The events of 9/11 and its aftermath shape the lives of a Washington couple in ‘Before, During, After’

The production of 9/11 literature has slowed from those hectic days in 2006 when we were getting hit by a new terrorism book every six hours, but the attacks on the World Trade Center and our subsequent wars continue to inspire new novels. Some, like The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers, march in the tradition of past wars by describing the harrowing experiences of soldiers who fought abroad. (We’ll see another example of that genre later this month when former U.S. Marine Michael Pitre publishes Fives and Twenty-Fives, a novel based on his battle experience in Iraq.) Others tell the domestic side of the story, and since al-Qaeda hit the literary capital of our country, it seemed for a while as though 9/11 had become the don’t-miss site on every novelist’s tour of duty.

The burden of approaching that tragedy afresh swells with each new book, which creates a challenge for Richard Bausch’s Before, During, After. As the title suggests, the story is wrapped around the terrorist attacks. A celebrated novelist and short story writer who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, Bausch began writing this novel seven years ago, after the 9/11 novels of Don DeLillo, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ian McEwan, Claire Messud, Ward Just, John Updike and others had already passed into paperback. Now, 13 years later, the events of that day and the following months are cast in a strange twilight as direct experience fades into historical memory. Freshmen starting high school this fall can’t remember the towers burning.

There’s nothing exhaustive or documentary about Bausch’s approach; a number of nonfiction books lay out those terrifying days in far greater detail. But Before, During, After, his 12th novel, presents an uncanny invocation of what it felt like when our lives split into pre- and post-9/11. It’s not just his selection of iconic TV images and news reports, although they have the creepy familiarity of half-remembered dreams. In the lives of a small group of smart, reflective characters, he also re-creates the anxiety of that rumor-spiked era, the clammy self-consciousness of “going about our normal lives” and especially the banal conversations that circled around the attacks like those helpless helicopters in Manhattan.

And yet Bausch’s real subject here is something more intimate. Just as Sue Miller did in her 9/11 novel, The Lake Shore Limited, Bausch explores the way private tragedy is distorted and subsumed by national disaster. And as Roxane Gay did in her recent novel, An Untamed State, he juxtaposes an individual act of sexual violence against the broader violence of countries.

The story — in three parts, “Before,” “During” and “After” — revolves around Natasha Barrett, an aide to a U.S. senator. Bausch writes, “It has been months since she had felt much of anything but weariness.” An affair with a married photographer had ended badly. Her exciting-sounding job leaves her no time to paint, her real love. But then, at a party for the Human Relations Conference, she meets an Episcopal priest named Michael Faulk. He works in Memphis, near her home town, and he’s recently divorced. We know where this is going, and Bausch doesn’t waste any time being coy. “Here, completely unforeseen,” Natasha thinks, “was something like light pouring in.” At 47, Michael is 16 years older, but he and Natasha are sensitive people, weary of their jobs and ready to try something else. For one thing, they’re both eager to move beyond “the white sustenance,” “the zone of gray calm,” and figure out how to be happy.

You don’t have to live in Washington to appreciate the sweet courtship between these two as they set off on nervous dates to the Corcoran Gallery and Mount Vernon, a reminder of what a romantic town this can be with the right person lighting it up. And rather than an obstacle, his seniority offers her “a disconcerting little revelation — how rarely she had been herself with any of the men she had known. It was as if she’d always had to labor through some unspoken contest of wit.” Not with Michael. With him, “she was full of the old thrilling sense of freshness, on the verge of a new life. . . . She would never have believed that she could love like this, where the whole world seemed divided in two: on the one side, away from him, the tiresome and gloomy city; on the other, where he was, all intensity and life, vividness and humor, and fascination in the littlest things.”

If the age difference troubles Michael, their multiple-orgasmic sex is a great clarifier. They decide to marry. The only detour from their path down the rose-petal aisle is Natasha’s long-planned trip to Jamaica in early September 2001. But that’s no trouble because Michael has a friend’s wedding to attend in Manhattan.

There’s more suspense woven into this plot than you might expect, so I’ll just note that Natasha and Michael experience that horrible day in different ways — and that moment of dislocation and disconnect quickly becomes the novel’s obsession.

In “After,” the final and longest part of the book, Bausch slows the pace to match the psychologically stalled condition of his characters’ arrested lives. It’s an effective, if sometimes frustrating, narrative strategy, drawn out almost in real time as these rattled people try their best to pretend that nothing is different, that they can remain in “their insular worlds of will and worry.” They remind each other: “If we change anything they win. … We’re supposed to not become paranoid. Not show any fear.” But beneath that new normal, they ask, “How could anyone find a way back to lightheartedness?” That journey is especially fraught when one’s private trauma is smothered beneath the country’s general calamity. Victims devoted to “a kind of hectic, feigned cheer” find their secret pain fermenting into shame and suspicion.

There’s a terrifically exciting conclusion, but before we get there, the way Bausch rubs these characters raw may wear on some readers’ patience. “What’s wrong?” we hear over and over. “Nothing,” comes the answer again and again and again. Tedious as this can sometimes feel, the story effectively re-creates the frustration of dealing with a victim in deep denial. It’s a harrowing reminder of how the reverberations of those explosions traveled through the American psyche. For all the novel’s lovely description of romance “before,” Bausch is even more insightful when he follows the corrosive effects of anxiety “after.”

Ron Charles reviewed this book for The Washington Post.