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Writing about Don DeLillo's Falling Man is complicated by the personal material that any reader, and especially any literate New Yorker, brings to the story. Even more especially, perhaps, a New Yorker who was not anywhere near the Towers when they were attacked, and who lost no friends in the disaster. Finally, a New Yorker who always regarded the pair of Towers as a shocking blot on the skyline, an architectural offense almost without parallel.
And yet every novel poses exactly the same engagement. No matter what the subject or the setting, the reader brings what he has to bring, and that's that. Every novel complements things that the reader already knows. And feels, and believes, and so on. A novel to which the reader could bring nothing would be absolutely unintelligible.
What, then, causes me to raise the problem of the impact of experience upon response in the particular case of Falling Man? Here is what: until long after everyone alive today is dead, and living memories of 9/11 have either petrified into folklore or faded from human experience altogether. the reader will feel called upon to judge how well the author has done justice to an unimaginable horror. How well has he made the unspeakable speakable? The reader suspects that a writer who centers a novel on the nightmare (and doesn't merely make use of it as an incidental metaphor) has assigned himself the most challenging of jobs.
But the challenge is too fresh for there to be groundrules. In The New York Review of Books, Andrew O'Hagan reviews the book generously but ultimately finds it wanting, because Mr DeLillo, after years of uncanny prophecy, has been stunned by the realization of one of his bad dreams. For once, he is not warning us about anything; he is not offering a diagnosis of American malaise. Trying to capture something that has actually happened, in Mr O'Hagan's view, Mr DeLillo's book has been "incapacitated." He recommends reading the 9/11 Commission Report.
Mr O'Hagan's approach seems wrongheaded to me. Falling Man is not spruced up reportage. It is, like any good novel, about meaning. The narrative is tightly focused on only three points of view: a husband and a wife who have separated at some point in the past but who reconnect after the attacks, and one of the terrorists aboard the first plane to strike. The last point of view is, blessedly, the most sparingly employed. Although the voice of Hammad has nothing new to say to any cosmopolitan reader, it provides an oddly agreeable tonal contrast. Where Keith gropes and Lianne wonders, Hammad complains, and then berates himself for complaining. As a reluctant terrorist, he is not without his charm. The terrorist passages, which are all anterior to the surrounding narrative, moreover enable an exceedingly elegant device that gives the novel an in-my-ending-is-my-beginning twist. Within a single sentence, we move, very near to the close of the novel, from the bulkhead of the plane to the office in which Keith Neudecker has been shot out of his chair by the blast. The few remaining pages describe Keith's escape from the building. The novel begins shortly afterward. In other words, the action described at the novel's culmination directly precedes the action described at its commencement.
The closest we get to a meaningful description of Keith is the opposite of revealing.
Her mother had said it clearly, years earlier.
"There's a certain man, an archetype, he's a model of dependability for his male friends, all the things a friend should be, an ally and confidant, lends money, gives advice, loyal and so on, but sheer hell on women. Living breathing hell. The closer a women gets, the clearer it becomes to him that she is not one of his male friends. And the more awful it becomes for her. This is Keith. This is the man you are going to marry."
The nub of this image is Keith's rejection of non-male friends. The novel works this out at leisure. Keith has a lot of thoroughly optional male friendships. The poker game that he has hosted throughout the separation is lovingly described; you might almost suspect Mr DeLillo of writing delightedly about the antics of his children. Keith lives with men. Women, it seems, he can only use, if only because he can't live with them. He does not speak their language. There's a wonderful moment that notes his response to something both visionary and intimate that a woman called Florence says to him: "He didn't believe this but he believed her." The dissonance is muted by the moment, but the meaning is clear: Keith listens to women with a lesser form of credence, as if women were not capable of fully-formed thought.
Keith, in short, is without guilt or a sense of personal inadequacy. He believes that the last couple of years with Lianne were spoiled by a kind of excess energy, a stress that needed to be burned off at a fitness center. The novelist doesn't quarrel with this conclusion, but then he doesn't test it, either. It would be unlike Keith to reflect deeply on this or on anything. His mind is ruthlessly efficient at avoiding thought, sentiment, reflection - whatever you want to call the personal and emotional inquiry that women and, for the matter of that, more complete men undertake as a matter of course. This gives the novel its stunned quality: Keith's consciousness registers, but is inconsequential. The stroke of luck that saved his life in the Towers liberates Keith from meaning.
Lianne, in contrast, looks for meaning everywhere, even if not always meaningfully.
She read newspaper profiles of the dead, every one of them that was printed. Not to read them, every one, was an offense, a violation of responsibility and trust. But she also read them because she had to, out of some need she did not try to interpret.
Lianne is given a wider life. She has an ailing mother, the sharp Nina. Nina argues with her long-time lover, Martin, about the attacks. These arguments are the weakest parts of Falling Man. They may sound authentic, but convincingly replicating the sound of urine spilling into a toilet bowl would not by itself justify the inclusion of such virtuosic writing. Compared with the arguers in Jane Smiley's Ten Days in the Hills, Nina and Martin are just spitting at one another, and not listening because there is nothing serious to attend to. The suggestion is made that Martin may have been a terrorist in Germany in the Sixties, and it's hard not to be disappointed in what Mr DeLillo makes of this. At what she realizes will be her last meeting with Martin, Lianne (somewhat murkily) reflects,
She'd respected his secret, yielded to his mystery. Whatever it was he'd done, it was not outside the lines of response. She could imagine his life, then and now, detect the slurred pulse of an earlier consciousness. Maybe he was a terrorist but he was one of ours, she thought, and the thought chilled her, shamed her - one of ours, which meant godless, Western, white.
If I were to propose a groundrule for 9/11 fiction it would be to insist upon recognizing the Western antecedents of Islamic terrorism. It is not that the West pushed the jihadis into terrorist actions, but rather that it taught them how to perform them. Its soul may be Islamic, but the spine and nerves of the Middle Eastern threat to American safety, from the Marxism that inspired Sayyid al Qutb, to the technology behind today's IEDs, are comprised of Western exports. Lianne's hypocrisy is duly noted, but she fails to think through. There is no fortuitous distinction to be made between "our terrorists" and "their terrorists." It is rather false make any distinction between "our terrorists" and "the terrorists who learned from us." The worst of it is that I can't help faulting Lianne, and not Mr DeLillo, for stopping short here. Lianne is presented throughout as someone whose reasoning is always likely to be overwhelmed by complexity. At the same time, it's true that Mr DeLillo misses the chance to make Hammad aware of some of these deep connections. But Hammad is a reluctant terrorist, not inclined to think things through.
What then, of a novel in which nobody really thinks things through? I wrote earlier that Falling Man is "about meaning." But meaning is never established, never even essayed. It is avoided or missed. In the case of Hammad, meaning is insisted upon. As I am of the opinion that it is still too soon to settle on the meaning of 9/11 for anyone, I'm willing to pardon Don DeLillo's reluctance to propose possibilities. I do wish, however, that he had provided more in the way of what function meaning might serve, what its purpose might be. We are all of no doubt that it has a purpose; the term itself, "meaning," is somewhat tautological. What do we want with it? I also believe that there's a small corner of specific meaning that might have been explored: what does it mean to survive an attack on your office building piloted by men who despise your civilization. In Keith Neudecker, Don DeLillo has given us a character who rather explains, by meriting it, that hatred. (June 2007)
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