There was a marvellous review by Andrew O’Hagan of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man in The New York Review of Books. It is the sort of clear, well constructed, beautifully argued review that I envy, that I wish I could write myself. It places Falling Man very precisely in the context of DeLillo’s other work: the fascination with manifestations of terrorism, the idea of violence as public spectacle. You can see the forebears of the novel in Libra and Mao II and the sections on the Kennedy assassination in Underworld. But O’Hagan also uses this history of DeLillo’s work as a way of placing the story of the 9/11 hijackers, of providing another real-world context for the novel. In the end, O’Hagan says, DeLillo was always working towards 9/11, and when it actually happened there was nothing left for him to say. Falling Man, from this perspective, should have been silence. It is a poor book because it can only deal with what has already usurped DeLillo’s subject.
It is a wonderful review – and I think it is wrong.
Not that I think Falling Man is one of DeLillo’s great novels – it is no match for Libra or Underworld, for instance. And indeed I go along with O’Hagan in seeing 9/11 as the natural culmination of DeLillo’s work, the real-life end towards which his fiction has always tended. But I disagree that DeLillo has found no coherent way to express that in this novel. Or rather, I think the incoherence is precisely the point.
I was reminded as I was reading it of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. The only way that Billy Pilgrim can respond to the horror of the Dresden raid is by coming unstuck in time. And I think that is precisely what happens to Keith in DeLillo’s novel. The collapse of the towers shatters the coherence of DeLillo’s world, and what follows is a sequence of fractured moments, scattered fragments of time. Scenes from the past and the present suddenly pull into hyperacute focus, then drift out again. Conversations start off meaning something and drift away into repetitions and vagueness.
Keith’s estranged wife, Lianne, with whom he moves back in in the immediate aftermath of the attack on the twin towers, works with people in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Their fumbled, distracted memories are a model for the state of the entire world (at least as perceived by Keith and Liannne) in those first few days. It is a novel about the process of disconnection told through the disintegrating consciousnesses of its two main characters.
Occasionally DeLillo will intersperse a chapter told from the perspective of one of the hijackers, and these are told with a crisp, clear coherence that stands out against the hesitations and false starts of the rest of the novel.
Finally, Keith and Lianne drift apart as inevitably they must, for there is nothing now that can hold them together except their very different responses to 9/11. As Lianne recognises at one point: ‘She wanted to be safe in the world and he did not’. He was in the World Trade Center when the first plane struck, he walked out through the unreality of it all, but was somehow infected by the danger it represented. Symbolically it is the moment he seeks out again and again (the novel ends as it begins with the image of a shirt floating down in the New York sky). Lianne, meanwhile, has watched from outside, she has seen the Alzheimer’s patients fall apart, seen her mother die, and wants to pull the shattered world safely together again, though she does not know how.
No, in the end I think this was precisely the novel DeLillo could not avoid writing in the wake of 9/11. It is about the lack of structure, the things that must be said but cannot be said.
First published at LiveJournal, 3 July 2007.