Falling Man: A Novel by Don DeLillo
Reviewed by James Wood
The New Republic Online
Don DeLillo's new book is not a 9/11 novel but a 9/11 short story, or perhaps a 9/11 poem. It is not a synthesis or an argument or even, really, a sustained narrative, but an arrangement of symbolically productive elements -- two towers and two paintings; people falling from the towers and a performance artist named "Falling Man" who re-enacts that fall; the artist named Falling Man and a main character who is also a man in free fall, or emotional collapse; Islamic terrorists and an art dealer who was once a German terrorist; old people losing their power of speech through Alzheimer's and a troubled little boy who refuses to speak in anything but monosyllables; a woman terrified of losing her memory and a man trying to escape his. This highly formal, and quickly formalized, still life is sometimes affecting; more often it is mildly suggestive, with the reader feeling that a lot of white space on the page is glaring at him beseechingly.
The woman afraid of losing her memory is Lianne, painfully married to Keith Neudecker, the man who is trying to run from memory. Keith worked in the World Trade Center, and the novel opens with a description of the terrible day -- the planes, the plague-like clouds of dust, the dazed survivors like whited sepulchers, the ash and paper: "contracts, resumés blowing by, intact snatches of business, quick in the wind." Keith staggers home, caked in white, and a marriage that had been broken -- the two were separated -- begins again, shakily. The book returns repeatedly to descriptions of that morning, perhaps in conscious imitation of the repeated, digitalized loop that television news forces on us, and partly, of course, because the characters themselves cannot leave it alone. DeLillo is at his best in these passages, at once a keen imaginer and a cool analyst. Only a few days after the event, Keith and Lianne watch the news on television, and she sees again one of the planes roaring through the sky, and thinks that in a second
they would all be dead, passengers and crew, and thousands in the towers dead, and she felt it in her body, a deep pause, and thought there he is, unbelievably, in one of those towers, and now his hand on hers, in pale light, as though to console her for his dying.
He said, "It still looks like an accident, the first one. Even from this distance, way outside the thing, how many days later, I'm standing here thinking it's an accident."
"Because it has to be."
"It has to be," he said.
"The way the camera sort of shows surprise."
"But only the first one."
"Only the first," she said.
"The second plane, by the time the second plane appears," he said, "we're all a little older and wiser."
This novel attempts an evocation of what Lianne thinks of as this "deep pause" -- not just the pause before the impact, but the pause after it, when everything changed, when time stopped.
The problem is that the novel itself falls into that "deep pause," too. It seems to drift in a stunned, meaningless void, where sentences -- "These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after" -- are given rather too much credence. When Keith goes back in his mind to that morning, it is the slow, oddly calm walk down the emergency staircase that he dwells on, a passage out of time when thousands made an orderly exit, when "he walked in a long sleep, one step and then the next." Days later, he visits a woman, Florence Givens, who was in the same building -- he is returning her briefcase, which he was handed in the chaos -- and they begin a relationship that has less to do with sex than with conversation and shared trauma; what they have in common is "the timeless drift of the long spiral down." The phrase nicely compacts the hellish escape downstairs, the collapse of the buildings themselves, and the way a life might "spiral down" after witnessing these incidents.
Keith's life is indeed spiraling. He had never been, perhaps, an easy husband -- uncommunicative, driven, adulterous, tediously male. (He is one of those dull men of few words and affectless action who throng the pages of American fiction, high and low. How one tires of these inert beings.) At the time of the terrorist event, Keith was living apart from his wife and nine-year-old son, in a bachelor pad not far from the World Trade Center. His unexpected return to Lianne -- she can never rid her memory of the shock of seeing him at her doorstep, covered in dust -- does not so much heal an old wound as simply add a new one to the old. The marriage must now accommodate Keith's incommunicable memories, his drifting trauma, the hours he spends at Florence Givens's apartment.
In addition, Lianne has her own torments. Her father committed suicide when she was nineteen, at the first sign of his senile dementia. Haunted by this and the potential menace of her own memory loss, she runs a kind of literary support group for elderly victims of Alzheimer's, people who are aware of their decline but still able to write down their experiences and impressions. Privately, she counts down from one hundred in increments of seven, to test her mental fitness. Her mother, Nina, a formidable New York art historian now given to hypochondria and a premature, willed senescence, is a difficult presence in her life. There is some obscure way in which Lianne, a freelance book editor, has not quite reached maternal expectations. Nina has an aging lover named Martin Widnour, a European art dealer who, it turns out, was a radical activist in Germany in the 1970s. How involved he was with terrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang is unknown, but he was criminal enough to have changed his real name, which was Ernst Hechinger. "Maybe he was a terrorist," Lianne catches herself thinking, "but he was one of ours ... and the thought chilled her, shamed her -- one of ours, which meant godless, Western, white."
DeLillo can write exceptionally well, with exactitude and lyrical originality. The set scene descriptions of the morning of September 11, which open and close the novel, are fine examples of the kind of epic panning that opened Underworld. He can be aphoristic and funny, as his shorter novels, such as White Noise and Mao II, have shown. In DeLillo's new book, Keith is described at one point like this: "He used to come home late, looking shiny and a little crazy." That is somehow both exact and mysterious, in the right proportions. A doctor who treats Alzheimer's, Dr. Apter, is seen thus: "Apter was a slight man with frizzed hair who seemed formulated to say funny things but never did." Lianne remembers the way her father would get red after sitting out in the sun, "appearing to buzz with electric current." A patient at the therapy group brings breakfast pastries, "large jellied bladders that no one else would touch." "Large jellied bladders" will be one of those images forthwith hard to dislodge. There are lots of sentences of this high quality.
But DeLillo is a very strange writer. For every elegant, compact sentence closing around its meaning as if delicately preying on it, there are passages that bear the other DeLillo mark, which could best be called a kind of fastidious vagueness. These are passages in which fancy words are deployed with a cool, technical confidence, in a spirit of precision, as if they have actual referents, but in which meaning is smeared and obscured. Consider this description of poker, a game that Keith had played every week with three other men, before "the day":
They played each hand in a glazed frenzy. All the action was somewhere behind the eyes, in naïve expectation and calculated deceit. Each man tried to entrap the other and fix limits to his own false dreams, the bond trader, the lawyer, the other lawyer, and these games were the funneled essence, the clear and intimate extract of their daytime initiatives. The cards skimmed across the green baize surface of the round table. They used intuition and cold-war risk analysis. They used cunning and blind luck. They waited for the prescient moment, the time to make the bet based on the card they knew was coming. Felt the queen and there it was. They tossed in the chips and watched the eyes across the table. They regressed to preliterate folkways, petitioning the dead. There were elements of healthy challenge and outright mockery. There were elements of one's intent to shred the other's gauzy manhood.
If I were given this passage in a blind test and asked for provenance, I would first murmur: "American, not English," for this could only be contemporary American prose, and then, more than likely, I would say: "Don DeLillo." What is most striking is the way the prose lifts itself up into a lyricism that is not quite lyrical: "glazed frenzy ... funneled essence ... preliterate folkways ... gauzy manhood" (whatever that is). The effect, very common in post-White Noise DeLillo, is an uneasy sense that the author is perhaps trying to be a bit funny, but not half as funny as he is unwittingly being. The passage is unwittingly funny because it is so awfully earnest, in an adolescent writer's kind of way. The earnestness makes itself felt in the peculiar shifts into solemn pseudo-scientific registers: "They regressed to preliterate folkways, petitioning the dead." In other words, DeLillo means, the players muttered every so often: "Mother, help me!" It is no good to claim that this is free indirect style -- DeLillo deliberately mimicking the earnestness of his poker players -- because this is how DeLillo always sounds, and because there is no reason to assume that his poker players think like DeLillo. But what, except a kind of pomposity, is gained by the quasi-profound diction, with its bogus air of massive anthropological expertise? After all, this is just a poker game. And why "preliterate"? Pre-literacy was a very, very long time ago: has no one called on the dead for the last literate four millennia?
DeLillo has a habit of letting his prose inflate itself when he scents a Big Question, at which point anything can happen. Yet there are times when a marvelous and sharp little phrase is still alive inside the layers of meaning. Toward the end of the novel, Lianne gets a brain scan, which determines that her "morphology is normal."
She had normal morphology. She loved that word. But what's inside the form and structure? This mind and soul, hers and everyone's, keep dreaming toward something unreachable. Does this mean there's something there, at the limits of matter and energy, a force responsible in some way for the very nature, the vibrancy of our lives from the mind out, the mind in little pigeon blinks that extend the plane of being, out beyond logic and intuition."
Lianne is having theological thoughts, and this passage is a query about whether there is such a thing as God. Most of it is DeLillo in full inflationary mode, and one can take or leave the windy stuff about "a force responsible in some way for the very nature, the vibrancy of our lives from the mind out the plane of being, out beyond logic and intuition." Carl Sagan writes better than this. But "the mind in little pigeon blinks that extend the plane of being" is oddly catching, and catches us because it is so odd and unexpected. I suppose DeLillo means something like the neurological connections that light up the brain, or he may mean simply the way our eyes -- and thus our brains -- continually photograph and re-photograph the world, adjusting thousands of times a minute. Whatever he means, "little pigeon blinks" somehow captures the meaning: we can see the instantaneous re-adjusting of the bird's body and make the metaphorical leap.
DeLillo can be patient and precise at burrowing into troubled mental states. Some of the best passages in this book manage to convey a sense of Keith's blank, traumatized isolation, and Lianne's anxious post-disaster self-questioning, and the political and psychological tensions between Lianne's mother and Martin. (Martin thinks that America "had it coming," while his lover more atavistically defends her country against the Islamic threat.) He shows himself astute and delicate in a moment like this, for instance, as Lianne watches her domineering mother light a cigarette: "Her mother lit up. She watched, Lianne did, feeling something familiar and a little painful, how Nina at a certain point began to consider her invisible. The memory was located there, in the way she snapped shut the lighter and put it down, in the hand gesture and the drifting smoke."
And there is pleasure to be had from watching DeLillo assemble the symmetries and asymmetries of his artful construction. Nina, the art historian, has two beautiful still lifes by Morandi, gifts from Martin. (Highly implausible, unless Martin is a good deal richer than he seems to be.) Nina announces that these are what she will look at when there is nothing else to look at, when she is dying. In one of them, two tall dark columns remind everyone -- in these charged days "after" -- of the Twin Towers. These paintings, described several times by DeLillo, appear to be models for how Falling Man is itself organized. The book has a curiously static formation, exaggerated by DeLillo's habit of moving regularly from one character to another, from one episode to another, sometimes donating only a spare paragraph at a time to the subject at hand. In addition, the prose itself -- sometimes effectively, sometimes pretentiously -- often breaks into dangling aphorism: "She lived in the spirit of what is ever impending." (This sentence is, worse, its own one-line paragraph.) The characters are also given DeLillo-like prose to speak, hard and cool and repetitive riffs. Here Keith meets an old poker-playing friend in a casino in Las Vegas:
"I go to the sports book to relax. Eat a sandwich and drink a beer. I like the action going on around me, all the screens, all the sports. I drink a beer and pretty much ignore it."
"I like to sit by the waterfall. I order a mild drink. Ten thousand people around me. In the aisles, in the aquarium, in the garden, at the slots. I sip a mild drink."
In this spirit of still life, of natura morta (the Italian phrase appeals to Lianne), the novel deploys patterns. There are the towers, which are "painted" by DeLillo at the start of the book. There are the two Morandi paintings, one of which reminds its viewers of the towers. There is Keith, who is the "Falling Man" of the novel's title. But there is also a performance artist, who calls himself "Falling Man," who is going around New York hanging from buildings and bridges, bizarrely re-enacting the visual memory of the people who threw themselves from the towers. There is too much memory (Keith) and too little memory (Lianne's anxiety about Alzheimer's). There is Islamic terrorism (Mohammed Atta) and "Western" terrorism (Martin). And three times -- at the start, in the middle, and at the end of the book -- there is a description of a shirt, which Keith remembers seeing blowing away from the towers and over the river on "the day."
This painterly assemblage has its satisfactions, but they are the kind that would work better in a short story, where pleasures can be had, precisely, from the pressurized, compact formality, and where such obviously "symbolic" patternings (for instance, the old people losing their memories counterposed with the memory-saturation of Keith) are more easily forgiven, as part of the price we pay for the poetic rhythm of short forms. The short story, in effect, announces: "Here, make of this installation what you will." Its very reticence -- its brief four-thousandish-word span -- is a lattice on which we can hang our interpretations. The novel, one feels, must do a little more than that -- but Falling Man insists on retaining the reticent formality of a much shorter work, so that one feels it has been pumped with rarified air, and is just floating away on its own pretentiousness. For example, DeLillo needs to have made something -- as, say, Ian McEwan would have done -- of Martin's terrorist past; he might have productively opposed it to its more vicious Islamic version (if this is the case). Instead, nothing much is made of it beyond the fact of Martin's "mysterious" history, and it seems only a wisp, an aesthetic balancing, another in DeLillo's row of patterns, a mild dab of paint on one side of the canvas to match a violent slash of paint on the other. Likewise in the twinning of the two Falling Men, Keith and the performance artist. The symmetry seems mannered at best, unsubtle at worst; above all, unproductive of serious meaning or suggestion.
Paradoxically, despite the good writing that attends the set-piece descriptions of "the day," Falling Man is most successful at the evocation of a shattered domestic existence, of life in the shadow of "after." DeLillo is interested in the strategies that his people employ to soften the pain of this trauma, and he can be an acute examiner of such deliberate waywardness: Keith begins to spend more and more time in Las Vegas, that degree zero of America, where he can escape into the sweaty anomie of the professional poker player. Nina fixates on her still lifes, while Lianne starts going to church. The most sensitive touch concerns Keith and Lianne's nine-year-old son Justin, who, along with his young friends, simply refuses to believe that the towers ever came down. The worried parents notice that the children are scanning the skies with a pair of binoculars. Why? Because, say the kids, "Bill Lawton" will come again, and this time, the towers will really fall. Who, they ask, is Bill Lawton? It is the name the children have been hearing on the news, and around the house. Subtly, DeLillo leaves open the question as to whether these children are haplessly or willfully ignorant. It is enough to know that they have their coping rituals, and the adults have theirs.
The 9/11 novel, if one must call it that, has been effective at depicting the impact of the trauma on ordinary lives: marriages repaired or broken by the event, projects and plans sundered, lives recalibrated, and the presence of a new, seeping anxiety. What it has been unable so far to achieve, as this novel and John Updike's Terrorist prove, is anything like the examination of the psychological sources of resentment that Dostoevsky and Conrad produced. Updike's eighteen-year-old Muslim firebrand was entirely incredible, nothing more than a scarecrow and scapegoat stuffed full of obvious authorial research. In Falling Man, DeLillo devotes two brief, misbegotten sections to the 9/11 plotters: we see them assembling in Hamburg, and then later in Florida. The writing is a good deal better than Updike's, but it lacks conviction, again because inquiry is not sustained but merely arranged. The chapters are so short that they lack the space to become serious; they seem dropped into the novel. The book, one feels, should either have omitted the terrorists altogether or trained its gaze centrally on them, as DeLillo sustainedly pictured the impotence and resentment of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra. As it is done here, the fleeting imagining of radical evil seems shallow, and only adds to the general impression of a book that is all limbs -- many articulations and joints, an artful map of connections, but finally no living, pulsing center.