<em>Falling Man</em>'s Precarious Balance

Falling Man by Don DeLillo (Scribner, 256 pages)


Last spring, with some trepidation, I taught a seminar on "Narrative and 9/11." The bookstore shelves were filling up with works about 9/11, and I wanted to take the cultural pulse of that output: what we were telling ourselves, collectively, about 9/11 five years after the fact. While there was plenty of fine non-fiction material to choose from, I had to hunt to find accomplished fiction about 9/11. My students gamely slogged through a fair amount of tediously sentimental or ephemerally journalistic fiction. (To this day, I feel sheepish for making them read a particularly terrible science fiction novella: Battlefield Earth meets The 9/11 Commission Report.)

While there are now enough decent-to-impressive novels to constitute a 9/11 literary canon (e.g., John Updike's Terrorist, Jess Walters's The Zero, Frédéric Beigbeder's Windows on the World, Ian McEwan's Saturday, Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), none has quite captured the events of that day with the kind of historical resonance or with the harrowing immediacy that suggests we'll be reading it 20 years hence to find out what 9/11 meant.

Enter Don DeLillo.

No living American writer seems as qualified to deliver the Great American 9/11 Novel. Having tackled violent and paranoid plots of American history like the Kennedy assassination and the Cold War, the machinations of capitalism, international terrorism, and postmodern media culture, who better than DeLillo to take up the fearful, surreal drama of September 11 and its aftermath?

Indeed, DeLillo tantalized readers with a Harper's essay, "In the Ruins of the Future," that appeared in December of 2001, while Ground Zero was still smoldering. DeLillo warned that "Today ... the world narrative belongs to terrorists." In a call to writers to challenge that monopoly, DeLillo described what a 9/11 novelist might do: "The writer begins in the towers, trying to imagine the moment, desperately. Before politics, before history and religion, there is the primal terror. People falling from the towers hand in hand. ... The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space."

Six years later, that howling space is the opening image of DeLillo's latest novel, Falling Man. A lawyer, Keith Neudecker, walks away from the wreckage of the World Trade Center into a changed landscape: "It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night." While most other fictions have presented 9/11 as backdrop rather than foreground, DeLillo stays steadily trained on the psychological impact of the event. Keith returns to the apartment of his ex-wife, Lianne, and their son, but he slips in and out like a ghost. Slim and impressionistic, closer in weight and style to The Body Artist than to the epic Underworld, the novel moves among Keith, Lianne, their son, and others, probing the general psychic landscape of Manhattan in the wake of the attacks.

These characters are unable to make sense of 9/11: Keith's son keeps looking to the sky for airplanes and invents a character named "Bill Lawton," a distorted form of Bin Laden; Lianne lashes out at her Middle Eastern neighbor and cannot figure out what is happening with her husband; Keith drifts off to tryst with a fellow survivor of 9/11 and becomes a professional gambler. Only at the end of the novel do we see the violent event itself, a narrative move that imitates the structure of psychological trauma: numbness in the moment itself followed only later by delayed understanding.

DeLillo gives his characters a language appropriate to their dazed, post-traumatic state. Readers looking for the snappy prose of White Noise or Mao II will be taken aback by Falling Man's muffled and subdued tone. DeLillo often falls back on 9/11 clichés here: "These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after." The strongest moments are idiosyncratic, for example, when a manuscript about terrorism that was notoriously rejected all over town before 9/11 has suddenly become a "hot commodity." Alongside the now-hackneyed sentiment that "The dead were everywhere," DeLillo presents a more suggestive idea of "organic shrapnel," bits of a suicide bomber's body that become embedded in bystanders. This an apt metaphor for the psychic wounds his New Yorkers bear in the wake of 9/11.

Most impressively, Falling Man is utterly free of the sanctimoniousness that has tended to dominate the discussion about 9/11. When Oliver Stone, the master hysteric of conspiracy stories himself, could not, with World Trade Center (2006), get underneath the heroic sentimentalism that occludes other kinds of stories -- stories of national complicity, irresponsibility, and vulnerability -- it's a sign that the culture at large is not ready for those stories to be told. Call it the United 93 syndrome. DeLillo gives us a 9/11 tale without a hero, with people who, in traumatic circumstances, do very normal, self-interested and compulsive things. 9/11 does not repair them or bring out their noblest sides.

These, then, are the survivors' stories, but they are complicated by the interspersed chapters that tell the terrorist's story, following one young Muslim, a colleague of Muhammad Atta, from Germany to Florida to New York. Other novelists of 9/11 have tended to treat the terrorist's narrative as a separate entity, as if that point of view demands a narrative quarantine from victims' tales. DeLillo once remarked that "Fiction rescues history from its confusions ... correcting, clearing up and, perhaps most important of all, finding rhythms and symmetries we just don't encounter elsewhere." Just so, Falling Man imagines the connections among disparate voices, most strikingly, when the narrative of the terrorist in the plane headed toward the WTC converges with Keith's narrative inside the WTC in the last scene of the novel. The dispersed style means, however, that each of the stories has a rather superficial, surface quality. The terrorists remain particularly distanced and unrealized; the rhythms of their thought are stilted, foreign, and abstract.

The biggest surprise of Falling Man is what is not here: the media, without whose filter it is almost impossible to imagine 9/11. DeLillo, who has in the past meticulously detailed how the media constructs our world, does not mention the powerful role television (and the internet) played in the reception of 9/11. It's a baffling exclusion. Is it because the novelist needs to wrest 9/11 back from the media? Because media bombardment leaves no room for or trumps the novelist's embellishment?

Whatever the case, instead of media culture, we get art: a controversial performance artist known as "Falling Man" who makes unannounced appearances around the city suspending himself to simulate the bodies dropping from the Trade Center. (He resembles one image in particular: Richard Drew's photograph of a man tumbling symmetrically from the WTC, which inspired Tom Junod's much-hailed Esquire essay, "The Falling Man," and two subsequent documentary films). DeLillo has long been fascinated by artists and terrorists and the relationship between the two; here the performance is an act of art-terrorism inflicted upon a dazed audience. Falling Man strongly resembles a real performance artist, Kerry Skarbakka, who photographed himself leaping from various buildings and precipices. When he staged a serious of leaps from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago shortly after 9/11, The Daily News trumpeted, "Kick Him in the Arts," and Michael Bloomberg remarked that Skarbakka's work was "nauseatingly offensive." DeLillo's version of these hijinks is cynical and po-mo: there is "a panel discussion at the New School. Falling Man as Heartless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of Age of Terror."

To say that Falling Man is a device or a contrivance is to state the obvious. But there's also something off-key about his presence in this novel, which seems to want to "give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space." If Falling Man is a figure for the artist, then there's nowhere to go. It's almost as if DeLillo has provided his own alibi for the possible accusation of opportunism, of "making art out of 9/11."

Falling Man is one of the strongest 9/11 novelistic efforts to date, but it is exactly its staged artfulness that somewhat compromises its ambitions. The landscape is fair and balanced, everyone's side of the story is told, the terrorists are connected to the victims and survivors, but the novel imposes a kind of subdued containment and evenhandedness that occludes "the primal terror" of 9/11. If one is looking to experience the heart-pounding panic of how that morning unfolded, better to look to Art Spiegelman's jarring and uncontrolled memoir In The Shadow of No Towers or The 9/11 Commission Report, with its claustrophobic report of the sequence of events and its awful systematic failures. Perhaps fiction should not aim to "rescue history from its confusions" but rather to reflect them. Order was what the media rushed to create after 9/11, and against that, one wishes for less orchestration, less design, less control and coolness, less of the artful balance of Falling Man.