- Falling Man by Don DeLillo
Picador, 246 pp, £16.99, May 2007, ISBN 978 0 330 45223 6
Don DeLillo’s new novel makes a direct but counterintuitive approach to the destruction of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001. It is anti-sentimental: constructed in short episodes, it prohibits sympathy or tears. It is anti-grandiose: it retreats from the big pronouncements its peripheral characters try to make about terrorism, America, the West, the Middle East. It is anti-paranoiac: it has no sense of dread about terrors that might still come, and doesn’t dwell on conspirators or victims or heroes.
The disaster that lurked in some of DeLillo’s most famous novels has now happened. His characters have always seemed to want to precipitate, or at least to experience, a disaster – from White Noise (1985), in which an ‘airborne toxic event’ marks a local, comic preparation for nuclear or biological catastrophe, to Mao II (1991), when a reclusive novelist tries to negotiate with terrorist kidnappers in Beirut to escape the meaninglessness of his art. Falling Man is a modest and quiet book about a large aftermath. It captures the turn in the three years after 9/11 to a new feeling, still active in 2007, of a contemporary American state of suspension, after the worst had happened and the nation perhaps played its hand all wrong.
The new book is written in DeLillo’s late style, last on good view in 2001’s underrated The Body Artist, in which clever dialogue has given way entirely to spare description of physical actions and enigmatic moments. Rather than returning to the grand historical reconstructions of Underworld or Libra (1989) – to which readers might uncharitably compare Falling Man’s apparent smallness – it seems that in Falling Man DeLillo has produced a revision of an influential ‘small’ book he delivered three decades ago, Players (1977). Players describes Lyle and Pammy, the man a Wall Street broker, his wife a dizzied copywriter for the Grief Management Council. He works in the New York Stock Exchange, she in the World Trade Center, north tower, 83rd Floor. Both are ciphers, spun by the formal games and architectural spaces and personal circles they move in. The book begins in an airplane, destination unknown, as the passengers watch the in-flight movie about revolutionary terrorists massacring a group of rich golfers and laughing: ‘We’re steeped in gruesomely humorous ambiguity,’ the narrator admits, ‘a spectacle of ridiculous people doing awful things to total fools.’ The ambiguous ‘real’ terrorist killing later in the book, and an apparent plot to blow up the Stock Exchange, seem no more meaningful.
In Falling Man, the laughter and the acid mood are gone. A lone man walks out of the Twin Towers in the first pages and will be back inside them in its last pages. This is Keith, a lawyer. He walks uptown, watching the reactions to the devastation, and winds up in the apartment of his estranged wife. Lianne is a freelance copy-editor, the mother of his child. She is a quiet New Yorker who holds the family together: her son, her aged mother, and now, once again, Keith. The opening two sections of the book treat the days and weeks after the towers’ fall. Keith might have been just another aggressive DeLilloan type, like one of the game-playing network TV executives of his first book, Americana (1971), or the monstrous financier of his most recent, Cosmopolis (2003): he is, or was, willing to commit himself only to the events of business, or gambling, or seduction, and possesses, or possessed, an underlying violence that can find no outlet. Lianne’s mother accuses her of having married Keith in order ‘to feel dangerously alive’; Keith, she says, ‘wanted a woman who’d regret what she did with him’. But the attacks seem to have pacified him. He now wants repetition, blank ritual as restoration. ‘These were the true countermeasures to the damage he’d suffered in the tower . . . the counting of seconds, the counting of repetitions.’ He glides through the days.
Lianne is the book’s centre of consciousness. She reacts to the mass murder with the anger, passion and thought that Keith now lacks. ‘They killed your best friend,’ she insists against Keith’s vagueness. ‘They’re fucking outright murderers.’ But her energy has somewhere to go. She cares for her son, and returns to the old people she stewards. The first of these is her mother, Nina, an intellectual, an emeritus professor of art history. Nina is a possessor of the cultural stock of the era of American ascendancy, when an American woman could travel around the world to learn and reinterpret its ways. She even has two original Morandis on her wall, still lifes. These are a gift from the other aged intellectual of the book, her German lover, Martin.
Nina is winding down, preparing for death. The only thing she will debate with the old intensity is the attack on the towers and the Pentagon, and Martin arrives to argue with her. Nina says of the terrorists: ‘It’s not the history of Western interference that pulls down these societies. It’s their own history, their mentality . . . They haven’t advanced because they haven’t wanted to or tried to.’ Martin talks instead about ‘politics and economics . . . millions of people, dispossessed, their lives, their consciousness’: ‘They want their place in the world, their own global union, not ours . . . it’s everywhere and it’s rational.’ This ‘debate’ is no more winnable, no more capable of conclusion, than the back-and-forth that went on everywhere in the weeks and months after 11 September, but the interesting thing here is that the contest is being waged by a generation that is dying. DeLillo records their words with judgment suspended. Lianne, while the old people argue, looks into the Morandi still lifes: she must live in what they’ve left her. All she can see in the paintings’ collections of objects are the two towers that are gone.