This summer’s New York novels to date — the books, that is, I’ve
consumed on my vacation: Richard Price’s Lush Life, Don DeLillo’s
Falling Man, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, and about half of Kevin
Baker’s Dreamland.

All but the last are post-9/11 novels; I’m thinking hard, in
particular, about similarities and differences between DeLillo’s and
O’Neill’s — why the prose is more satisfying in one but the other more
satisfying overall, and what they each do with 9/11.

But reading Baker, finally, has me thinking, too, of fiction and
history, one of DeLillo’s favorite topics (and mine too). I’ll have
more to say about all of the above novels over the next while, but for
now here’s a bit from an essay DeLillo published in the Times Book
back in ’97, around the time Underworld came out. I’m trying to
think about how well his description holds up in a new century, when
poststructuralism has finally started to lose its grip on academic
imagination but when DeLillo’s old ruminations on terrorists and novelists are heralded as prophetic and prescient (even as his new, post-9/11 novels are panned); and I’m trying to think about how well his ideas apply to
fiction — Baker’s, say — that unabashedly takes on the generic label
“historical fiction.”

Fiction does not obey reality even in the most
spare and semidocumentary work. Realistic dialogue is what we have agreed to call certain arrays of spoken
exchange that in fact have little or no connection with the way people speak. There is a deep density of convention
that allows us to accept highly stylized work as true to life. Fiction is true to a thousand things but rarely to clinical
lived experience. Ultimately it obeys the mysterious mandates of the self (the writer’s) and of all the people and
things that have surrounded him all his life and all the styles he has tried out and all the fiction (of other writers)
he has read and not read. At its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession,
superstition and awe.

Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship with history.

. . .

Language can be a form of counterhistory. The writer wants to construct a language that will be the book’s
life-giving force. He wants to submit to it. Let language shape the world. Let it break the faith of conventional

Language lives in everything it touches and can be an agent of redemption, the thing that delivers
us, paradoxically, from history’s flat, thin, tight and relentless designs, its arrangement of stark pages, and that
allows us to find an unconstraining otherness, a free veer from time and place and fate.

The language of a
novel — E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” say — can be so original and buoyant that it necessarily transforms the past.
The tonal prose creates its own landscape, psychology and patterns of behavior. It is stronger than the
weight-bearing reality of actual people and events. It has a necessary existence, while the source material is
exposed as merely contingent. In “Ragtime,” history and mock history tool along together. They form a kind of
syncopated reality in which diverse human voices ultimately come into conflict with a single uninflected voice, the
monotone of the state, the corporate entity, the product, the assembly line. In this novel, language is a democratic

Find the full essay here.
To be continued … maybe when I’ve consumed a few more 9/11 novels, or
at least when I’m ready to come back to Baker’s thoughts on similar
topics, as promised way back when