Racing Against Reality

Don Delillo
Don Delillo; drawing by David Levine

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,…

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