A performance artist hangs in statuesque pose. Knee bent. Upside down. The pose of the famously pictured man on 9/11. And this artist is effectively frozen in time. Which is the metaphor at the heart of Don Delillo’s latest novel, Falling Man. That of a moment in time so frozen, so embedded in characters minds, that they are unable to move on. They, too, are frozen in a moment.
The subject of 9/11 is a risky business. Not because of the content, but the weight of the content. It is difficult to avoid the more tabloid angles. But DeLillo takes a sidestep of this. That is, after his much quoted opening:
It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.
The full weight of the events of 9/11 are there, of course, but secondary—as much as they can be—to the effects on the every day routines of our existence. Those routines that will never quite be the same. Keith is a survivor, a lawyer in his late thirties, having walked from one of the towers before the collapse. His relationship with his wife is reignited in some primitive level, a focus on the needs we don’t really understand. But Keith soon has an affair with a black woman who suffered in the destruction of that day, forms a kind of therapy with her in their intimacy, a way of coping with the events. They never connect in any other context than the discussion of that day.
So where are the Big Issues that DeLillo has usually tackled in his books? The grand conspiracies?
I think I understand DeLillo’s intentions from the passage during a writing class:
From this point on, you understand, it’s all about loss. We’re dealing inevitably here with diminishing returns. Their situation will grow increasingly delicate. These encounters need space around them. You don’t want them to feel there’s an urgency to write everything… The writing is sweet music up to a point. Then other things will take over.
He’s not after the obvious. Why do that when he’s done it before in his career, long before other people approached the subjects? He wants to focus on the effects. You get the idea he’s looking for that moment that we become human, in this almost inhumane (un-human?) situation we find ourselves in post-9/11.
And so the characters don’t really develop, they undevelop, peel back to some level before, searching for whatever it is to fix their lives since the destruction of the towers. Keith becomes heavily involved in poker games, for example, detached from the mechanisms of reality. His wife has flirtations with art and church. All the time his son looks towards the sky for more planes. This isn’t quite normal DeLillo territory. Gone are the almost claustrophobic paranoias that featured in his earlier works. There is a search for openness, perhaps honesty in things. But people seem unable to move on. They see the representation of the Twin Towers everywhere.
There is some questioning to be found, of the motives behind the suicide bombers, but this feels detached form the other sections. I wonder if it is there as a framework, or perhaps even to remind ourselves that the bomber had a human side too, once?
A more wonderful analysis can be found on the New York Times. But I applaud DeLillo for not doing the obvious thing, for not looking for headlines, and maybe this will surprise some.
Oh yeah, his prose is on sparkling form too. When DeLillo steps into third-person, he really riffs like a god.
It’s a little off topic from the main point of your post, but I love the phrase ‘not doing the obvious thing’. It’s a great approach to life, to step back and wonder, what am I doing and why?