Alzheimer’s America

Mark Greif

  • 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.

So Lianne goes to her other old people, the sufferers from Alzheimer’s with whom she works in East Harlem, Americans who are losing their memories and their language and processes of thought. Her own absent father had Alzheimer’s, but committed suicide before its effects were far advanced. With her ‘storyline’ group, Lianne encourages the old and poor to write down anything they can still remember. I take it that this is meant to be the standard terror of the affluent and secure First World: to grow old, to forget too early, to fall into inanition. We were not due to be struck with death from the sky like inhabitants of desert countries. But the memory-losers, too, only want to talk about ‘the planes’ – and specifically those people on the higher floors of the towers who were blown out of their comfortable worlds or, as Lianne’s elderly want to imagine it, who chose to escape the fire together: ‘I keep hearing they were holding hands when they jumped.’ These old people have achieved the kind of innocence that lets them speak out loud the desire to see death from afar which has made such a complicated thing of the 9/11 media images, broadcast all over the world, and ceaselessly rerun: ‘I didn’t see them holding hands,’ one woman says. ‘I wanted to see that.’

Meanwhile, there is another character abroad in the city. He is a performance artist called Falling Man, who wants to make people confront in real life precisely what they try to see in pictures. He stages tableaux of himself falling, made up in imitation of the news photos. He appears wearing a businessman’s suit in an unannounced location, on a bridge, on an elevated rail track – and drops off the edge (held by a hidden harness), then hangs in the posture of the terrible photograph of an unidentified man plummeting head-down in front of the towers, printed on the front page of newspapers on 12 September. The Falling Man is somewhere at the edge of Lianne’s consciousness until she accidentally witnesses one of his performances, an incident that ends the portion of the book set in 2001.

The book is divided into three parts. Each creates a limited kind of suspense by being named for a person whose name we don’t recognise: ‘Bill Lawton’, ‘Ernst Hechinger’, ‘David Janiak’. ‘Bill Lawton’, a secret name uttered by children playing in their rooms, turns out to be Bin Laden translated into Americanese. ‘Ernst Hechinger’ turns out to have been the name Martin went under when he was involved in the German terrorism of the 1960s and 1970s. So terror is twice brought home to America and naturalised. Bin Laden becomes an American evil to the kids. Martin has within him a terrorist legacy from that part of the political West which sympathised with Baader-Meinhof, the Red Brigades or the IRA, even as these groups taught methods of random murder to the fundamentalist East. ‘Maybe he was a terrorist but he was one of ours,’ Lianne thinks. ‘And the thought chilled her, shamed her – one of ours, which meant godless, Western, white.’

David Janiak, finally and anticlimactically, turns out to be the real name of the Falling Man. Janiak hurt his back in one of the falls, he may or may not have been suicidal (he claimed his last jump would be without a harness, or was that just an artist’s self-promotion?) and he dies in the end of unrelated natural causes (a heart condition) somewhere near Saginaw, Michigan, deep in the heart of the country. (Saginaw: the place Paul Simon’s protagonist hitchhikes from when he goes ‘to look for America’.)

Added to this are glimpses of a single 9/11 hijacker, Hammad, on his life’s path towards the attacks with passenger planes. The style recalls DeLillo’s portrayal of Lee Harvey Oswald’s progress towards the Kennedy assassination in Libra. Libra showed what could novelistically be done with the Warren Commission Report, after 24 years of cultural reflection. That book helps one see what DeLillo knows better than to undertake with Hammad, barely three years after publication of the US government’s 9/11 Commission Report. He is up to something more complicated than ‘mind-of-the-murderer’ reconstruction, in a book whose fabric is made up of gestures and glimpses, tiny scenes of steady anticlimax.

Lianne’s character is delineated by means of her passing thoughts and gestures, rather than by dialogue. The affecting moments are the inexplicable ones. She stands for too long in the crosswalk of one of the wide avenues, on her way back from the dry-cleaners, and with the taxis bearing down on her remembers a phrase from the weird American commercial vernacular (‘ethnic shampoo’). She is

running toward the far curb now, feeling like a skirt and blouse without a body, how good it felt, hiding behind the plastic shimmer of the dry-cleaner’s long sheath, which she held at arm’s length, between her and the taxis, in self-defence. She imagined the eyes of the drivers, intense and slit, heads pressed toward steering wheels, and there was still the question of her need to be equal to the situation.

Keith is in a department store, watching the afternoon world of single women testing mattresses, and experiences one of these moments of wider perception:

There were tentative women, bouncing once or twice, feet protruding from the end of the bed, and there were the others, women who’d shed their coats and shoes, falling backwards to the mattress, the Posturepedic or the Beautyrest, and bouncing with abandon, first one side of the bed, then the other, and he thought this was a remarkable thing to come upon, the mattress department at Macy’s.

Then a man makes a comment about Keith’s black friend Florence – while she’s shyly bouncing with the other women – and Keith punches him in the face.

These moments of Keith’s and Lianne’s mirror each other: unexpected intrusions of public intimacy (the bed in public, the clothes carried outside), pregnant with a possibility of violence that is somehow associated with a return of conflict over race. What did the other man (Caucasian, presumably) say about African-American Florence? Who are these cabbies bearing down on Lianne, ‘at a time’ (as Keith notes elsewhere) ‘when every cab-driver in New York was named Muhammad’? What, for that matter, is this nearly embarrassing or grotesque ‘ethnic shampoo’: does it keep the racial difference in or rinse it out? (One of the curious undertones of the book is a worry that the American dyad of race as exclusively between whites and blacks was itself a casualty of 9/11, that commentators could push it aside, almost with a sigh of relief, in favour of an outside threat from the Middle East which they could racialise without being accused of racism.) To some, DeLillo’s violence-in-every-moment, evanescence-in-every-moment form of narration will always feel stylised, an emptying out of ordinary American sociability. For me, DeLillo’s way of depicting things will always feel like an essential approach to narration. It is unusually accurate as an account of daily American life, and not because he writes about terrorists.

Had Falling Man ended after its first two parts – had it proved to be, that is, a book only about 11 September, as imagined through the micro-effects on a single marriage, or a circle of New Yorkers, in the days and weeks after the attacks – it would have been a disappointment. Part 2, in particular, sags: the reader is hard pressed to see how DeLillo will get out of the narrowness of the grim weeks of September 2001, why Keith starts and ends an affair with Florence and how DeLillo will release his book from its domestic setting. Such a truncated book would have been at best a masterful miniature of what other novels have already done, a series of impressions brought down by the unnecessary complexity of its scaffolding. But the third part, picking up three years later, strikes out into new territory: it becomes risky again, controversial and provoking.

Part 3 opens with a New York antiwar protest on 29 August 2004; Lianne takes her son along. This is the proper thing to do, clearly, in the vaguely progressive and right-thinking world in which she lives. She ought to teach him about ‘dissent’. ‘They walked with five hundred thousand others . . . a march against the war, the president, the policies.’ Yet – and this is a surprise for the progressive and right-thinking reader – she feels ill at ease, hemmed in by the certainty of the marchers. She remembers being lost in a religious crowd in Cairo, twenty years earlier. ‘The crowd was gifted at being a crowd,’ she thinks. ‘She needed to flee both crowds.’ The zeal of the herd is all she can feel; DeLillo has always had a visceral suspicion of mass gatherings, and here one feels his warning that individual feeling can’t bear up under the weight of any kind of shared passion.

Keith has become a kind of void, playing, of all things, semi-professional poker in Las Vegas. He never quite went back to his old work, but found a ritual surrogate. In the days before the towers fell, in his bachelor apartment, he had kept a game running with Wall Street friends and colleagues, the only conviviality between men who had nothing fixed in their lives but their work and their personal tics. Now Keith lives in anonymous hotel rooms, plays at blank tables, waits in the casino bar for the next game: ‘The whole place stank of abandonment.’ In this vacancy, he finds one of the only other survivors of their old poker nights, Terry Cheng, who wants to talk both poker and the towers. Keith avoids Terry too. The essential thing for him is to be within the endless and purposeless game, never outside it. He does not win big sums and he does not lose. It is a ritual of submergence. He sleeps in tall hotel towers, which will not be struck by planes, in the non-space of Las Vegas, a smoky mirror of Wall Street. Here capital flow will mark only a circular game of chance.

Both the mass antiwar protests which changed nothing and the endlessly televised poker tournaments of the early 21st century are undigested phenomena of the American culture of 2001-7. One has to give DeLillo credit for having the nerve to put them together. He certainly isn’t the only one who’s been sitting up at night watching poker tournaments in Las Vegas – the hustling players, bluffing one another, watching for tells, talking to their cards – and wondering what these fascinations say about us. In TV poker, unlike in the real thing, the audience knows who has the percentages on his side, who holds the best hand – because everything is revealed and calculated on the screen. We know who’s still alive and who’s already dead, as Keith points out, but doesn’t know it.

One thing DeLillo’s novel may be saying about America is that as it has ceased to function as a society of reliable political representation – 500,000 in the streets of New York is meaningless as a protest in an overextended Republic – and as it has undone its 20th-century traditions of social insurance, it has begun to experience itself as a lottery state. To be heard in the culture is to get lucky, to win sudden celebrity. A society of poker-players implies a polity disabused of its belief in social security, trying to take hope from increased risk by living in the fantasy of an individual payout. On the other hand, it could represent a society of people trying to introduce chance to order, or risk and violence into familiar fields of feeling and probability. Keith’s inner violence, thwarted in the America he inhabits, can find expression in the numbing antagonisms of the poker table.

At this point, it is hard not to see Keith and Lianne, not to mention the other players, as figures in a national allegory. Martin comes back from Europe for Nina’s funeral, and tries to have the final word, as of 2004. He wants to prophesy: ‘America is going to become irrelevant . . . Soon the day is coming when nobody has to think about America except for the danger it brings. It is losing the centre. It becomes the centre of its own shit. This is the only centre it occupies.’ In these lines Martin is voicing a fear felt by Americans, too: that our abreaction to the hatreds displayed in the mass murder on 9/11 hastened the self-destruction of the Republic. It created a kind of Alzheimer’s America, a nation forgetting its own history as a constitutional state, a now aged democracy with the mindset of a child, or at least pretending it was still young in order to throw a child’s tantrums. This America would become ‘the centre of its own shit’ because it was undiapered and wilfully incontinent, sad in the way of the old rather than innocent in the way of the child. But Martin is argued down by the gentle Americans sitting with him at a lunch after the funeral, and retreats to a plangent declaration that is much easier to bear: ‘I don’t know this America anymore. I don’t recognise it. There’s an empty space where America used to be.’

To which Americans are likely to say: OK. One of our salutary myths is that the real America is still unrealised; the true democracy is yet to come. When the country ceases to hold out democratic hope, it will cease to call itself America. Lianne accepts that she will always fundamentally be a daughter, a legatee, an inheritor of the older generation’s dangers but not of its robust, world-bestriding actions. She is the descendant of her mother, who knew the best of European civilisation and made a home high up in a New York apartment with her accumulated treasure. She is a descendant, too, of her absent father, a designer of rustic houses deep in the woods, a man who had gone into the wilderness and shot himself. Her father, Lianne deeply wants to believe, ‘shot himself so I would never have to face the day when he failed to know who I was’. This echoes Martin’s pronouncement about the nation. And one of the secret hopes of America may indeed be that, when the time comes, it will have the good sense and the guts to retreat into the wilderness from which it sprang, and do what is necessary: take itself out of the game.

The last pages of Falling Man are a tour de force. Hammad, the terrorist, is in the flight attendant’s jump seat in one of the fatal planes. In our first glimpse of him, many chapters earlier, an Iraqi veteran of the Iraq-Iran War had told Hammad of his pointless slaughter of Iranian Muslim innocents, wave upon wave of boys sent by the Ayatollah into machine-gun fire: the veteran tried to communicate to Hammad the madness and disillusionment of it. DeLillo is trying to create a humane cultural memory for the terrorists, one that would stress, with America left out of it, where all mass death leads, what the massacre of innocents looks like when they are also your innocents. By the time the plane hits the towers, Hammad has cast the incident outside of memory: the boys sent to be murdered, wave upon wave, have become brave, timeless martyrs. And at the moment of impact, Hammad’s story turns into the story of Keith, in his office, in the minutes that preceded the first lines of the novel, before he walked away from the towers. The transition works like this:

A bottle fell off the counter in the galley, on the other side of the aisle, and [Hammad] watched it roll this way and that, a water bottle . . . an instant before the aircraft struck the tower, heat, then fuel, then fire, and a blast wave passed through the structure that sent Keith Neudecker out of his chair and into a wall. He found himself walking into a wall.

Two things happen at once. First, we learn to think about Keith as a double of Hammad, an alter-terrorist, as one man slides into the other at the moment of death. Under other circumstances, Keith – who planned to be an actor before he became a lawyer out of desperation or self-destruction, and is a man of stifled violence – might have been a terrorist. Second, DeLillo begins to reconstruct, inside the towers, an event that Keith kept to himself earlier in the book. We know Keith has been thinking about a friend called Rumsey, a friend who died in the towers and, according to Terry Cheng, ‘went out a window’. Now we discover that Rumsey had his head split open in the first shock to the towers, and Keith lifted him up in his arms, and a wall collapsed, and Rumsey bled to death. It was Rumsey’s blood that covered Keith’s clothes as he walked uptown, and this glimpse of death made for his pacification. This is the memory that makes violence impossible.

In the final pages of Jonathan Safran Foer’s 9/11 novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Foer introduced simulations of a photograph of a man falling from the World Trade Center. These replicas succeeded one another for several pages, their victim repositioned in a flip book, with the man travelling not downwards but upwards. In a society of the image – in which, through a colossal act of collective vanity and identification, anyone who saw those images was allowed to feel that he or she was somehow also victimised and equally a part of the pain – Foer ended his book with the fulfilment of a wish about one of the most horrible of 9/11 images, that it could simply be altered, to unmake the disaster.

DeLillo, famous for knowing and writing about the perils of moving images, and their way of inducing all sorts of wishes, makes his counterstatement in an act of deliberate iconoclasm, by continuing to write through the same images. He has the last piece of Keith’s story be the sight, from inside the windows of the towers, of the man falling. DeLillo undoes the familiar photo by making us see it from a reverse angle. He undoes the performance of his novel’s own Falling Man – outdoing as a writer the ambiguous efforts of his in-novel performer. Keith sees the man fall as he tries to pick up Rumsey. On the second page of the book, DeLillo had shown us ‘a shirt’ coming down near the towers, seen from outside their collapse, an empty vestment without its human occupant. In the final lines we see the object again, ‘a shirt come down out of the sky’. The surprising thing that DeLillo’s austerity and stealth and management of gesture has allowed him to do with this empty garment, over 246 pages, is to refill it with a sense of the dead people whom we, the readers, must acknowledge that we are not entitled to enjoy, possess or avenge.