Summer reading: Falling Man

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In which Bwog freelancer Rob Trump, who brought you a Chabon review and enlightened July 4 commentary, learns to love America.

jhjForgive me if this seems insensitive, but for the last few years I have been thoroughly sick of hearing, talking, and thinking about 9/11.  I was tired of pop-sociology articles and works of art still cropping up that explained just how we were changed forever.  I was done with post-9/11 America and declared to many people that I was ready for the post-post-9/11 era. (As an aside, I would like to take this moment, on a blog, to coin this era the “double post.”) Many sympathized with my viewpoint on this, and even more would probably support an expanded-scope restatement by a character in Don DeLillo’s new book Falling Man: “We’re all sick of America and Americans.  The subject nauseates us.”

There has been, in the last few years, a massive artistic output—fictional and not—that has some grounding in the September 11 terrorist attacks.  Of all these, the only moderately successful one I’ve consumed is Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, about a nine-year-old boy’s adventures around New York City after losing his father in the attacks.  Foer’s take, however, didn’t really engage the attacks on more than a personally tragic level, even going somewhat out of its way to avoid them.  DeLillo pulls no such punches.  Falling Man is a novel about 9/11 and what it did to people.

Knowing this fully, and having never read any DeLillo before, I approached Falling Man cautiously.  The very first pages concern Keith, a lawyer, walking out of the wreckage of the towers and home to his separated wife Lianne.  DeLillo sketches out his characters slowly, and to be honest, nothing about any of them really grabbed me right from the start.  It took me almost a week to get through the first 50 or 60 pages, but past that point the previously subdued quirks of the characters come to the fore, and the latter 200 pages went by in a couple days.  Keith is a risk-taker, but in a painfully calculated way; Lianne is chronically passive-aggressive; their young son is paranoid and spends his days searching the skies for more planes.  Other peripheral characters show up, and in every single character there is an interesting battle between several forces: how they were before the attacks, the changing effect that the attacks have had on them, and — perhaps most intruiguingly — how they want to believe the attacks have changed them and their lives.

DeLillo writes absorbing, realistic dialogue, and I struggle to think of any other writer who can pen philosophical or political conversations without making it at all clear where he or she stands.  Martin, the same character “nauseate[d]” by America, says that the towers might as well have proclaimed, “Here it is, bring it down.”  A strong statement, it is treated in the book as not without merit, but not containing all truth either.  This confusion and conflict, with no simple or clear answer, is certainly part of the message of Falling Man.  The eponymous character, a performance artist who suspends himself from public structures in a reenactment of those who fell to their deaths, embodies this.  He is calm and structured in all of his performances, but any sane reader will question whether or not he even knows why he is doing it.

In a time of confusing truths, all the characters try to find simple explanations for their own actions and for others.  This narrative is mirrored in one chapter at the end of each of three sections, which discusses Hammad, an Islamic extremist and 9/11 hijacker, and his life leading up to the attacks.  The ways in which he, a rational human being, forces himself into a narrow, self-denying viewpoint invites comparison to the characters dealing with their post-9/11 lives.

If it’s not obvious by now, I will declare freely that Falling Man made me, for the first time in several years, want to discuss and contemplate 9/11: how it changed us, how it didn’t change us, how we like to think it changed us. Foer’s novel didn’t do this.

Later in Falling Man, Keith’s narrative becomes more and more focused on poker, and I ended up thinking more about the psychology of another subject that I had previously found uninteresting and overexposed. Maybe this just means that DeLillo is a brilliant writer, and could get me thinking seriously about the implications of something really banal if he really wanted to.  Even if so, this time he chose the September 11 attacks, and in this time of emotion-soaked overexposure, it may be just what we all need. 

Falling Man may be one of the best novels written this decade.  With time, it may also be considered “important,” helping to define this era of American sociology — and it will have done so by engaging complicated psychology, not just by reflecting that in a desire for escapism.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I only have a hundred pages left in Harry Potter.

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  1. why

    did you waste your time with this garbage when you still had your childhood (HP) to finish???

  2. Chas Carey

    Nice review. If you like that one, "Mao II" is a better encapsulation of DeLillo's whole take on terrorism, which, incidentally, was pretty hated on until 9/11, when everyone got real quiet and realized that he was totally right.

    You should also read the essay he wrote shortly after 9/11, it's pretty much the only critical commentary on the attacks that still resonates, and the inspiration for "Falling Man:" http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4324579,00.html

  3. i liked

    tom junod's falling man better. great lift DeLillo.

  4. Hey Cyberdweebs

    William Gibson's latest novel is coming out August 7th

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