Falling Man: A Novel
by Don DeLillo
The Man Who Invented 9/11
A review by Tom Junod
A few days after the planes hit and the buildings went down, The New York Times began offering its capsule profiles of the dead, its "Portraits of Grief." They weren't anything special, except insofar as the subjects were special -- except insofar as the profiles claimed that their subjects were special, and therefore worthy of notice, worthy of grief. It was journalism as public ritual, and the public partook of it as such, as Don DeLillo reminds us in his new novel, Falling Man: "She read newspaper profiles of the dead, every one that was printed. Not to read them, every one, was an offense, a violation of responsibility and trust. But she also read them because she had to, out of some need that she did not try to interpret."
The passage, in its documentary accuracy, and then its push towards some mystery of feeling beyond what can be documented, is characteristic of Falling Man, and characteristic of the method DeLillo has been working out since he first started publishing novels nearly forty years ago. DeLillo's characters often do things for no other reason than they "have to" -- for no other reason that when a ritual presents itself, they attach themselves to it. In DeLillo's world, human rituals are the primary means by which humans try to connect, and also the primary reason they don't. The character in question, a woman named Lianne, is not alone, in her determination to read the portraits of the dead; circa 2001, there were a lot of New Yorkers, and lot of Americans in general, determined to do the very same thing. But then, of course, she's very alone, and not simply because she's participating in a public ritual out of an unfathomable private impulse. She's very alone because she's in a novel by Don DeLillo.
Indeed, Falling Man, as both a post-9/11 novel and a novel by Don DeLillo, offers the best test-case yet for the idea that when the planes hit and the buildings went down we entered the "age of nonfiction," when journalism, even journalism as modest in means as one of those Portraits of Grief, is able to grasp what's happened -- and, more to the point, what's happening -- to us more than fiction can, even fiction by our most accomplished and ambitious writers. Look at the scorecard: despite the post-9/11 concern that it might take a very long time for the events of that day to find fictional expression, American novelists have in very short order turned the post-9/11 novel into a veritable new genre, like chick-lit, but with the shoes left behind in the ash instead of beckoning brightly in the store window. Jay McInerney, Jonathan Safran Foer, Claire Messud, Ken Kalfus and the underesteemed Jess Walter have all turned out their post-9/11 novels, and yet for all their ambition and accomplishment none of these books have managed to say what those Portraits did, which was that the victims of 9/11 might have died alone, but they certainly didn't live alone; which was that they, and the people who survived them, knew exactly was at stake on that day, and what was lost; which was that the vast majority did not have to wonder if they loved their families and if their families loved them; which was that they really were innocent victims, and that until the planes came, they were, despite their goofy rituals -- hell, because of their goofy rituals -- reasonably happy.
Now, with Falling Man, Don DeLillo takes his crack at the post-9/11 novel, and God knows, there's no one in our literature who has done more to earn the right. After all, the man has been writing the post-9/11 novel for the better part of four decades, and his pre-9/11 novel, the magnum-opusy Underworld, was prescient enough to put the looming towers on its cover, standing high and ready to fall, or, as he says in the new book, "fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction." There has always been the aura of prescience, even prophesy, surrounding DeLillo, and it's part of the paradox of his career: on the one hand, he has that mandarin rep, and is often used as an exhibit in the argument that American writers now practice literature only for literature's -- or their own -- sake; on the other hand, he has practiced exactly what the arch-populist Tom Wolfe has preached, and has gone out and gotten the story. And so while Wolfe, in his novels, may be said to have anticipated, say, the Duke lacrosse scandal, DeLillo may be said to have anticipated, oh, just about everything else. "The future belongs to crowds," he wrote in Mao II, in what has become his most famous pronouncement, and he's back at it again in Falling Man, though this time he's looking back, the rueful prophet who has lived to see his pronouncements turn into epitaphs. "The crowd was gifted at being a crowd," he writes of an anti-war demonstration in 2003. "This was their truth." He has been insisting for as long as he's been writing that humanity has turned into a mass-organism, twitching with the plots and conspiracies hatched by loners desperate for connection, and so 9/11 itself stands, perversely, as the high point of his career or at the very least the fulfillment of all his foreboding. It was a day he himself might have authored, "DeLilloesque" not only as the end-point of a conspiracy but as a mass-event witnessed by billions, and who could see the Falling Men and the Falling Women -- the people who jumped, and were swallowed by the horrific discrepancies of scale -- without conceding that DeLillo had gotten it right?
And so, of course, there is much that DeLillo gets right in Falling Man. He has the seeming advantage of working in hindsight here, and also the advantage of his uniquely poised and meticulous talent. He is unequalled as a phrasemaker, and so the writer who gave us, in White Noise, the "airborne toxic event," here gives us "organic shrapnel," which he defines as "human flesh that got driven under the skin" when the falling buildings unleashed their own toxic clouds. He gives us, as a portrait of the North Tower's lingering façade, "the strands of bent filigree that were the last standing things." He gives us "the eventual protein stupor" of the Alzheimered, and he gives us premature baldness as "a gentle melancholy, the pensive regret of a failed boy." He gives us his signature oracular cadences -- for his books are all rhythm, all cadence -- and the sentences that announce their significance by seeming tweezered out of the void. He gives us everything we've come to expect in a DeLillo novel, and then something that we could never imagine in a DeLillo novel: the kick of nostalgia. Falling Man turns out to be a historical novel of five years ago, and it brings with it the shock of recognition: for those days when people felt that the most important thing in the world was to say exactly what they were doing when the buildings fell; for those days when reading newspaper profiles of the dead felt like a solemn obligation; for those brief, numbered days when, as one character tells himself, "everything seemed to mean something."
And yet, because Falling Man is a Don DeLillo novel as much as it is a post-9/11 novel, it turns out that nothing does. This is not a giveaway, but rather an inevitability signaled in advance by every sentence of the book. The plot itself couldn't be simpler: Keith, a man estranged from his wife and child, returns to his wife and child after escaping from the towers, covered in ash and embedded with organic shrapnel. They reconcile, sort of, though Keith defines reconciliation thusly: "We're ready to sink into our little lives." And oh, their lives are little indeed. They can't speak to one another, for when they do they sound like space aliens who have learned English by watching Lindsay Crouse pronounce her lines in David Mamet movies. Keith, for his part, refers to his son as he would an underage stranger -- he refers to him exclusively, and not affectionately, as "the kid" -- and Lianne, though nominally more human than Keith, watches her poor son playing ball with dear old Dad, and thinks that the boy "was like a pitching machine with hair and teeth, register set to peak velocity." The fact of human isolation is DeLillo's own fundamentalism, and Falling Man is simply the machine for returning his characters safely back to it, even as the novel simultaneously delivers one of 9/11 conspirators into a connection with God and his jihadist "brethren" that is terrible because it is so total.
Does DeLillo get this right, too? The question is worth asking, and not only because if we grant him his authority in public matters, we have to admit that his private vision has always been more troubling -- we have to admit that outside of a Don DeLillo novel, we might search the world over and never find a mother who thinks of her son as a pitching machine with hair and teeth. No, the question is worth asking precisely because Falling Man hews so closely to what's already happened, to what we already know, that it exists in the shade of reality, and reality overwhelms it. And not the public reality of the towers falling down, either -- it does just fine with that, with its unbearably precise rendering of an atmosphere turning to ash. The reality that overwhelms the novel is the private reality of all those lives lost when the towers fell, for it's a reality that DeLillo can't bring himself to face. In general, Falling Man sticks to what we think of as the facts; in general, it seeks to recreate "that lifelong week, three days after the planes" rather than to reimagine it, and so its one significant invention becomes instructive. There is a falling man, in Falling Man, but he is not the falling man of Richard Drew's famous photograph, not the falling man captured almost in repose against the perfect symmetry of towers north and south, not the falling man whose very public private death has come to stand for the simultaneous affirmation and erasure of the American soul. The falling man in Falling Man is a performance artist who shows up in various locations in New York City, suspending himself in the air in the pose of Drew's falling man -- "arms at his sides, one leg bent at the knee" -- and becoming, as DeLillo has it, another instrument of Lianne's final isolation.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I admit a prejudice here. I wrote the article for Esquire that gave Richard Drew's photograph its name, and I might be carping at DeLillo in order to express anger at his appropriation. But I don't think so. I have a pretty good idea who the Falling Man was, and he was neither a performance artist nor a totem of severed human connections. He was a man, and his tragedy was not that he made it possible for people not to love their families; his tragedy was that he loved his family, and was loved in return, and that his connection to them continues in the afterlife of Drew's indelible image, and is unbearable. And so what I asked of DeLillo's Falling Man was not that it be inventive, but that it be commensurate -- commensurate to all the falling men, and the falling women, and their agony; commensurate, at the very least, to the capsule profiles that people forced themselves to read day after day, five years ago. And it's not. It's a portrait of grief, to be sure, but it puts grief in the air, as a cultural atmospheric, without giving us anything to mourn. It captures our subsequent fall from grace -- and who ever knew that we might look back on September 11, 2001, as perhaps our last, best opportunity for grace? -- without ever suggesting a reason for it other than the fact that grace is awfully hard to come by DeLillo's world. It is the irony here: the Don DeLillo novel became the template for 9/11; now 9/11 returns the favor, and becomes the template for a Don DeLillo novel. He gets it right because he already got it right, and yet when one of the characters in Falling Man says, "Ask yourself: what comes after America?", the book winds up answering its own terminal question. What comes after America is another Don DeLillo novel, another beautiful artifact made exquisitely out of ash.
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