All great events—wars, revolutions, economic disasters—impose a new conception of reality on their survivors, and it was clear soon after the attack on the twin towers in New York in 2001 that the abrupt and radical reconfiguration of social and political forces would also challenge novelists, exerting new pressure on the delicate art form of the realist novel. Ian McEwan was not alone in thinking that “we had gone through great changes and now was the time to just go back to school, as it were, and start to learn.” Not only did the scale of the atrocity, and the malevolence behind it, dwarf the most capacious imagination. It shattered the respite from large-scale violence and chaos that the West had enjoyed following World War II and then the Vietnam War, a period of peace and affluence which, though menaced by nuclear war, allowed novelists to imagine themselves working within relatively stable and self-contained bourgeois societies.
As the origins of September 11 in cold-war policies in Afghanistan and the Middle East were exposed, a great and tangled web of actions and motivations came to light: a netherworld in which governments, corporations, ideologies, and organized religions perpetually clashed, making violence and dispossession an everyday reality for much of the world’s population. Novelists could still render the effect of what Henry James in his preface to The Princess Casamassima called “our not knowing,…society’s not knowing, but only guessing and suspecting and trying to ignore what ‘goes on’ irreconcileably, subversively, beneath the vast smug surface.” But they could not remain oblivious to the sinisterly interconnected world that had been lying beneath the garish surface of postwar affluence and consumerism.
The cold war, for instance, was cold “only for the rich and privileged places of the planet,” as Nadeem Aslam writes in his extraordinary new novel set in Afghanistan. Since 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, provoking the United States to organize a global anti-Communist jihad, the country has been continually subjected to mass bloodletting and ethnic cleansing. The Soviet withdrawal in 1989 was followed by a vicious civil war among warlords, and, as Aslam writes, it remains possible today, seven years after the collapse of the Taliban regime,
to lift a piece of bread from a plate and, following it back to its origins, collect a dozen stories concerning war—how it affected the hand that pulled it out of the oven, the hand that kneaded the dough, how war impinged upon the field where the wheat was grown.
But then even the writer who manages to collect these stories faces formidable technical challenges in transmuting them into art. The cold war remains a boon to the genre novelist—the writers of spy thrillers and romantic fiction. But the disorder of countries where the Soviet Union and the free world fought for hegemony seems to cancel many of the assumptions of the literary novelist: particularly the liberal humanist notion, which has given the novel its centrality and …