The morning after

I was in New York on September 11th. The sound of sirens jolted me out of bed, as ambulances and fire trucks raced downtown after the first tower was hit. My roommate, also in his pajamas, turned on the TV. We watched the billowing smoke, and then the second plane bank, hit, and explode.

The morning after, though, is what I remember best. Compelled by an instinct I couldn’t then quite explain, I woke early and got on the subway. Surprisingly, the cars were full. Not packed as they should have been during rush hour on a Wednesday, but every seat was taken by a well dressed commuter — going where, I’m not sure, as most offices were closed. It was as quiet as a church. Every single one was reading the newspaper, silently and with great intensity, their faces hidden behind the looming headlines of the Times or the Post.

But there was no news that morning, at least nothing that hadn’t already already been reported and repeated, in a seemingly infinite loop, on ABC and CNN. I wonder whether it wasn’t something else that got them, and me, out that morning: the dread of the still unknown and unforeseen, the hope that a mundane act — taking the subway, reading the paper — might contain some magic that could lessen the shock and uncertainty.

The most impressive feat in Porochista Khakpour’s magnificent new novel, The Last Illusion, is that it manages to peel back the calcified layers of myth and memorialization, all that 9/11 has come to mean since, and to capture the dread that I and others felt that first morning: before we knew who had attacked us, or why; before we knew what war was coming; before the USA PATRIOT Act, Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan, Iraq, torture, secret prisons, and Freedom Fries. As Khakpour unfurls her tale, that old sense of foreboding, buried but not forgotten, mounts until it becomes almost unbearable. And at the novel’s end, just as on that day, we are left with no answers, no explanations, and no idea of what comes next; just the vision of frightened New Yorkers fleeing uptown amidst clouds of dust and ash.

Read the review from 2014 in The Marginalia Review of Books.