• Welcome to BookAndReader!

    We LOVE books and hope you'll join us in sharing your favorites and experiences along with your love of reading with our community. Registering for our site is free and easy, just CLICK HERE!

    Already a member and forgot your password? Click here.

Don DeLillo: Falling Man

Shade

New Member
Another September 11 novel. Soon they will have an area to themselves in bookstores, perhaps alongside the Misery Memoirs section. (My local Waterstone’s does have one of those, in fact called Painful Pasts. I suppose it’s an act of humanity, aimed at decontaminating the rest of the Biography shelves.) Several prominent authors have written around or been inspired by the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre, some - John Updike, Jay McInerney - less successfully than others - Patrick McGrath, Jonathan Safran Foer. But with Falling Man, Don DeLillo has looked it in the eye more steadily than any of them. He has faced the day down and made it into a curious and satisfying work of art.

ai4.photobucket.com_albums_y126_paradorlounge_9780330452236_01.jpg

We don’t look to Don DeLillo for linearity, plain glass prose, or loveable characters. As with his other novels, whole pages of dialogue in Falling Man can pass without the eye ever catching on anything naturalistic or plausible. But the impressionistic blur of his writing seems particularly suited to the subject matter here. Like the fresh memories of 9/11, it is jagged, disorienting, obscure.

He takes a shattered family as the centre of the story. Keith Neudecker, estranged from his wife Lianne and son Justin, finds himself drawn back to the family home after getting out of one of the towers before it collapsed. Lest we should think this is a togetherness-in-adversity story, he is also drawn to a woman, Florence, whose briefcase he finds himself carrying after he escapes. He is displaced, having lost his poker buddies in the attacks, and looking for a new centre to hold to. (”He would tell her about Florence. She would get a steak knife and kill him. He would tell her about Florence. She would enter a period of long and tortured withdrawal.”)

Keith’s wife Lianne runs a writing group for people with Alzheimer’s (”the handwriting that might melt into runoff”). In the aftermath, like everyone else, they want to talk about the planes. Keith and Florence also want to talk about the planes (”It still looks like an accident, the first one. … The second plane, by the time the second plane appears, we’re all a little older and wiser”). Here DeLillo gives us sentences on the subject that already sound like a definitive account:
The second plane coming out of that ice blue sky, this was the footage that entered the body, that seemed to run beneath her skin… A clear sky that carried human terror in those streaking aircraft, first one, then the other, the force of men’s intent. Every helpless desperation set against the sky, human voices crying to God and how awful to imagine this, God’s name on the tongues of killers and victims both…
As always DeLillo’s interest is not just in the event, but how we see it, how technology filters it, and how news of it spreads. A performance artist styled Falling Man imitates the famous image from the man jumping from the north tower (”She thought it could be the name of a trump card in a tarot deck, Falling Man, name in gothic type, figure twisting down in a stormy night sky”). And he’s equally strong on the immediate aftermath in the streets below:

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, bursting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.
And what all this brings home - the towers, the planes, the Alzheimer’s sufferers, the fragility of the family - is mortality, the falling of man through life to death. Characters’ fears bubble up everywhere, whether in seeing themselves in the mirror (”What you see is not what we see. What you see is distanced by memory, by being who you are, all this time, for all these years”) or in renewing their passports (”Ten years come and gone, like a sip of tea”). DeLillo, at 71, is well placed to tackle such preoccupations.

What’s surprising about Falling Man are the flashes of humour, whether in Keith’s observation that “it might be hard to find a taxi at a time when every cabdriver in New York was named Muhammad,” or the funny and true observation of how children’s attachment to mishearings could lead them to watch the skies for a man named Bill Lawton. DeLillo also surprises us by at the end of each section, switching from the post-trauma survivors to the pre-attack lives of the hijackers. (”He watched TV in a bar near the flight school and liked to imagine himself appearing on the screen, a videotaped figure walking through the gatelike detector on his way to the plane.”) He takes us all the way into September 11 from both sides and doesn’t flinch. And what is not surprising is that the book’s scattered approach and portentous tone can be frustrating, and that it glitters with pixel-perfect phrases and descriptions, and breathtaking set pieces.

Whenever a book comes along which addresses a major event, it’s easy to overstate its importance or worth simply because of the subject. But Falling Man seems to me to stand up on literary grounds too, to display a cumulative brilliance that offsets any initial doubts, and certain to be pressed on people as essential reading for some time to come.
 

beer good

Well-Known Member
Falling Man.

One of the most fascinating comments on 9/11 that I've come across is Laurie Anderson’s album Live In New York. It’s recorded in September 2001, just over a week after the event, and she’s on stage performing a set of songs – written years or even decades earlier – dealing with paranoia, dogmatism, survival. And of course the centrepiece is an unusually emotional and cathartic version of her 1981 single "O Superman":
This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They're American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?
And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom
of night shall stay these couriers from the swift
completion of their appointed rounds.
'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice.
And when justice is gone, there's always force.

9/11 is obviously a huge trauma which needs to be addressed in fiction, but so far just about every one of my favourite authors who has tried to tackle it has ended up writing around it; Auster’s Brooklyn Follies, Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown, Gibson’s Spook Country, McEwan’s Saturday, Pynchon’s Against The Day... surely it can’t be too big a subject? Surely the absence of two towers can’t only be tackled by leaving them out of the story? While some writers have done great work in a post-9/11 world, I think the only completely successful and meaningful novel I’ve read about the event itself and its fallout has been youngster Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close.

DeLillo should be the ideal writer to deal with it. As someone put it, he’s been writing 9/11 novels for decades; Mao II, Underworld, White Noise... if anyone can take a huge event and the underlying tendencies in society surrounding it and turn it into a novel, it should be him. Yet I’m not completely sure he manages as well as I had hoped - and all of this review should be read with the knowledge that I consider Underworld and White Noise to be absolute masterpieces and I expect nothing less.

Falling Man gets off to a great start, a dazed, shell-shocked account of the minutes and days immediately following the attack itself, focused on estranged spouses Keith and Lianne as they both try to piece their life back together (and their life together back together). The disjointed scenes, the out-of-focus dialogue, the sketchy and quickly-abandoned scenes from ground zero all serve to highlight the way the attack not only destroyed lives and buildings, but shocked people to their very core – nicely tied in to Lianne’s work with Alzheimer’s patients trying to hold on to a Self that’s being eroded away.

But at some point, it feels like the shell shock wears out its welcome and we’re going to have to get to know the characters – and to me, at least, that’s where the novel stumbles. There are bits that have me fearing that someone’s going to try to film this with Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon as Lianne and Keith. He, especially, largely remains a mystery, and not even a very interesting one. While his development later in the novel makes sense from a symbolic perspective (the illusion of being in control of your fate; “Call or raise, call or fold, the little binary pulse located behind the eyes, the choice that reminds you who you are. It belonged to him, this yes or no, not to a horse running in the mud somewhere in New Jersey”) I don't think it does from a narrative point of view. The rather abrupt skip forward in time, the plot lines that show up here and there but never really have time to develop... it feels a bit like a fragment of a longer novel rather than a complete work in its own right, and as chillingly poignant as he can be at times, the novel remains curiously (for DeLillo) locked inside itself, if you catch my drift; it rarely makes those huge vertical leaps (sorry, sorry) through the layers of society, from religion to politics to popular music etc, that he usually does so well. (Remember the Elvis=Hitler discussion in White Noise?) The details are often great, there’s tons of great observations – the aforementioned paranoia that has people Lianne hitting a woman for playing Arabic music and little kids looking for this Bill Lawton character, for instance – but I’m not sure it quite ties together into a whole. It’s as if the terrorist’s quote
They felt things together, he and his brothers. They felt the claim of danger and isolation. They felt the magnetic effect of plot. Plot drew them together more tightly than ever. Plot closed the world to the slenderest line of sight, where everything converges to a point. There was the claim of fate, that they were born to do this.
is somehow a theme for the whole novel; everyone is tied together in a plot, but we don’t need to see the whole plot in linear fashion, we don’t get a fixed script telling us how to live and die - in a world of wars and dogmatism, thinking we've seen through it all and that we’re the heroes of the whole piece is the last thing we need. And while that’s an admirable point, using it as a literary technique doesn't work entirely in this case.

Which sort of brings us to the (slightly underused) falling man himself, the performance artist turning up here and there to hang in the air like a never answered question mark, always arrested but never explaining his motivations, just suspended somewhere between take-off and landing, available for whatever interpretations you want to hang on him... like a gravity’s angel, if you will. (Yes, I’m all about the obscure Laurie Anderson references today.) Lianne refers to him as a fallen angel – here’s a bit of religious symbolism turned upside-down, methinks: it’s all very easy to shoot the messenger, blame the fallen angel/Satan/The Great Satan, yet the world is made of people and we’re the ones actually doing anything. Again; Falling Man is great at symbolism, great at metaphor, perhaps not so great at actually drawing characters and telling their story. As if DeLillo got just a little too caught up in Saying Something about his big subject (which can also lead to rather hokey lines such as the one about children not needing white crayons since they have white paper).

The ending is stunning, though, even more so than the beginning. He takes the B plot that’s been popping up here and there and fuses it with the main one in one of the most incredible scene shifts I’ve read – I went back and read the last few pages at least three times. Let X = X. He almost – almost – brings it all together, the symbolism of the attack and the reality of the people affected by it, and for that he deserves 4/5, if not by a huge margin.

'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice.
And when justice is gone, there's always force.
And when force is gone, there’s always... Mom. Hi, Mom!
 

silverseason

New Member
Thank you

Thank you for these careful and fascinating reviews. Now I want to read the book. I have been avoiding 9/11 books and movies, afraid of the pain of seeing the event mis-portrayed or over-interpreted. Maybe I'll take a chance on this one.
 

saliotthomas

New Member
I just finished it.Once again beer good review is excellent and the book deserves the 4/5 note.A question came to me about the falling man,the artiste performer,about him being a pure creation of Delillo or based on a real caractere? Pure creation would be masterfull as a perfect metaphor of the traumatism of the events on the New yorkers.
 

erin1980

New Member
I love Delillo and have been impatiently waiting for this books release in paperback (in the US) in June. several parts of the novel have been released as short story's in Harpers over the past few years.
 

angerball

Active Member
I have made a mental note to keep an eye out for this book. I've not read any DeLillo, so I'm not sure what to expect, but it doesn't sound like I'll be disappointed. :)
 

beer good

Well-Known Member
I have made a mental note to keep an eye out for this book. I've not read any DeLillo, so I'm not sure what to expect, but it doesn't sound like I'll be disappointed. :)

I'd recommend starting with one of his other books; White Noise, for instance, which is far better (and probably quite easy to find cheap now too).
 

angerball

Active Member
Ok, thanks, beer good. I shall give that one a go. The one I mainly see in bookstores is Underworld. I can't tell you how many times I have picked that up, trying to decide whether to buy it or not.
 

beer good

Well-Known Member
Ok, thanks, beer good. I shall give that one a go. The one I mainly see in bookstores is Underworld. I can't tell you how many times I have picked that up, trying to decide whether to buy it or not.

Underworld is fantastic, but it's 900 pages... :D
 

silverseason

New Member
The one I mainly see in bookstores is Underworld. I can't tell you how many times I have picked that up, trying to decide whether to buy it or not.

I persisted with Underworld and read the whole darn thing. I was sorry afterwards. It's overlong and overdone and deliberately confusing.

The book I did enjoy was White Noise. Great social commentary and wonderful characters.
 

erin1980

New Member
NY Times named Underworld #2 of the top books of the past 25 years. Your first Delillo shouldn't be Underworld or Falling Man. Start with White Noise.
 

joderu95

New Member
That's why I kept putting it back down. :p I think I'll start with White Noise, given that's what a lot of people recommend.

Good choice. I just read White Noise a couple weeks ago and really enjoyed it. The main character's family has a bunch of amusing personalities.
 
Top