"Falling Man" by Don DeLillo
If you were some sort of Rip Van Winkle character who'd fallen asleep on Sept. 10, 2001, and woken up sometime in 2006 or so, you might think, based on the hot rhetoric blowing out of Washington and elsewhere, that the country had suffered a major military invasion on Sept. 11, wiping numerous U.S. cities off the face of the Earth.
Such has been the overblown, misguided and, frankly, wrongheaded reaction (i.e., Iraq) to what Sept. 11 really was -- an indescribably tragic event the likes of which Americans hadn't been exposed to before, perpetrated by a stateless, nation-less, criminal group of fundamentalist thugs. Many other nations have dealt with this sort of act for many years, but not us, not here, not to this level.
While politics may silently play around the margins of Don DeLillo's new 9/11 novel, "Falling Man," his task is not to discuss why it happened, or who's to blame, or how we should have gone about responding to it. Rather, it is to focus on how real people were psychologically, emotionally, fundamentally changed by the event.
I'd be hard put to think of anyone more qualified from the outset to write about Sept. 11. After all, DeLillo's been writing about the towers and terrorism for nearly four decades. On the first edition cover of his 1997 masterpiece "Underworld" is a picture of the towers enveloped in mist, with a bird making a beeline for them. In his 1977 novel "Players," a woman who works in a grief management firm notes that the towers "didn't seem permanent," but "where else would you stack all that grief?"
In 1991's "Mao II," DeLillo writes, "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." There are many, many more creepy prophetic passages I could mention, but you get the idea. DeLillo's been anticipating 9/11 since way back, and authority, insight and understanding like that must be paid attention to.
Unlike many of DeLillo's other novels, filled with grand events, grand scenes and big crowds, "Falling Man" is a rather simple story about just a handful of people. The protagonist, Keith, walks through a fog out of one of the towers, covered in ash, blood, and splinters of glass. On his way out, his hands grab onto a left-behind briefcase that isn't his, and his legs absentmindedly propel him forward to the apartment of his ex-wife, a place he hasn't lived in for a year.
The ex-wife, Lianne, is in her own fog. She's trying to make sense of all this while working with a group of Alzheimer's patients who are trying to keep their memories alive by writing down their own 9/11 experiences. She's also developed an irrational over-sensitivity to her neighbor's constantly-played Middle Eastern music, which Lianne finds oddly and violently offensive. She's simultaneously haunted by an encounter with the Falling Man, a street performance artist who keeps popping up around Manhattan, aping the "jumpers" who chose to fall free from the towers rather than dying from the fire, or the smoke, or from the crumbling towers themselves.
It's hard for me to describe just how beautifully and perfectly dead-on DeLillo is in this book, as he has been so many times before. Suffice it to say that I've lived in New York for most of my life, I lived in the city during those years, and I worked for a local TV news station there before, during and after 9/11. The mindless moving forward Keith exhibits, the emotional detachment, the inability to discuss one's feelings except with those most directly involved in that day, the unfounded backlash against all things Middle Eastern -- it's all correct and wonderfully expressed by DeLillo.
But he doesn't attempt to explain it, thankfully. Here's Lianne, looking at a still life painting on her mother's wall and refusing to give it a thorough analyzing, even though she believes she sees the towers in it: "Let the latent meanings turn and bend in the wind, free from authoritative comment." I'm right there with you, sister.
-- Diane Lewis is a library technician at Lake Tahoe Community College.