LOS ANGELES — On March 11, 2002 — the six-month anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — I found myself at two very different commemorating events. First was an open-air memorial service in Manhattan’s Battery Park for those killed when the twin towers of the World Trade Center fell. There were the usual speeches, by then-New York Gov. George Pataki, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, but the moving part of the ceremony came at 8:46 a.m., the exact time the first plane had slammed into the north tower: a moment of silence followed by the tolling of a small brass bell. It was as if, in that instant, all of us in attendance allowed ourselves to understand the inability of language to console us in the face of a tragedy so dislocating and vast. All the rhetoric faded, and we were left with a feeling of loss that was unutterable, in the sense that it defied words.
The second came a few hours later, at a symposium on the role of literature in a post-9/11 world. In retrospect, the idea seems ridiculous: How could we say anything definitive, six months afterward, about a cultural terrain that was then in the earliest stages of re-forming, let alone what it might suggest for literature? Yet there we were, listening as novelists and essayists and critics debated whether stories could be relevant anymore. For one, the problem was that literature had become inadequate in the face of history, while for another, it was a matter of timing: How to reflect a moment in which we could no longer say what tomorrow, or even this afternoon, might bring when it might take a year or more to see a book into print? Such sentiments reminded me of what I’d felt in Battery Park — the discomforting sensation that, in the new world we had now come to occupy, language, writing, narrative, might never again be enough.