“It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” This, the opening line of Don DeLillo’s new novel, Falling Man, refers first to the total physical reality of the clouds of smoke, dust and debris clotting the streets of downtown Manhattan the morning of September 11, 2001. The second sentence of the second paragraph, though, reads simply: “This was the world now.” — the dawning of a stark and immediate new truth, realized sometime after the collapse of the World Trade Center’s South Tower and before the collapse of the North. Reflecting upon the events of September 11 in the December, 2001 issue of Harper’s, DeLillo began by describing the ultra-modern pulsations of American culture and the global economy, then wrote: “All this changed on September 11. Today, again, the world narrative belongs to terrorists… It is our lives and minds that are occupied now… Our world, parts of our world, have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage.” And so the opening of Falling Man mirrors our own processes, taking the measure of this strange new world by first absorbing its sights (“there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads”), sounds (“the roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall”), textures (“there was glass in his face, marbled bolls of blood and light”), smells (“the stink of fuel fires”), and tastes (“there was an aftertaste of blood in the long draft of water”).
If Everything Changed on 9/11, if we were yanked away from our monitors and back into a primal state of tangible threats, then no one ought to register this change more profoundly than Don DeLillo. His novels oppose any continuous stream of social experience: the typical DeLillo set piece functions as a kind of abstracto ad absurdium, removing a phenomenon from its context, reducing it to its component parts, and murmuring, “hey, doesn’t this look sorta funny?” In End Zone, his second novel, the college football player narrator and his teammates play a pickup game in a blizzard: making up the rules as they go, the players outlaw gloves, the warming of hands between plays, and then forward passes, end runs, and hand-offs of any kind; “[w]e were part of the weather, right inside it, isolated from objects on the land, from land, from perspective itself,” he says, and later, “[w]e kept playing, we kept hitting, and we were comforted by the noise and brunt of our bodies in contact, by the simple physical warmth generated through violent action…” Here, as in so many other passages in DeLillo, a concept becomes hermetic, and then elemental. (This ability to isolate and purify is what makes DeLillo a funnier writer than he’s usually credited with being. Take White Noise’s distillation of postmodern academia: “Hitler Studies.”)
Consider also the deconstructive patois of his dialogue, long exchanges of unattributed speech which value the ideas raised and the sounds of the words over any kind of interpersonal exchange. (More than one person I know gave up on Underworld because “I got tired of not being able to keep track of who was talking.”) A recent New Yorker article dealing in part with the DeLillo materials archived at the University of Texas mentioned a jotted-down musing from his Underworld notes: “’The Factoids: Nobody knows whether they in fact exist… By the end of the novel, it is suggested that everyone is a Factoid, a rumored version of himself.’” It’s almost autistic, this view of people as external concepts rather than autonomous interior monologues, and of ideas as disengaged from their commingled flow.
And just as some studies link autism and television viewership, DeLillo’s style reflects the telecom-savvy prescience long recognized as one of his distinguishing concerns. As early as his first novel, Americana — in which a young TV executive drives from New York into the heartland, to make a film that recreates and distorts events from his childhood — DeLillo has understood the power of media technologies to render experience in detached, disparate units. (When the Kennedy assassination appears in Underworld, it’s at a pot party in the summer of 1974, the Zapruder Film looping on several TV monitors.) Participation in contemporary privileged Western society, with its multiplicity of literal and figurative channels, necessitates navigation and negotiation, with the aid of a remote control, DVR, or mouse; DeLillo’s curatorial novels, with their short passages skipping through Big Ideas and loaded cultural icons, essentially document this newly complicated process.
One might, then, expect certain things from DeLillo’s reckoning with an instantaneously historic event that unfolded live (and was repeated on near-endless loop) on dozens of TV channels, and was frequently described using the language of disaster movies. But while the first Gulf War may not have taken place, 9/11 did, especially for lifelong New Yorker DeLillo — who has relatives living in lower Manhattan, and in whose fiction the twin towers featured almost from the moment they were built. (They loom in the background of Underworld’s cover, even in recent editions.) In “In the Ruins of the Future,” his Harper’s essay, DeLillo wrote of technology giving way to fear: “But whatever great skeins of technology lie ahead… the future has yielded, for now, to medieval expedience.” Everything Changed on 9/11 — perhaps in fulfillment of DeLillo’s own vague prophecy, set forth in Mao II.
In an October, 2001 essay in the Guardian, James Wood dismissed Mao II’s “foolish notion that the terrorist now does what the novelist used to do, that is, ‘alter the inner life of the culture,’” and concluded, hopefully: “It ought to be harder, now, either to bounce around in the false zaniness of hysterical realism or to trudge along in the easy fidelity of social realism [species of malaise for which he holds DeLillo responsible]. That may allow a space… for novels that tell us not ‘how the world works’ but ‘how somebody felt about something’ — indeed, how a lot of different people felt about a lot of different things (these are commonly called novels about human beings)…” The irony is that the terrorists of 9/11 so altered the inner life of the culture that Don DeLillo has just published a book that attempts, at least initially, to be exactly the one Wood describes.
The beginning of Falling Man sees DeLillo responding tentatively to a world turned sharply away from him: the issues are global, but the setting is domestic, and the primary concerns are of intimate relations. Keith Neudecker, the North Tower worker walking through the ash in the opening pages, escapes his office in one of the towers, and returns home to his estranged wife, Lianne, and their withdrawn son. Keith had been living downtown, in an apartment empty but for the accoutrements of a weekly poker game. As Keith recalls the poker, in a flashback structured uncannily like End Zone’s snowbound touch football game, it begins realistically before becoming ever more elemental and abstract. But Keith’s done with that now; the attacks bring him back into the real world. “Keith’s been alive for six days now,” Lianne thinks, measuring a weighty new reality.
At multiple points, Keith and Lianne reach for the old DeLillovian language, only to find that the sense and terminology of mediated experience no longer feels adequate. (As Keith vacates his bachelor pad: “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.”) DeLillo struggles along with them to find a new idiom: escaping his office, Keith picked up a briefcase; he returns it to its owner, a “light-skinned black woman”; they relate their stories, and begin an affair. If it sounds beneath DeLillo’s powers of imagination, it is: the rhythm of their speech aside, the scenes are indistinguishable from any other hackneyed depiction of two people bonded by untranslatable experience.
DeLillo’s dialogue, usually so philosophically assured (and faintly absurd), is equally halting. When Lianne, her mother, and her mother’s lover — an old school European radical-intellectual Marxist — discuss the attacks, their bullet-point arguments play as if they were talk show guests paired for their opposing perspectives.
(Speaking of which: Falling Man is divided into three sections, each followed by an interlude featuring an ambivalent young Muslim who becomes one of the 9/11 hijackers. Here, DeLillo is just as lost as the rest of us, drumming out the rhythms of jihadist life with eloquence and seeming verisimilitude — seeming so because each fact is convincing, and the conclusion drawn from them basically ungraspable.)
Eventually, though, Lianne does begin saying, to herself, “it’s a movie,” and DeLillo’s vision of America begins to refocus. The Falling Man of the title is a performance artist of a sort, who appears unannounced in public places — Grand Central, skyscrapers, bridges — and, affixed with a safety harness, leaps and hangs in midair, reenacting the infamous photographs of men jumping from their offices in the WTC. Watching him leap from an elevated subway track, Lianne sees “her husband somewhere near. She saw his friend, the one she’d met, or the other, maybe, or made him up and saw him, in a high window with smoke flowing out.” Falling Man, like White Noise’s Airborne Toxic Event, is the literal overhanging specter of death. (If anyone is repeating themselves, though, the lazy author is not DeLillo but human history, where Death comes invariably from Above — this particular form being
DeLillo has understood the power of media technologies
to render experience in detached, disparate units.
more human than the noxious cloud, just as the faces of potential sleeper cell members passed on the street are more human than some Evil Empire, and the type of demise they portend more personal.) Like the ghostly forms of the towers Lianne sees in a still-life painting on her mother’s wall, Falling Man shifts 9/11 into the realm of the image — from experience to perception.
Lianne — whose father, facing the onset of dementia, had killed himself — volunteers at a community center, leading a writing workshop for seniors in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. When the group decides to write “about the planes,” their fragmentary prose, brought forth with (mentally, physically, emotionally) sapping effort, is a product of the same struggle that terrifies Lianne, and the tension fueling vintage DeLillo: the anxiety of representing a world that exists, fundamentally, in their heads.
Later in the book, Lianne goes in for scans, guarding against the indicators of brain deterioration; she attends church, to find something beyond her neurons, “to feel the calm that marks a presence outside the nonstop riffs of the waking mind.” She seems less afraid of the death of her own consciousness than of the death of the world that will be wiped away along with it — as her group writes, “staring into a memory or a word,” she thinks of old passports, imagining the passports and the various artifacts of their long-gone bearers (factoids, rumored versions of themselves). It’s these insights, rather than sociopolitical banalities, that define Falling Man as it progresses.
The notion that Everything Changed on 9/11 seems to have come through the past half-decade more intact than any of the acutal changes to which said notion refers. Even in his Harper’s article, DeLillo spotted inklings: “Someone [at a makeshift aid station] said, ‘I don’t want cheese on that.’ Someone said, ‘I like it better not so cooked.’ Not so incongruous, really, just people alive and hungry, beginning to be themselves again.” By the end of Falling Man, DeLillo has begun to be himself again; so has Lianne. When we last see her, she’s completing the journey back to the center of her mind: “It was the body and everything it carried, inside and out, identity and memory and human heat… She was ready to be alone, in reliable calm, she and the kid, the way they were before the planes appeared that day…” Keith, for his part, fails to reconnect with his family, and returns to a poker-faced existence, this time as a professional card player in Las Vegas. We see him sitting in a casino’s sports book, surrounded by television monitors, “five screens high on the wall ahead showing horses running in various time zones somewhere on the planet.”
This is during the autumn of 2004, a time signified in the book by the fractious protests surrounding the Republican National Convention. American politics were back to business as usual, and DeLillo’s novel Cosmopolis, about global capital markets, wildernesses of simulacra, and a future accelerated by new technologies — a book in which a character sees his death before it happens, on the digital screen of his wristwatch — had recently been released in paperback. The “ruins of the future” DeLillo saw in December of 2001 — “the utopian glow of cyber-capital” and our other punctured illusions — were being restored, as rapidly as our machines, and DeLillo’s prose, could manage.