What would a proper novelistic response be to the attacks of 9-11? If everyone knows the central story, what stories can be told? A writer I know said that 9-11 shut down her capacity for fiction. Months later, she drafted a dozen pages in pursuit of what seemed to be both a narratively compelling and brokenhearted take on the tragedy, before realizing she was rewriting Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair.
Most novelists are still tuning out the 9-11 frequency, with some exceptions: The father of the protagonist in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition went missing on 9-11; the murderer in Lawrence Block’s Small Town loses his daughter in the attacks, and his wife commits suicide in grief. In Paul West’s 23rd book of fiction, The Immensity of the Here and Now, the aftereffects of that day gradually come into view, then withdraw into a jungle of memory and hallucination—the tragedy perpetually accessible and elusive, too easy and too impossible to imagine. West’s complex narrative voice relates the story of friends Shrop and Quent, amnesiac patient and paraplegic shrink, former Cambridge philosopher and ex-military man—a Beckettian dyad that splits the ravages of mind and body. With nods to cultural figures from Plato to Nigella Lawson (perhaps her first fictional immortalization), and sentences that interrogate their own structure, Immensity‘s generous helping of culture and language also exposes their inadequacy.
If the pair’s minutely rendered mental lives don’t always fascinate, at least West realizes failure as a theme. Shrop circles about his “lost philosophy,” throws (or imagines) a party for long-lost pals with names like “Lomar Antecedent,” and comes to recognize Oulipian Raymond Queneau’s formulation as his new and necessary creed: “How does one live in an absurd world? Absurdly.”