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Racing Against Reality

Lianne’s mother, Nina Bartos, is an aged, recently retired professor—“the So-and-So Professor of Such-and-Such,” says Keith, in a burst of the old DeLillo humor—and she has a lover called Martin. The women scrutinize each other as mothers and daughters often do, harboring special, harsh feelings about the other’s motivations and choices. To Nina, Lianne only married Keith to be close to someone whose potential for inflicting emotional damage made her feel “dangerously alive”—Nina tells Lianne “this was a quality you associated with your father.” But Lianne knows her mother would forgive Keith all his faults if he happened to be a raging artist.

The child Justin has two friends whom they call the Siblings and who live ten blocks away. The children talk in code and they are always standing at the window of the Siblings’ apartment, looking at the sky through binoculars and whispering about a man called “Bill Lawton.” Like children in a science fiction movie, the Siblings and Justin seem connected in some unspoken way to a much bigger picture, but we don’t really get to hear a great deal from them. (DeLillo is not good on children: they always exist as runes foretelling the bad weather of adulthood.) In any event, Falling Man is, to say the least, a book in pursuit of adult vexations on an international scale.

Keith survives the planes owing to a piece of luck, so he spends much of the novel embroiled in poker, the game that is a dramatization of luck. Before the planes, he used to play it on Wednesdays with six men at his apartment: “the one anticipation,” DeLillo writes, “that was not marked by the bloodguilt tracings of severed connections.” The poker evenings ended when the towers came down, but he thinks about the game a lot. He is interested in the meaning of good fortune and we find in time that he is also a cheat, whatever that means.

In the course of the novel he goes to see another survivor, Florence Givens, the owner of the briefcase he took from the North Tower; he visits her more than once, and he goes to look at his old, frozen apartment, the one he rented when he split up with his wife. Apart from this, there is only recovery, if that is what you’d call it. Keith does a little homework duty with his son and walks the boy to school, “going slow, easing inward…drifting into spells of reflection.”

Lianne is doing some work for a university press, editing a book about ancient alphabets. Her hobby survives the attacks: it involves conducting “storyline sessions” in East Harlem, which take place in the company of half a dozen or so people with Alzheimer’s. Apart from some calmness it perhaps brings to her—and aside from some kind of Manhattan mid-life ennui—it is not clear why Lianne spends so much time with these forgetful narrative-makers in East Harlem. They write about the planes. We also know that her father, Jack, had the beginning of senile dementia; not able to face it, he killed himself with a sporting rifle.

Lianne is therefore a victim of violence, with a mother now messing around with an art dealer. Though DeLillo keeps it pretty spare, we feel we understand Lianne as one of his types. At some level she is surrounded by death—even her husband, when finally he comes home, walks in from the most famous American death-trap in history—and she is ripe for some kind of urban epiphany to set her heart in motion. The closest she comes to such an experience is to see a performance artist known as Falling Man—he dangles upside down from a structure in Pershing Square, reminding people of the jumpers who chose air over fire on September 11:

It held the gaze of the world, she thought. There was the awful openness of it, something we’d not seen, the single falling figure that trails a collective dread, body come down among us all. And now, she thought, this little theater piece, disturbing enough to stop traffic.

Don DeLillo has always been good at male dissociation, especially the kind that can thrive in certain domestic environments, and he can be as forensic as Saul Bellow when it comes to showing the way married couples might go about dismantling one another’s powers and confidence. On this occasion, he treats Keith like a male archetype. “This was the period, not long before the separation,” he writes,

when he took the simplest question as a form of hostile interrogation. He seemed to walk in the door waiting for her questions…. She understood by this time that it wasn’t the drinking, or not that alone, and probably not some sport with a woman. He’d hide it better, she told herself. It was who he was, his native face, without the leveling element, the claims of social code.

Those nights, sometimes, he seemed on the verge of saying something, a sentence fragment, that was all, and it would end everything between them, all discourse, every form of stated arrangement, whatever drifts of love still lingered.

These descriptions are the best things in the book: they have the force of felt life, and through them we begin purely to understand what estrangement really means with this Manhattan couple. They each have known a little hate. But how can they relate to each other now that hatred means something else, now that it means flying planes into public buildings? How are their own feelings changed now that hated means terrorists and victims shouting in their final moments to different gods?

Yet such inquiries, however acute, however felt, cannot make up for DeLillo’s failure in Falling Man to imagine September 11. The hallmark of those novelists who have tried to write about the attacks is a sort of austere plangency—or a quivering bathos—that has been in evidence almost from the moment the planes hit. Those authors who published journalistic accounts immediately after the event failed to see how their metaphors fell dead from their mouths before the astonishing live pictures. It did not help us to be told by imaginative writers that the second plane was like someone posting a letter. No, it wasn’t. It was like a passenger jet crashing into an office building. It gave us nothing to be told that the South Tower came down like an elevator at full speed. No, it didn’t. It collapsed like a building that could no longer hold itself up.

Metaphor failed to do anything but make one feel that those keen to deploy it had not been watching enough television. After the “nonfiction novel,” after the New Journalism, after several decades in which some of America’s most vivid writing about real events was seen to be in thrall to the techniques of novelists, September 11 offered a few hours when American novelists could only sit at home while journalism taught them fierce lessons in multivocality, point of view, the structure of plot, interior monologue, the pressure of history, the force of silence, and the uncanny. Actuality showed its own naked art that day.

DeLillo the novelist prepared us for September 11, but he did not prepare himself for how such an episode might, in the way of denouements, instantly fly beyond the reach of his own powers. In a moment, the reality of the occasion seems to have burst the ripeness of his style, and he truly struggles in this book to say anything that doesn’t sound in a small way like a warning that comes too late. Reading Falling Man, one feels that September 11 is an event that is suddenly far ahead of him, far beyond what he knows, and so an air of tentative rehearsal resounds in an empty hall. What is a prophet once his fiery word becomes deed? What does he have to say? What is left of the paranoid style when all its suspicions come true? Of course, a first-rate literary intelligence can eventually meet a world where reality acknowledges the properties of his style by turning them into parody, and in these circumstances, which are DeLillo’s with this particular novel, the original novelist may be said to be a person quietened by his own genius. This is another American story—the story of Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles—and it gives us a clue to the weakness of Falling Man.

But the novel itself is packed with clues, the first and most obvious being the author’s inability to conjure his usual exciting prose. In his best novels, DeLillo is pretty much incapable of writing unexcitingly—but September 11 vanquishes the power of his sentences before he can make them linger. Good prose in a novel depends on its ability to exhale a secret knowledge, to have the exact weight of magic in relation to the material, the true moral rhythm. DeLillo had all of that in many of the novels he published before September 11—so much magic, indeed, that it was initially difficult to absorb the events of that day without thinking of his writing. On September 11, however, novelists of his sort ceded all secret knowledge to the four winds: to CNN, to the Web site of The New York Times, to CCTV, and to the widespread availability of video cameras in Manhattan, each of which captured the event in real time.2

Reading Falling Man, one often feels that DeLillo’s formerly superlative intuition has become a form of ignorance: he dangles uncertainly between what he knows of that day from pictures and what of it he predicted in his novels. But the current book is merely blank with shock, as if his sense of awe and disbelief may only express itself in a fetish with the obvious:

She was awake, middle of the night, eyes closed, mind running, and she felt time pressing in, and threat, a kind of beat in her head.

She read everything they wrote about the attacks.

She thought of her father. She saw him coming down an escalator, in an airport maybe.

Keith stopped shaving for a time, whatever that means. Everything seemed to mean something. Their lives were in transition and she looked for signs. Even when she was barely aware of an incident it came to mind later, with meaning attached, in sleepless episodes that lasted minutes or hours, she wasn’t sure….

But things were ordinary as well. Things were ordinary in all the ways they were always ordinary.

This most assuredly is not the DeLillo of Libra or White Noise. In the first of those novels, the author enacted wonders the Warren Commission could never have imagined. He had readers in the corner of that room at the Book Depository, practically squeezing the trigger with Oswald, feeling the press of his eye on the scope. But Falling Man is a distillation of fear and grief over real-life drama next to which the 9/11 Commission Report reads serenely and beautifully. Open that report at any page and you will find a breathtaking second-by-second account of that morning, and of the hijackers’ backgrounds, that will make DeLillo’s novel seem merely incapacitated.

The author might know the nature of his trouble. He might see it. At one point, we hear of a book written by someone called the Unaflyer that predicted all the events: “A book that’s so enormously immersed, going back on it, leading up to it…it seems to predict what happened…. It’s badly written.” People still speak of the anxiety of influence, but what of a novelist’s anxiety about his past work’s influence on himself? Falling Man, it seems to me, is about a brilliant writer’s free-falling anxiety of that sort, and most of it comes to be expressed in this novel through ruminations on art and terror.

This is old DeLillo stuff: who can forget Klara Sax from Underworld, the lady who once studied the twin towers as they were being built, later to find fame as an artist who paints B-52 bombers, the kind that once carried nuclear weapons. She displays these objets d’art in the desert with their innards ripped out and their shells coated in beautiful color. (“This is an art object,” she says, “not a peace project. This is a landscape painting in which we use the landscape itself.”) Later in that novel, we discover that Klara and her contemporaries had been fascinated by the nearness of art to violence, fans of a near-invisible graffiti kid called Moonman 157 who paints subway trains. DeLillo has always favored showing the art world as a place where cultural anxieties are made compact and fashionable, but his repeat of this ploy in Falling Man pushes the book toward silliness.

Martin, the boyfriend of Keith’s mother-in-law, is a German art dealer—apartment in Berlin, liking for inscrutable works—who we learn was once a member of a 1960s anti-fascist collective called Kommune One. Martin, it seems, was a kind of terrorist, living with people whose faces would one day end up on posters. “We’re all sick of America and Americans,” he says at one point. “The subject nauseates us.” But Martin is a nullity: Who could care about him and his little European pieties on the state of the world and the politics of art? Is he a terrorist? Who cares, he’s a goon. Meanwhile, people are holding hands and jumping from the 102nd floor of the North Tower, the novelist’s imagination nowhere in attendance. When Martin speaks we sometimes imagine he could be speaking for DeLillo. “Nothing seems exaggerated anymore,” he says. “Nothing amazes me.”

In this book, the events aren’t enough, or they are too much, which amounts to the same thing for a novelist. There appear to be few writers in America now who could bring us to know what might have been going through the minds of those people as they fell from the building—or going through the minds of the hijackers as they met their targets—but there is no shortage of those who would do what DeLillo does, which is to show us an anxious, educated woman watching a performance artist hanging upside down from a metal beam in Pershing Square. It is a form of intellectual escapism. The oddity of the art world can easily be made to stand in for the profundity of life and death, but none of us who lived through the morning of September 11, 2001, could easily believe that the antics of a performance artist, no matter how uncanny, would suffice to denote the scale and depth of our encounter with dread. The Falling Man, the artist, can do no better than constitute some figurative account of the author himself, suspended in freefall, frozen in time, subject to both the threat of gravity and the indwelling disbelief of the spectators below.

DeLillo’s novel was inspired by a photograph of a real person—most agree that he is Jonathan Briley, who seemed at a certain point in his descent from the North Tower to plummet straight, upside down, one leg bent, his shirt flying off in the ferocious breeze, his head scorched, “The Falling Man” whose image became a token of horror and a mass-media legend. And the things pertaining to his image are what interest Don DeLillo. Yet the person inside the legend was a man from Mount Vernon who worked in the North Tower restaurant, Windows on the World. He was flesh and blood, not just an idea. He was born on March 5, 1958. He was six feet five. His father was a preacher. He suffered from asthma and had a wife called Hilary. He died sixty-five minutes twenty seconds after Mohamed Atta, and is currently awaiting a writer sufficiently uncoerced by the politics of art to tell his story.

  1. 2

    The only novel so far to capture, in a private way, the strange public horror of the event is Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children (Knopf, 2006) reviewed in these pages by Joyce Carol Oates, October 5, 2006. You’ll have to read it to see how she does it, but suffice to say that she meets the glare of the day with subtlety.

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