DeLillo on 9/11
May 10, 2007
• Falling Man
by Don DeLillo
You could say there have been foreshadowings. From Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997), the great American novel of the second half of the 20th century: “My son used to believe that he could look at a plane in flight and make it explode in midair by simply thinking it . . . he’d sense an element of catastrophe tacit in the very fact of a flying object filled with people.” Elsewhere in that novel, in 1974, two characters watch the World Trade Center being constructed: “Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think.” DeLillo’s fifth novel, Players (1977), features a woman who works in a grief management firm high up in the newly finished World Trade Center: “the towers didn’t seem permanent”, she thinks, but then, “Where else would you stack all that grief?” The same novel also depicts a cabal of terrorists who want to blow up the Stock Exchange.
In Mao II (1991): “Out the south windows the Trade towers stood cut against the night, intensely massed and near. This is the word ‘loomed’ in all its prolonged and impending force.” Mao II‘s novelist protagonist argues that terrorists are winning a “zero-sum game” against novelists: “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.” White Noise (1984) is, among other things, a comedy of disaster response, as victims of an “airborne toxic event” are chided for not acting as they would in a drill. The jacket image of Underworld, in its US and UK first editions, is a photograph of the twin towers, their upper stories shrouded in mist, with a bird flying towards them.
There is already a blackly satirical, weirdly prescient 9/11 novel scattered in arcane fragments through DeLillo’s existing work. But the real event, it seems, demands an explicit response. Very terrible thing but you have to look at it. Falling Man‘s title alludes to the famous, horrific photograph of an unidentified man falling headfirst from one of the towers after the attack. In one of those DeLilloan cultural inventions that seem more dense with meaning than actual cultural events, New York in this novel is haunted after the attacks by a performance artist known as the Falling Man, who hangs himself upside-down from balconies and bridges across the city in wordless imitation of the unknown victim.
The story focuses on a small group of characters in the aftermath: Keith, an office worker in one of the towers who managed to get out, and Lianne, the wife to whom he returns, plus her mother and her mother’s boyfriend, a cynically provocative European art dealer; and Keith and Lianne’s nine-year-old son, who scans the skies with binoculars for the return of a man called “Bill Lawton”, figment of misheard news. This being a DeLillo novel, it is not a confection of sentimental adultery and cheap hope, as was Jay McInerney’s post-9/11 effort, The Good Life. Indeed, the novel explicitly warns the reader what not to expect, as Keith returns to his old apartment: “In the movie version, someone would be in the building, an emotionally damaged woman or a homeless old man, and there would be dialogue and close-ups.” Difficult to imagine a movie version of this novel, patterned as a sequence of charged tableaux and moods, shot through with streaks of obsidian comedy. Picking out slivers of glass from Keith’s face, a doctor describes to him the phenomenon of “organic shrapnel”, whereby bits of a suicide bomber’s blown-up body can lodge in the skin of bystanders. After much revolting detail, the doctor finishes with casual reassurance: “This is something I don’t think you have.” Throughout the book, bombs of laconic irony explode when least expected, such as when Keith “walked north toward the barricades, thinking it might be hard to find a taxi at a time when every cab driver in New York was named Muhammad”.
In such a context, DeLillo’s idiosyncratic method of dialogue acquires even more allusive and slyly destabilising force. Beginning every DeLillo novel, during the period of acclimatisation, one has the impression that the dialogue is highly stylised: people talk at angles past one another, in sometimes nonsensical fragments of sentences. Then one realises that it is the very fluidity of other novels’ dialogue that is artificial: the improbably easy, logical and perfectly parsed flow of most fictional conversation does not resemble the way people speak. DeLillo refuses even to chivvy along his characters with expressive punctuation. Where other writers use dashes and ellipses, he is surgical with the full stop. Lianne’s mother warns her: “But if you let your sympathy and goodwill affect your judgment.” No trailing dots, no “then” to the “if”. Sometimes people do not have a thing and leave it unsaid; sometimes they don’t have another thing to say. Some scenes of the novel are written as though deafened and exhausted beyond all language – for instance, when Lianne and Keith sit silently together watching television, “as a correspondent in a desolate landscape, Afghanistan or Pakistan, pointed over his shoulder to mountains in the distance”.
DeLillo’s prose has always had the quality of seeming stunned by the world, vitrified into shards of glassy perfection by the sheer force of light bouncing off people and things. A style often taken as deliberately remote or studiedly cool, it seems almost the opposite, a function of exquisite sensitivity. But can one still be sensitive to small things when such a big thing has happened? Such is the question implied by a curious moment when Keith is still wandering dazed through the city in the aftermath of the attack. “He crossed Canal Street and began to see things, somehow, differently. Things did not seem charged in the usual ways, the cobbled street, the cast-iron buildings.” The worry that ordinary things no longer seem “charged” might be read as an authorial lament, rather than one credibly belonging to this character. The novel is none the less full of beautiful, almost casually deployed observations – a day of “wind-whipped rain” is “the weather everywhere, the state of mind, generic Monday”; men betting on horse races are “showing the anxious lean of body english that marks money on the line”; the clicking of chips in a casino is “insect friction”. Through the eyes of Keith, in particular, DeLillo appears to be making an effort to render the ashen world newly strange, such as when Keith visits a gym and deadpans the scene: “They strained against weighted metal sleds and rode stationary bikes.”
And yet, there still seems something self-questioning about Falling Man, which also contains passages written from the point of view of one of the hijackers, named Hammad, whom we see first in Hamburg, then in America, and finally on the plane. Affectless, estranged, almost stereotypical, these interpolations seem primarily to work as an acknowledgement that hypersophisticated artistic humanism is not the only game in town. But their very existence in the scheme of the novel also allows some extraordinary cross-allusions – for example, when DeLillo describes, in a gorgeous celebration of the inexplicit dynamics of male friendship, the weekly games of poker that Keith used to play with his friends, most now dead. Once they decided to play only one variety of poker, they still observed the ritual of announcing five-card stud at every deal, “and they loved doing this, straight faced, because where else would they encounter the kind of mellow tradition exemplified by the needless utterance of a few archaic words”. Where else. No question mark. A slow fuse is lit that snakes and ramifies through the pages.
The presence of Hammad’s storyline is also, perhaps, finally justified by an extraordinary coup: as the plane approaches the tower, we are in the hijacker’s consciousness, and then, at the instant it hits, we are catapulted mid-paragraph into Keith’s point of view, as though by the force of the explosion itself, and so the reader is subjected to some faint analogue of the characters’ own disorientation and shock. The novel’s end recounts how Keith descends from his office and emerges into the plaza, where DeLillo recapitulates with variation the novel’s very first scene, drawing a tight circle of recurring nightmare. These are pages of magnificent force and control, DeLillo’s genius at full pelt. Reading them, you have to remind yourself to keep breathing.