Facing 'Falling Man'
9/11 won't go away. Author Don DeLillo makes sure of that in Falling Man.
By COLETTE BANCROFT
Published May 27, 2007
By Don DeLillo
Scribner, 246 pages, $26
Here is how brilliantly and bitterly Don DeLillo's novel Falling Man evokes 9/11: One evening last week, I'm reading it raptly, safe in my suburban living room. By random chance, a plane, then another, flies low over my house.
My heart begins to pound like a drum. I end up so agitated, physically and mentally, I have to stop reading.
I can't remember the last time a book affected me so viscerally. Which raises the question DeLillo and his characters wrestle with: Do we want to remember 9/11?
I'm not talking about tattered bumper stickers - or tattered political speeches. DeLillo plunges us back into the utter disorientation and dread of that day, indeed takes us much further inside than most of us luckily have been before. But he has his reasons.
The novel's main characters are Keith Neudecker and his estranged wife, Lianne Glenn. Keith, a lawyer, works in the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Hours after the attacks, Lianne opens her front door:
"When he appeared at the door it was not possible, a man come out of an ash storm, all blood and slag, reeking of burnt matter, with pinpoint glints of slivered glass in his face. He looked immense, in the doorway, with a gaze that had no focus in it. He carried a briefcase and stood slowly nodding."
What happened to Keith in the tower - and what happens to him and his family afterward - forms the core of Falling Man, interspersed with interludes about Hammad, a young man who becomes a hijacker.
This spare, beautifully written book has an intricate web of story lines, but all of them revolve in some way around the theme of making sense of the world after something as shattering as 9/11. Broken codes and broken myths, like broken buildings, lie all around.
Lianne, a book editor, struggles in her work on a book about ancient alphabets and finds ominously unexpected images in the exquisite still lifes that hang in the apartment of her imperious, dying mother.
Lianne is also haunted by a performance artist who calls himself the Falling Man. All over New York, he appears unannounced, leaping off structures, dangling from a safety harness by an ankle, assuming the arms-at-sides, one-bent-knee pose of those horrifying, iconic photographs of a man plunging from the burning towers - an image that haunts Keith in an even worse way.
Their small son, Justin, and two of his friends huddle at the window of a high-rise apartment, searching with binoculars for a man they call Bill Lawton, who, they whisper, "flies jet planes and speaks thirteen languages but not English except to his wives."
Keith, at first numb, begins to search for his own story by listening to that of another survivor, a woman named Florence, who also worked in the North Tower and owned that briefcase Keith carried out. She tells the nightmare tale of escape over and over: "If I live to be a hundred I'll still be on the stairs."
Before the attack, Keith's closest friends were his poker buddies. Several died that day, and, despite his attempt to reconnect with his wife and child, he drifts away into the anonymity of gambling, the fascinating but ultimately meaningless code of the cards.
Keith is also drawn inexorably back to his memories of the tower. In a breathtaking moment, DeLillo merges his story with Hammad's at the instant of impact, then reveals what happened to Keith before he escaped - yet another mystery to be unraveled.
DeLillo, long a keen observer of American culture, brings back the shock and pain of 9/11 - and, perhaps, reminds us that we have not yet decoded how it changed us.
Distanced by time, by the desperate need to forget in order to function, by a pointless war, we may have never deciphered the messages of that day. Falling Man, circling ever back to the moment something unknown falls from the sky, might move us to begin.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at (727) 893-8435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.