Falling Man, Don DeLillo. Scribner. 272pp, $14.95.
In his famous (some might say infamous) appendix to his influential study, The Postmodern Condition, cultural theorist Jean-François Lyotard contends that the postmodern work struggles continuously, if paradoxically, to find a way to present the unpresentable. Its goal, whether in the form of one of Ad Reinhardt’s all-black canvases, Beckett’s Unnameable, or David Lynch’s Lost Highway, is to “enable us to see only by making it impossible to see”; to “please only by causing pain.”
There are some situations, Lyotard maintains, that by their very nature cannot be thought about or articulated within the bounds of reason. There are some events–he cites Auschwitz–whose atrocious complexities refuse to be reduced to conventional understanding, conventional storylines and forms, to anything other than what they are: manifestations of unimaginable difficulty and radical existential unease. In the wake of such limit situations, you can only say, along with one of the characters in Don DeLillo’s astonishing Falling Man: “Nothing seems exaggerated anymore. Nothing amazes me.”
The task of presenting the unpresentable is central to the recent haunting and haunted genre of fiction called the 9/11 novel. Perhaps this accounts for the critical cliché that there are no good ones out there. What, I wonder, would a “good” 9/11 novel look like? How could any 9/11 novel be other than a “letdown,” a “missed opportunity,” a “failure” by traditional reading strategies? How could it, that is, to echo Lyotard once more with respect to the postmodern condition, deny itself “the solace of good forms,” of “consensus,” that that six-year-old tear in reality’s fabric negates, while simultaneously providing us with attractively arced plot, resonant characterization, redemptive ending’s comfort, and reason’s explanatory magic–all gestures that define both the classic 19-century novel and those contemporary bestsellers that nostalgically look back to it while wanting nothing so much as to be screenplays when they grow up? Novels, in other words, having to do precisely with the opposite of the unpresentable?
DeLillo uses Falling Man to grapple with these questions in surprising, disquieting, and illuminating ways. Rather than employing the expected monumental, maximalist canvas of, say, Underworld or Libra to engage with the attacks on the World Trade Center, he chooses an intimate, highly focused one, limning the disconnected lives of a couple and their child from the instants after the towers collapse to the first Iraq War protests of 2002. From the dreadfully perfect first sentence (“It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.”), DeLillo announces the jittery upendedness of a new dispensation in which everything must be rethought, not only at a geopolitical level but also at a personal one. He evokes the overwhelming shock of that new dispensation’s arrival through a litany of breathtaking, heartbreaking sensory details: the stench of burning jet fuel in the grimed air, a single shirt fluttering down out of the sky, a woman standing beside an empty shopping cart, “police tape wrapped around her head and face, yellow caution tape that marks the limits of a crime scene.”
Thirty-nine-year-old Keith Neudeckor walks out of the smoke and debris that had been the north tower, where he’s worked as a lawyer for a decade. His initial instinct upon finding himself alive is to return to his wife, Lianne, from whom he has been estranged for a year and half; he has a vague notion to revisit, sort through, and perhaps even resuscitate their motionless relationship. Somewhere in the chaos of the darkened staircase, a stranger passed Keith a briefcase. Over the course of the next days he searches for its owner, and she turns out to be a light-skinned black woman named Florence Givens. Keith begins a short-lived affair with her that has less to do with the clichés of coupling than it does with “what they knew together, in the timeless drift of the long spiral down,” less to do with assignations and shared sex than with witnessing and the shared narrative in which they discover a semblance of consolation each time they meet.
Keith’s wife Lianne is a freelance editor who leads a writing group for early-stage Alzheimer’s patients at a community center in East Harlem. In a novel trying to remember, Lianne’s volunteer work is literally engaged in the business of learning how to forget. She is also preoccupied with her own attempts at willed amnesia–about 9/11, about her unspooled marriage, about her strained relationship with her dying mother, about her son’s increasingly odd behavior, about the ruins she feels piled up at the center of her own Ground Zero. Over time, she comes to feel something like faint envy for the radical Muslims’ absolute sense of this world and the world beyond. The best Lianne can ever seem to conjure is the Western intellectual’s aching skepticism, spiritual conflictedness, feverish doubt. Finally, the best she can embrace is the “hovering possible presence of God,” which she defines as “the voice that says I am not here.’”
Keith and Lianne’s son, Justin, one of DeLillo’s astute-beyond-his-years children, undergoes a different sort of forgetting on the heels of the attacks. He takes to clustering with his friends at the bedroom window in their high rise, speaking in a monosyllabic code indecipherable to adults, scanning the skies with Keith’s binoculars for more planes, waiting for politico-existential lightning to strike twice–and yet refusing to admit that the towers actually came down after being hit. Justin and his friends “remember” by reconstructing an alternative narrative of events that allows them to repudiate the power of facts.
All the characters here feel deliberately flat and faded, jolted into numbness by forces vastly larger and more intricate than they are; but none so much as Mohamed Atta, the head suicide pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, whose presence briefly ghosts the conclusion of each of the novel’s three main sections. While Atta has to “fight against being normal,” continually “struggle against himself,” DeLillo draws him progressively thinner, deader, Atta’s shark-brain single-mindedness supplanting any vestigial individuality he might once have exhibited. To him, other people aren’t other people. They are plot devices in the jihadist narrative he has learned by heart, existing, as an accomplice explains to him, “only to the degree that they fill the role we have designed for them. This is their function as others. Those who will die [in the 9/11 attacks] have no claim to their lives outside the useful fact of their dying.”
Falling Man feels like White Noise stripped of its sometimes too-easy, too-clever satire, Underworld condensed and shot through with a stark immediacy, The Body Artist complicated and made resonant with a cosmopolitan awareness of an atrocious interconnectivity where “all life had become public,” all actions political. The consequence is bleak, dark, brutal, elegiac, beautiful, and wise in ways previous engagements with 9/11 simply haven’t been. (Jonathan Foer’s facile Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which also deals with the impact of the attacks on a single family, comes to mind.) DeLillo’s novel’s title comes both from the actual photo of an anonymous man plunging headfirst from one of the towers and from the invented performance artist known as The Falling Man. The latter, wearing a suit, tie, and dress shoes, appears unannounced at venues high above the city and throws himself off, coming to dangle upside down in a jerry-rigged harness before swarms of unnerved passersby below. His function is the same as that of DeLillo’s novel itself: to remind us of something about which we would just as soon try to put out of mind. He is 9/11 as ongoing spectacle, the rush of appalling memory that can erupt anywhere, anytime. He is mayhem turned art, art turned mayhem.
Another artist who figures emblematically here is Giorgio Morandi, the Italian cubist/abstractionist who focused almost exclusively on monochromatic still lifes. Concentrating on subtle gradations of hue and tone, he obsessively depicted the same stylized containers over and over again. Lianne’s mother, Nina, an art historian who’s been having an affair with a shady art dealer for decades, owns a Morandi in whose elongated rectangular bottles the novel’s characters can’t help seeing the twin towers. Following Nina’s death, Lianne visits a Morandi show. Each work, she notices, is titled natura morta–dead nature. The Italian term for still life serves well to describe the pervading tenor of Falling Man, a book that acts as continual proof of Thomas Pynchon’s observation in his introduction to Slow Learner: “When we speak of seriousness’ in fiction ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death.” Here mortality seeps into every niche, every crack and crevice, from the obvious historical rupture that frames the novel to Lianne’s father’s suicide upon discovering he has senile dementia, Lianne’s mother’s own recognition of “the normal erosions” of age, Lianne and Keith’s moribund marriage, and beyond.
Yet it would be a mistake, as some reviewers have done, to dismiss the novel for being too earnest for its own good . . . or ours. What’s extraordinary about DeLillo’s fiction is its use of what I think of as a humor of cognitive dissonance–an unexpected, dislocated, and dislocating humor that makes the reader feel terribly strange, off-kilter. It is not unlike living in the years after 9/11 makes us feel, and it fiercely reminds us how the present these days is sometimes almost too present to imagine. I’m thinking, for instance, of a moment like the one in which Keith and Florence are wandering through the mattress department at Macy’s. They come upon “ten or eleven women lying on beds, bouncing on beds, and a man and a woman bouncing and rolling, middle-aged and purposeful, trying to determine if one person’s tossing would disturb the other’s sleep”:
There were tentative women, bouncing once or twice, feet protruding from the end of the bed, and there were others, women who’d shed their coats and shoes, falling backwards to the mattress, the Posturepedic or the Beautyrest, and bouncing with abandon, first one side of the bed, then the other, and [Keith] thought this was a remarkable thing to come upon, the mattress department at Macy’s, and he looked across the aisle and they were bouncing there as well, another eight or nine women, one man, one child, testing for comfort and sculptural soundness, for back support and foam sensation.
Over the course of his career, DeLillo has mastered such existential oddities, sparkling instants of unhingedness that disrupt conventional narrative expectations, torque our habitual grip on things. They enable us to see–as Lyotard would have it–by impeding perception, delighting us by means of the very unease we experience. In Falling Man, DeLillo achieves a secondary set of technical dislocations by employing jump-cut transitions between scenes. Interspersing past and present ones willy-nilly, he generates a kind of achronological collage narrative. He uses deliberately vague pronoun references that compel the reader to search for his or her footing during the first few sentences of each section. Every conversation he constructs is elliptical, its language often arriving in clipped, decontextualized shards.
Each character in DeLillo’s novel adopts a different (if myopic) perspective on the unfathomable why of 9/11. Martin, Nina’s mysterious European lover, for instance, believes the reason is fairly straightforward: “One side has the capital, the labor, the technology, the armies, the agencies, the cities, the laws, the police, and the prisons. The other side has a few men willing to die.” Nina believes “it’s not the history of Western interference that pulls down these societies. It’s their own history, their mentality. They live in a closed world, of choice, of necessity. They haven’t advanced because they haven’t wanted to or tried to.” But DeLillo’s greater point is that most of us simply don’t want to think too hard or too long about what happened on that very blue day. Most of us don’t want to think in difficult ways about what is difficult to think about. We would rather make an art out of repressing memories–both of the falling man and The Falling Man.
And so in the end nothing really changes much in the wake of 9/11. DeLillo’s characters continue on with their doggy lives. Justin drifts into predictable, laconic, vaguely annoying teenhood. Keith drifts away from Florence, maintains his distance from Lianne, and enters the poker-tournament circuit for a while, in part to memorialize his two poker-playing buddies who died in the towers’ collapse, in part to explore the notion of chance in relative safety, in part to embrace a less complicated, less threatening, rule-laden mode of existence. And Lianne, like so many of us, realizes simply that “she was ready to be alone, in reliable calm, she and the kid, the way they were before the planes appeared that day, silver crossing blue”–and finds it impossible, and finds it not quite impossible, both at the same time.
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