An aspiring writer’s memoir of September 11 focuses on the strangeness of life in New York City before and after the attack.
Bryan Charles’s memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, starts with what seems like a familiar template: young aspiring writer from small Michigan town moves to New York City at the turn of the millennium with literary aspirations. Intrigue arrives when said young writer finds a job as a financial marketing copywriter for Morgan Stanley—working in the World Trade Center. The reader knows what’s coming and might be tempted to think she can see how the story will unfold. But the reader would be wrong.
After landing the job with Morgan Stanley, Charles spends his days in a cubicle on the 70th floor, wasting time on the Internet, attending meetings, fantasizing about female co-workers, struggling through “the endless hours between two and five.” He continues to try to write fiction, sending story after story to literary magazines and receiving nothing but rejection notes. He is consumed by jealousy when a friend of his gets a story accepted by the Paris Review. He wanders around the city, dreaming about the day he’ll see his book in bookstores. Through this, he’s always aware of the Twin Towers, whose architectural presence serve as constant reminder of the endless workdays and business-casual outfits to which he’s consigned himself. On his 26th birthday, Charles describes a feeling of “time getting away from me, the reins slipping from my hands.”
Then September 11 arrives. Charles’s memoir captures the truth of historical events, which is that those in the thick of things have no way of knowing what is happening, and even less ability to understand what it all means. A voice on the building’s intercom insists that although there has been trouble in one tower, the other tower is safe and workers should return to their desks. Charles and his co-workers, confused and packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the stairwell, feel the tower being shaken to its foundations. They don’t know the building has been struck by a airplane.
That scene in the stairwell is the emotional center of There’s a Road, the throbbing heart that infuses the rest of the narrative with meaning. Charles describes seeing an overweight woman in the stairwell, shoeless and praying aloud. “I felt a need to touch someone,” he writes, and describes reaching out to touch his friend and the crying woman. He may not know what has just happened, why the tower has been filled with a “huge noise” and a swaying that shakes the entire stairwell, but he knows what’s most important: the people standing next to him. Co-workers who previously lacked distinguishing characteristics now take shape as fully fleshed-out people with emotions are just as real as Charles’s own.
Charles’s account of his experience in the World Trade Center is heartbreaking, in part because it feels senseless while it is happening and almost immediately starts to be obscured by retellings. By the end of the day, the event is already slipping from his grasp as he tries to reconstruct it with a co-worker who was with him in the stairwell. Later that week, on a conference call set up by his boss to discuss how their business will proceed, a co-worker mentions an interview she did with the Times: “Look for it, they may or may not quote me.” Reporters from Charles’s hometown call him for interviews, and Charles finds himself wishing he had a more dramatic story to tell:
Why couldn’t I have been trapped in the rubble—for some short period of time and then removed unharmed? Why couldn’t I have been injured—mildly, something that bled a lot but wasn’t dangerous, maybe a cut on the arm?
In other words, those burdensome egos momentarily forgotten in the stairwell rise up again. Each person is again a separate, imprisoned self, certain that they are special in some way yet terrified no one else will recognize their specialness.
There’s a Road is not a book about September 11, per se. It’s about being young in an extremely large world, a world whose largeness is exemplified by two towers so tall you can’t even see the top of them when you’re standing at the bottom. It’s about confronting disaster and waiting for an official voice to come over the intercom and tell you what you should be doing. Charles describes ditching work to wander the city a few weeks prior to the attacks, reading books, wandering graveyards, thinking:
You must change your life.
I don’t know how.
After the disaster, Charles does not know how to change his life any more than he did before. But he has been given a glimpse of some of the ways in which he’s been living dishonestly. “Giuliani had said somewhere that innocent people were in the World Trade Center nobly pursuing their dreams,” he writes. “But I’m no innocent and I wasn’t pursuing my dream there, I was watching it die.”
The power of Charles’s writing comes from its insistence on almost reportorial detail. The most horrifying passages are in some ways those that describe the events of the morning of September 11 before the planes hit: the checking of morning e-mail, the company-sponsored seminar on Feedbacking Your Peers that’s scheduled to start at nine o’clock. Because we know what’s coming, these details take on an aura of outsized significance. Then, of course, the day ends, the rubble remains, and life in all its grinding dailiness resumes its course. Larger significance is again not easy to find, and all Charles can offer the reader are the moment-by-moment details of his days: a week after the attack, a woman with a “helpless smile” offering free cookies outside a small cookie shop with a sign that says “Grand Opening”; the tables in the Business Interruption Facility (Morgan Stanley’s temporary office space) “covered with baskets of Pop-Tarts, Nutter Butters, Oreos, Hershey bars, Fritos, Rice Krispie Treats…” The juxtaposition of the most mundane of details with the hugeness of New York City and the incomprehensibility of a terrorist attack manages to show us something not just about September 11 but about our 21st-century lives: how easy it is to lose our way as we confront the innumerable roads that stretch before us.