Falling Man by Don DeLillo

This weekend was a milestone: I finished two novels, Slow Man by JM Coetzee and Falling Man by Don DeLillo. Interesting in that each of the protagonists was an alienated modern man on the verge of losing everything. But, never mind the weird coincidences one runs into as a reader. This post focuses on Falling Man.

From what I've read so far, other readers have mixed feelings at best. Well, I'm going out on a limb here: I liked it, and I gotta cheer at DeLillo's guts in fictionalizing the most sacred cow of current events, 9/11.

I have the advantage here of not having read other of DeLillo's work. It seems that his fans find Falling Man falling short (sorry for the pun) of his previous novels, and I haven't been indoctrinated into this cult. So, I can take Falling Man on its own terms. I wouldn't say it is the definitive account of 9/11 or even brilliant, but, flawed as it might be, it succeeds at trying. Here is what I mean:

The book starts out as the protagonist lawyer Keith Neudecker, covered in ash and glass shards, escapes from one of the burning towers. He makes his way to the home of his estranged wife and son. (Many reviewers have qualified this move as "inexplicable," but it seems fairly logical to me that one would seek out those who are or have been closest to you, emotionally and in physical proximity....Who did you talk to on 9/11?) Thus, the plot unfolds as Keith, his wife Lianne and their son (referred to most often as simply "the kid") try to reconnect and make sense of their lives in a post-9/11 world.

To me, Keith is an archetype character, but it is a device that DeLillo successfully exploits. Keith is a stand-in for those of us who did not suffer the physical horror of the day; he is the emotional conduit for us, and as such, could not be too particularized. Lianne, being one step removed from the WTC collapse, is shaded in a more complex way.

Both she and Keith are involved in actitivities that work as clever and rich metaphors within the novel. Lianne runs a workshop for dementia patients to record their thoughts before they lose their memories -- an echo of how Americans have had to re-establish their own histories and worldview after 9/11. Keith is a poker player, whose obsession with the game of chance (just as his escape was a play on luck) is as fraught with ritual as the terrorist's jihadist preparations.

DeLillo was less successful with the novel's central metaphor, Falling Man. This describes a performance artist who appears around New York City, tethering himself to a safety line and jumping from unlikely places, dressed in a business suit -- a living reminder of the images of jumpers from the towers; the metaphor doesn't ever seem to really gel, to hold the portent of complexity of the events and emotions it calls to mind.

DeLillo attempts to bring in other worldviews. He does get inside the head of one of the terrorists, and one of the peripheral characters adds a perspective of other nations' reactions to 9/11. I think he really was trying to address many facets of 9/11, in as straightforward manner as possible. All in all, I applaud his effort.

Not too many other reviewers do, and personally, I think it's because there seems to be as little perspective, six years after the event, as there was on 9/12/2001.

The NYRB article by Andrew O'Hagan seems a fairly typical take on the novel. Decrying 9/11 as the event that "instantly blows DeLillo's lamps out," O'Hagan essentially dismisses this author's (or any, for that matter) ability to recapture a media-logged traumatic event as Biblical as 9/11:

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.

And this is from the UK Guardian:

The feeling of being decentred, peripheral to oneself, is clearly appropriate to a narrative of aftermath, but turns out to be an abiding, almost defining, characteristic of the book.

It's almost as if the reviewers want to punish DeLillo -- a slap on the wrist, maybe, but punitive nevertheless -- for daring to touch the untouchable, for adding fictional narrative to a story that is very real, with very real consequences. Or, even more subtle and insidious, is the implication that the novel is "passe," out of step with the technological times. I've seen this attitude curling around the edges of various articles and essays -- the proverbial death of the novel. What a lack of imagination! What a myopic love affair with gadgets and widgets and things that go beep in the night! One could really stretch and say that it was this very lack of imagination, this over-confidence in the superiority of technology that led to 9/11...but perhaps that would be going too far, even when grappling with understanding a situation in which you really can't go far enough.

Tomorrow: My thoughts on Slow Man.


litlove said...

Wow! Fantastic review, LK! I've so often thought about reading some Don DeLillo but I've never got there. It might not be this book, but I see that I really must try him out.

hobgoblin said...

This is a great review--I especially love your analysis of what other reviewers are saying. I think you're right, too, about how they--especially O'Hagan--seem to want to punish DeLillo for his audacity to dare to try to write about such big events. Some people (and not just politicians) seem to have this proprietary feeling about 9/11 and insist that their feelings and reactions are the only real, viable ones.

Dorothy W. said...

Interesting! I don't get the attitude that artists shouldn't dare to say something about 9/11 in their art. I don't think there should be such a thing as the "untouchable."

Courtney said...

This is a really wonderful review, and perhaps the only thing that could turn me towards a DeLillo novel so soon after Underworld which I never managed to finish. I also don't wonder if DeLillo is one of those novelists that critics have just been waiting to pounce on, so successful has he been in the past?

Stefanie said...

Enjoyed your review! I have to laugh though, Falling Man, then Slow Man. Will there be a Jumping Man and a Fast Man too? ;)

LK said...

Hey, Stefanie, I do have Man in the Gray Flannel Suit on the shelf...

Literary Feline said...

Excellent review, LK. I am not familiar with this particular author or book, but I found your indepth review quite intriguing and now it has me curious about the nuances of the story you mentioned, including the criticism its received.

SDYogini said...

Great review! I agree especially with your review of other reviews.

verbivore said...

Just finished Falling Man last night and wanted to come back here and reread your review. This is great and I think really got at what the book was trying to do. It was brave of Delillo to tackle the subject and among other fictional attempts, I think his is one of, if not the best I've read so far.

LK said...

Hey, Verbifore, great to hear from you -- and thanks for your comment. It is an interesting book. I think DeLillo took some real chances with this topic, as you say. I read another novel about 9/11 -- written by a French author, Frédéric Beigbeder, Windows on the World. I appreciated the effort, but I didn't find it as compelling somehow. A lot of melodramtic writing and unbelievable dialog, I think.

Musadhique Kottapramban said...

Very strange it is!
I have to read the book as part of my course at Potsdam University. (I am really shameful about to not read the book before that). For some review I checked the net and find your blog. I feel by seeing your blog I get a bibiloifriend forever. I write my comment after reading the book and your review of the book, though it was written long long..