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Racing Against Reality

Let us take an ordinary man from that terrible day. His name is Kevin Michael Cosgrove. If you put his name into Google it takes exactly 0.12 seconds to discover that he was born on January 6, 1955. It takes no longer than it is taking you to read this sentence to discover that Mr. Cosgrove lived in West Islip, New York, and worked as a claims vice-president of the Aon Corporation, based on the 105th floor of the South Tower. From the Wikipedia encyclopedia, you will find that he is buried in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Huntington. If you have another ten seconds to spare, you will be able to click to an image of the South Tower moments before its collapse, and hear a recording of Mr. Cosgrove speaking his last words to an operator. “I got young kids,” he says. “We’re young men.” “We’re not ready to die.” “Please hurry.” And at the building’s collapse, he says, “Oh God.”

Dying in full public view has been a theme of Don DeLillo’s since the time when September 11 was still a nothing day in the average American calendar, a zone of post-vacation humdrum shortly before the beginning of Ramadan and just after Grandparents Day. In Libra, his novel about the killing of JFK, we find the image of a king mown down in his Cadillac in broad daylight, his death fixed in the gaze of his courtiers and his subjects. It was a scene to play forever in the public mind, and the exact moment of impact, as filmed on an eight-millimeter home movie camera by Abraham Zapruder, is understood in that book to represent a turning point in our relationship with the mass media, though not even DeLillo, writing in 1988, could have guessed that within two decades we would be able to download our worst nightmares in 0.12 seconds. In a relatively recent introduction to Libra, DeLillo outlines something he calls “Assassination Aura,” giving a notion of how the events of history might come to find themselves in the weave of fiction. “Some stories never end,” he writes.

Even in our time, in the sightlines of living history, in the retrieved instancy of film and videotape, there are stories waiting to be finished, open to the thrust of reasoned analysis and haunted speculation. These stories, some of them, also undergo a kind of condensation, seeping into the texture of everyday life, barely separable from the ten thousand little excitations that define a routine day of visual and aural static processed by the case-hardened consumer brain.

It is his interest in the conjunction of visual technology and terrorism that really sets DeLillo’s mentality apart—a setting apart which also put him on the road to having September 11 as his subject long before the events of that day happened. His 1977 novel Players features Pammy and Lyle, a Wall Street couple who get tangled up with a bunch of terrorists. Pammy works in a new building called the World Trade Center; she feels that “the towers didn’t seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their bulk than some routine distortion of light.” When DeLillo was writing that novel, a nine-year-old boy called Mohamed Atta was studying English in the bedroom of his parents’ house in Giza outside Cairo.

Many of DeLillo’s novels are propelled by an acute sense of communal dread—of crowds, of surveillance, of the desperate “creativity” of the terrorist, of an “airborne toxic event”—and long before living history affirmed a number of his paranoid presumptions, his novels were making the case for America as a place where nothing very much was reliably innocent or safe. Here’s Jack Gladney in White Noise, head of Hitler Studies at the College-on-the-Hill:

The discussion moved to plots in general. I found myself saying to the assembled heads, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”

Later, we find Gladney trying to have a conversation with one of his colleagues, Alfonse Stompanato, who is trying to establish an Elvis Presley power base in the department of American environments. DeLillo wrote these lines in the year Mohamed Atta turned fifteen—though at that time Atta may have called himself Mohamed El Sayed and his telegenic flight into the World Trade Center was half a life away.

Why is it, Alfonse, that decent, well-meaning and responsible people find themselves intrigued by catastrophe when they see it on television?”

I told him about the recent evening of lava, mud and raging water that the children and I had found so entertaining.

We wanted more, more.”

It’s natural, it’s normal,” he said, with a reassuring nod. “It happens to everybody.”

Why?”

Because we’re suffering from brain fade. We need an occasional catastrophe to break up the incessant bombardment of information…. The cameras are right there. They’re standing by. Nothing terrible escapes their scrutiny.”

You’re saying it’s more or less universal, to be fascinated by TV disasters?”

For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set. If a thing happens on television, we have every right to find it fascinating, whatever it is.”

I don’t know whether to feel good or bad about learning that my experience is widely shared.”

Feel bad,” he said.

That was a key flavor of DeLillo’s earlier work, that we were all waiting for something terrible to happen, something that might blow us apart but which might also bring us together. It might be shopping or marketing. It might be a killing gas in the subway. But most likely it would be something that partook of the energies of each of these things: American capitalism and the toxic waste residing at the other end of it. In 1997, when the novelist wrote the following wonderful passage in Underworld, Mohamed Atta was living in Germany and had just been recruited by al-Qaeda. Underworld‘s Brian Glassic works at Waste Containment and he is standing next to a mountain of trash at the Fresh Kills landfill site on Staten Island1 :

He imagined he was watching the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza—only this was twenty-five times bigger, with tanker trucks spraying perfumed water on the approach roads. He found the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one…. He looked at all that soaring garbage and knew for the first time what his job was all about…. He dealt in human behavior, people’s habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us.

These were high-flying sentiments, written, to great effect, in DeLillo’s increasingly jokeless prose. He’s a writer who has become less funny as he gets older, perhaps more serious as he moves toward the presentation of his darker purpose. Not that he was ever light, mind you. In any event, it is part of his genius to have engaged with the discomfiting strangeness of our period, and by the time he published The Body Artist, in 2001, DeLillo’s writing had entered a style of passionate numbness. The prose was cautious and drained and none of it seemed funny anymore. Meanwhile, Mohamed Atta, the man of many aliases, had developed a hatred of American habits that bordered on the messianic. As DeLillo pressed the keys (and returned the carriage) to create the following passage, Atta was on American soil and in daily contact with his fellow conspirators while training on flight simulators at a rented house in Florida:

His future is not under construction. It is already there, susceptible to entry.

She had it on tape.

She did not want to believe this was the case. It was her future too. It is her future too.

She played the tape a dozen times.

It means your life and death are set in place, just waiting for you to keep the appointments.

All these passages, written over the course of a career, could be understood to evoke something very like a terrorist’s trajectory toward an encounter with the twin towers, but they also describe the journey made by a singular American novelist toward the day of days for his preoccupations as an artist and his brio as a stylist. If the twin towers could be said to have stood in wait for the Mohamed Attas of the world, then the Mohamed Attas of the world were standing in wait for Don DeLillo. To have something exist as your subject before it happens is not unprecedented in the world of literature—consider Kafka and the Nazis, Scott Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age—but the meeting of September 11 and Don DeLillo is not so very much a conjunction as a point of arrival, and a connection so powerful in imaginative terms that it instantly blows DeLillo’s lamps out.

In a repressive society,” the novelist said in an interview published around the time of Mao II,

a writer can be deeply influential, but in a society that’s filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption, the act of terror may be the only meaningful act…. People who are powerless make an open theater of violence. True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to.

So there you have it: the writer and the terrorist have something in common, and so it feels like something of a consummation when a person called Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir el-Sayed Atta appears on page 80 of DeLillo’s new novel Falling Man. The novelist seems to recognize Atta’s impulses as if they were old friends: “This was Amir,” he writes, “his mind was in the upper skies, making sense of things, drawing things together.” Yet Atta has little narrative reality in DeLillo’s new book. He is the ghost in the machine, flying so fast he is barely separable from the surrounding ether, and the reader indeed will find himself knowing Atta only as a distinguished absence, present everywhere but visible nowhere, like Flaubert’s idea of the perfect novelist.

The main character in Falling Man is a youngish lawyer called Keith Neudecker, whom we meet at the book’s opening as he walks north in lower Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, his face covered in ash and blood and his hair full of glass splinters. He carries somebody else’s briefcase and for reasons he might never fathom he heads directly from the rubble of Ground Zero to the apartment of his estranged wife Lianne and their son Justin. Keith and Lianne had been together for eight years before “the eventual extended grimness called their marriage” ended in a well-educated state of suspended resignation. Now he is back—and back in her bed—though there is no telling for how long.

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    According to the writer John Coyle, Fresh Kills was closed in the spring of 2001. “It was reopened on the 13th September of that year to receive debris from Ground Zero,” he writes, and “Fresh Kills is currently being developed as a redemptive nature sanctuary.”

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