen on top of DayQuil in high school. Life was fragile and fleeting and one had to be cautious, sure, but I would risk death if it meant I could sleep all day and become a whole new person.”
When the narrator awakes from her medically induced haze and reemerges from her expensive apartment into a city that’s about to be changed forever, she does so having accomplished something insanely ill-advised and completely personal—a type of rebirth.
Can a novel accurately capture the scope of a monumental disaster? At first, Moshfegh seems to shrug off this task in favor of grappling with death and resurrection on an individual scale, but the book’s conclusion proves to be radically expansive for the freshly optimistic narrator.
Making sense of a senseless tragedy is an impossible task. But in Moshfegh’s tale, the protagonist, nameless until the end, carries on living, newly armed with the knowledge that embracing the full breadth of experience with eyes wide open is all any of us can do.