Review of “Falling Man” by Don DeLillo

Falling ManFalling Man by Don DeLillo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the eleven years that have passed since the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings, I have steered well clear of narrative fiction that purported to treat that fateful day. The idea repulsed me. I found disgusting the occasional attempts by Hollywood to package our collective nightmare and sell it back to us. As if we did not all already know what it was. I did not feel they had the right; American movies tend so much towards the facile and trite, and this event was too close, and too big. Nor did I feel that I wanted to immerse myself in a novelist’s attempt to grapple with that day; I feared the maudlin and the obvious.

Eleven years on, and Falling Man caught my eye in the library. I had been meaning to read some Don DeLillo, but was a little intimidated by the scope and ambition of Underworld. Even after I understood that this book was “about” 9/11, I did not put it back on the shelf. In fact, I found that I had a certain hunger to experience how, many years after, a serious author chose to portray the happenings and effects of this day.

I like that DeLillo chooses to simultaneously treat this event head-on and tell stories whose relationship to 9/11 is tangential or mysterious. I was glad that he chose not to be coy and tiptoe around the large and dangerous subjects that beg for treatment in a story about 9/11. He opens the book with a detailed but dreamlike, visceral description of a man walking away from ground zero in the midst of the surreal, ash-choked mayhem as one tower, then the other, collapses. He returns to the scene as two survivors share their stories of walking down the endless winding flights of stairs and making their way out of the WTC; and again to great effect late in the novel as one of the protagonists digs up memories of being at work in the tower when the first plane struck, and feeling the building sway. DeLillo even surprises with an abrupt and wrenching change of perspective about a third of the way into the book, shifting the scene to depict the thoughts and environment of one of the terrorists-to-be as the plan for the WTC attacks gradually takes shape. This was perhaps the weakest part of the book, but I appreciated his daring in smashing all these stories together in an attempt to view the 9/11 disaster from many directions.

The core of the book, however, is an apparently haphazard series of detailed snapshots of the thoughts and emotional states of two main characters: a married couple who had been separated for a year or so, but who find themselves surprisingly thrown together in the immediate aftermath of the day the towers fell. Things begin with an oddly hopeful tone, as this pair find solace in their rejoined family in spite of not knowing what new contract they are writing. But this is something like misdirection; as the novel progresses, a darkness seems to seep from the outside to the inside of these people, and they retreat into their separate neuroses.

This novel does not attempt to dive too deeply into the individual grief of those who lost friends and loved ones in the collapse of the WTC towers. Rather, it seems to me that it slowly builds in the reader a sense that 9/11 is a fault line in our shared consciousness, a day that divides “before” and “after”. That the period we now live in will forever be tinged with a kind of sadness. That there has been a loss of some kind of hope or optimism that we used to take for granted as an American birthright. That things will never be the same again. We are living “after”.

I am not sure that the story arc of the two main characters is entirely convincing or involving. In the end, they seem less like individuals that I am meant to relate to and more like stand-ins for certain themes or ideas. The woman runs a weekly group therapy session for people who are gradually losing their memory and individuality to Alzheimer’s. The man reduces his life to little more than a never-ending series of professional poker games in anonymous, windowless rooms. Both of these involve themes of control, or loss of control, or the little amount of control one can exercise over things that are fundamentally random. These are themes that are apropos for a story about this national trauma. Alzheimer’s, in particular, struck me as a surprisingly apt metaphor for the sense of slipping identity that we all feel after 9/11, and the fear that this loss of self engenders.

There is a way in which DeLillo maintains a certain distance from his characters in this novel, and we fail to be truly drawn into their stories, and are left a little bit cold. Despite this, I appreciated this novel as a meditation on the subtle and unexpected damage that 9/11 has wrought on us. As we look inwards, we may all find that there is still some schrapnel buried deep inside of us, a legacy of that explosive day. We will never be the same.

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~ by untidymusings on March 31, 2012.

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