A Review of “Airplane Novel” by Paul A. Toth

Jessica Maybury

Toth has been described as a “notable force in contemporary fiction” and a “literary wizard.” Other reviews of the novel say that it’s a “wonderful cubist and surreal tale of truth through fiction.”

What is it, anyway?

THE 9/11 novel, apparently.

I wasn’t aware that there were others. The idea of there being others is slightly distasteful to me. Yes, there are novels about other dreadful happenings. The Holocaust, for example. The good books about it were only written decades later, when the writers had escaped a devastated Europe for a cleaner America. Or they’ve been starting to appear now,  when everyone who could remember what living in Berlin (for example) in 1941 was like.

Is Airplane Novel too soon?

Oddly, no. 9/11 was a strangely 21st century atrocity. Everyone feels they were there; it’s over familiar; it’s imprinted on our minds like movie reels when we close our eyes. It was bombarded at us from TV screens everywhere across the globe for months. Years later there are tales of dust settling, lungs clogging—memories of where we were, who we were with, the people we were at that time and place. The weather of that day is forever cordoned off in the mind.

In this respect, Airplane Novel is almost about something that didn’t happen.

To clarify:

The event has been so twisted and ballooned out of proportion, and blasted in our faces for so long, that a certain sense of desensitisation has crept in.


Correct me if I’m wrong, and I do of course mean no offence. I write from a country far away from America, from a viewpoint removed. When all you know of something is what you see on television, after a while it becomes almost like a story you’re watching on-stage, acted out by real people, yes, while remaining fundamentally unreal.

Reading Airplane Novel as a European, I read it without the visceral emotional investment that I know some of my American friends would have done. I read it, really, as a piece of fiction. A life and death of a building, the South Tower of the World Trade Centre.

As a literary work, the piece is tiresomely self-reflexive. I know that post-modernism is avant-garde in some other decade, but I do hope that we’re moving along a little now.

I got Toth’s point, though:

9/11, as broadcast on every station in the world, was a narrative, and as a narrative of this narrative, it’s therefore apparently imperative that we’re reminded it’s a narrative. The table of contents, for example, being the first thing we meet, is laid out in the arc of a novel’s perfect action: Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denouement.

Airplane Novel is not unlike a Quentin Tarantino film: brilliant beginning and end…and the most boring tosh in the middle that you’ve ever had to chew through. By this I mean pages upon pages of pointless extrapolation that reads as if it’s been put there to fill up time, as though Toth was being paid by the word.

As for the plot itself:

We are provided with an autobiography of sorts of the tower, and then sympathetic characters so that we can connect with the story, and finally, of course, the day itself.

My favourite character was George, the chronic masturbator, and his ex-wife Muriel, with her telescope. The characters are very vivid, moving through the mind’s eye as though they’d spontaneously come into being there. Not very many writers achieve such fluidity without reams of Dickensian description.

In summary:

Eminently quotable—the man can certainly write a damn good sentence—and with endearing, terribly ‘real’ characters, Airplane Novel, nevertheless, feels wishy-washy. The bombing, when it finally does come, is anti-climactic, but perhaps that was Toth’s point all along. Violence means nothing to us anymore.

Official Paul A. Toth Web Site
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3 Responses to “A Review of “Airplane Novel” by Paul A. Toth”

  1. Thank you for reviewing Airplane Novel. Amongst the digs, I find a fair amount of compliments, for which I thank you.

    However, I find it rather strange to review a novel based on an event in which the reviewer professes no interest or connection. I can understand not feeling emotionally and/or intellectually bound to 9/11 based on any number of reasons, but at the same time such a prejudiced viewpoint is going to negatively skew the reviewer’s reading before she opens the book. For the reason, I would never review addiction memoir number 1,007,699; zero stars could be the only result. And I only hope the reviewer jests as she proclaims being unaware of other 9/11 novels. Whether living in Europe, Asia or nearly anywhere else, those attuned to the writing world could hardly avoid the questions constantly raised as to whether novels, films, etc. could “capture” 9/11. Being unaware of other 9/11 novels would cause any reviewer to misunderstand THIS 9/11 novel. And that’s what clearly occurred.

    Example: What the reviewer calls “postmodern” denotes a major lapse in attention. Certainly, the novel plays with structure in the way other novels described as “postmodern” do, but for entirely different purposes. I labeled the various sections “Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, Denouement” in line with savage attacks on Strunk & White and all the other Popes and catechisms of publishing. The novel is in part a satire on novels and also memoirs. The sections mock the dot-to-dot narrative arcs of contemporary “literature,” for which I haven’t the slightest patience, knowing the ending must — must — be redemptive. Thus, becoming a temporary drug addict is now a career move. A few months of highs and lows, a stint in a comfy rehab, and then it’s time to write that memoir.

    Nor can I bear reading even the back-cover description of one more mass-produced MFA novel concerning an adulterous professor, immigrant whose olfactory delight supposedly proves marvelous “craftsmanship” (in the sense of a well-made birdhouse), or a divorced woman on her way to Maine to fall in love with a sensitive fisherman.

    I wouldn’t write the acceptable brand of “literary” novel under any circumstances, much less when I decided to write a 9/11 novel. In fact, Airplane Novel received two to three page letters from almost every major publisher, full of praise, some verging on positive literary criticism I would never have predicted. Unfortunately, those same letters ended with the usual concerns regarding marketing. I anticipated that my novel would fail to meet marketing standards during the writing process. Knowing that in all but the rarest cases, major publishers will only publish and promote novels for simpletons, I went so far as to title the climax “Climax.” But, even in trying to use simplicity as a satirical attack on simplicity, I obviously failed to be simple enough.

    Regarding the novel being “self-reflexive,” it’s intended to generate self-reflection on the part of the reader. It’s quite acceptable to me the reviewer finds this aspect monotonous; I’ve always known this would be a “love it or hate it” novel, and I simultaneously knew that for this book alone, I would take the most derogatory review as a compliment that would prove I had violated exactly the standards I had sought to ridicule. Mission accomplished.

    To prove the point, this is the kindest bashing I’ve ever taken in a review. I again thank the reviewer for the positive comments. I accept, if not agree with, the negative comments. I post this response only in hopes that readers of this review will not bypass reading Airplane Novel based on the negative comments presented by someone admittedly uninterested in the topic, and who misidentifies satire that couldn’t have been more clearly presented as “postmodernism.” Accordingly, irony, a keystone of “postmodernism” in its “avant-garde” days, is directly attacked by the narrator: “I do not understand irony. I understand steel.”

    No, this book is not for everyone, particularly those lacking any interest in the subject, as well as anyone whose idea of satire peaks out at Saturday Night Live skits. Finally, if I had been writing as if paid by the word, I assure the reviewer and all potential readers that if I had been paid by the word, I would have written a novel with far more than the paperback version’s 208 pages. Perhaps I could have even purchased a 1978 car.

    In summary, I suspect this review’s readers have 208 pages of time to spare the only 9/11 novel that doesn’t heap literary schmaltz upon its subject. Perhaps you will love it, perhaps you will hate it, but you will definitely not put it on your shelf with the conviction you’ve read the same “literary novel” a thousand times before. And if that were my only accomplishment in writing Airplane Novel — and it isn’t — then I would still consider it a success that will endure and outlast our historical attention deficit disorder.


    Paul A. Toth

  2. […] Airplane Novel (notable, really, because of the author’s response in the lengthy comment below the review) […]

  3. TheCubsWin says:

    I question the maturity of a writer who goes on the attack when his novel is reviewed. Someone didn’t learn to play nice during workshops. Think I’ll give this read a miss…

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