May 4, 2007
Don DeLillo: Falling Man
Another September 11 novel. Soon they will have an area to themselves in bookstores, perhaps alongside the Misery Memoirs section. (My local Waterstone’s does have one of those, in fact called Painful Pasts. I suppose it’s an act of humanity, aimed at decontaminating the rest of the Biography shelves.) Several prominent authors have written around or been inspired by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, some – John Updike, Jay McInerney - less successfully than others – Patrick McGrath, Jonathan Safran Foer. But with Falling Man, Don DeLillo has looked it in the eye more steadily than any of them. He has faced the day down and made it into a curious and satisfying work of art.
We don’t look to Don DeLillo for linearity, plain glass prose, or loveable characters. As with his other novels, whole pages of dialogue in Falling Man can pass without the eye ever catching on anything naturalistic or plausible. But the impressionistic blur of his writing seems particularly suited to the subject matter here. Like the fresh memories of 9/11, it is jagged, disorienting, obscure.
He takes a shattered family as the centre of the story. Keith Neudecker, estranged from his wife Lianne and son Justin, finds himself drawn back to the family home after getting out of one of the towers before it collapsed. Lest we should think this is a togetherness-in-adversity story, he is also drawn to a woman, Florence, whose briefcase he finds himself carrying after he escapes. He is displaced, having lost his poker buddies in the attacks, and looking for a new centre to hold to. (“He would tell her about Florence. She would get a steak knife and kill him. He would tell her about Florence. She would enter a period of long and tortured withdrawal.”)
Keith’s wife Lianne runs a writing group for people with Alzheimer’s (“the handwriting that might melt into runoff”). In the aftermath, like everyone else, they want to talk about the planes. Keith and Florence also want to talk about the planes (“It still looks like an accident, the first one. … The second plane, by the time the second plane appears, we’re all a little older and wiser”). Here DeLillo gives us sentences on the subject that already sound like a definitive account:
The second plane coming out of that ice blue sky, this was the footage that entered the body, that seemed to run beneath her skin… A clear sky that carried human terror in those streaking aircraft, first one, then the other, the force of men’s intent. Every helpless desperation set against the sky, human voices crying to God and how awful to imagine this, God’s name on the tongues of killers and victims both…
As always DeLillo’s interest is not just in the event, but how we see it, how technology filters it, and how news of it spreads. A performance artist styled Falling Man imitates the famous image from the man jumping from the north tower (“She thought it could be the name of a trump card in a tarot deck, Falling Man, name in gothic type, figure twisting down in a stormy night sky”). And he’s equally strong on the immediate aftermath in the streets below:
It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.
The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, bursting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.
And what all this brings home – the towers, the planes, the Alzheimer’s sufferers, the fragility of the family – is mortality, the falling of man through life to death. Characters’ fears bubble up everywhere, whether in seeing themselves in the mirror (“What you see is not what we see. What you see is distanced by memory, by being who you are, all this time, for all these years”) or in renewing their passports (“Ten years come and gone, like a sip of tea”). DeLillo, at 71, is well placed to tackle such preoccupations.
What’s surprising about Falling Man are the flashes of humour, whether in Keith’s observation that “it might be hard to find a taxi at a time when every cabdriver in New York was named Muhammad,” or the funny and true observation of how children’s attachment to mishearings could lead them to watch the skies for a man named Bill Lawton. DeLillo also surprises us by at the end of each section, switching from the post-trauma survivors to the pre-attack lives of the hijackers. (“He watched TV in a bar near the flight school and liked to imagine himself appearing on the screen, a videotaped figure walking through the gatelike detector on his way to the plane.”) He takes us all the way into September 11 from both sides and doesn’t flinch. And what is not surprising is that the book’s scattered approach and portentous tone can be frustrating, and that it glitters with pixel-perfect phrases and descriptions, and breathtaking set pieces.
Whenever a book comes along which addresses a major event, it’s easy to overstate its importance or worth simply because of the subject. But Falling Man seems to me to stand up on literary grounds too, to display a cumulative brilliance that offsets any initial doubts, and looks certain to be pressed on people as essential reading for some time to come.