Title: Falling Man
Author: Don DeLillo
Published: first published in 2007; my edition published in 2011
Genre: drama, literary fiction
Source: review copy from the publisher via Pan Macmillan South Africa
On September 11 2001, Keith is caught in the chaos of the falling towers. He wanders dazed and injured, carrying a briefcase that doesn’t belong to him. A helpful stranger picks him up, but instead of asking to be taken to the hospital, Keith goes to Lianne, his estranged wife. She opens the door to find him covered in ash and blood with slivers of glass in his face, and that’s how he comes back into her life.
Because his apartment was close to the towers and is too unstable to live in, Keith moves in with Lianne and their young son Justin. His return to family life and the tragedy of the planes has subtle but profound effects on the couple and those close to them. No politics intrude on this story. Rather, you’ll find a very intimate study of the emotional and psychological effects of 9/11 on a handful of people whose lives were affected by the event.
The attacks have thrust them into a different existence. In the first few pages, when Keith is wandering through the chaos immediately after the attacks, DeLillo describes the atmosphere as “not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night”. Keith’s sense of the world is reduced to “figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel and fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air”. Time is frequently described in reference to the attack, eg. “three days after the planes” (8).
Keith does not seem traumatised by his experience. Instead, it acts as a catalyst for a personality change. He starts to take his life more seriously, and become more self-aware.
“It was Keith as well who was going slow, easing inward. He used to want to fly out of self-awareness, day and night, a body in raw motion. Now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection, thinking not in clear units, hard and linked, but only absorbing what comes, drawing things out of time and memory and into some dim space that bears his collected experience.” (66)
Lianne actually seems more shaken than Keith, more needy. She runs a weekly group therapy session in which she facilitates writing exercises for patients, but she comes to rely on the sessions for personal reasons. She’s also a freelance editor, and when she learns of a book that predicted the attacks, she wants very badly to edit it, even though she’s warned that the book is extremely dull and the job will feel like a death sentence. At home, Lianne becomes deeply disturbed by a neighbour playing Middle Eastern music. She finds it incredibly offensive in the wake of the attacks, and eventually reacts with violence.
It’s Lianne who sees The Falling Man, a performance artist who suspends himself from buildings, mimicking the pose of the famous figure that was photographed falling from one of the towers, choosing that death over burning. She struggles to understand his motives, as does everyone else. Is he a “Heartless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror” (220)?
Keith, too, seems like a ‘falling man’. When the north tower fell, Keith felt as if “[t]hat was him, coming down” (5). Discussing his renewed marriage to Lianne and the way their relationship seems easier and calmer now, he remarks that they’re “ready to sink into our little lives’ (75). As with the performance artist and the man who leapt from the burning tower, this concept of falling isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If Keith was floating aimlessly before – no long-term relationship, a job he was about to lose and didn’t care about anyway – then the attack has brought him down to earth, into a more stable existence as a husband and father.
He seems ready to accept the marriage and family life and he failed in before. Keith had been a serial adulterer, and his marriage to Lianne disintegrated in constant fighting. Lianne’s mother Nina says that “Keith wanted a woman who’d regret what she did with him” (12) and is critical of Lianne’s decision to marry the man. If Nina was right before, it seems that the attacks will require her to form a new opinion of her son-in-law.
While the attacks have a unifying effect on Keith and Lianne’s relationship, it causes friction between Nina and her long-time lover Martin. They often argue about the motivations about the attacks, usually from a religious perspective, bringing the novel as close to politics as it ever comes. I was surprised to find that the story included the perspective of a terrorist named Hammad, who is on one of the planes. His narrative goes back to his training and eventually brings us back to the day of the attacks. There’s a strong sense that the terrorists’ extremism is somehow fake, forced. The trainee-terrorists are told to grow beards, Hammad reflects on the way this has affected his sex life and at one point leaves a meeting to jerk off in the bathroom.
One the most remarkable features of the novel is the way DeLillo refrains from describing the emotions of his characters, their facial expressions or even from using exclamation marks. It’s incredibly minimalist, using mostly dialogue and detail, rather than adverbs and adjectives, to show us who the characters are and how they relate to one another. For example, we see the tension between Lianne and Nina in Nina’s clipped comments about Keith, the way Lianne later gets back at her mother by interrogating her about Martin, and the way the women often talk over each other, not quite responding to what was said before.
I appreciate this subtlety, to an extent. I often wish that writers could be more crafty by using actions, dialogue and small revealing details to do the work of showing who their characters are and what they feel, rather than simply stating that they’re speaking angrily or sarcastically, that they’re smiling or frowning. It makes emotions and personalities feel organic, rather than attached like cut-out clothes on cardboard dolls. It’s much a much harder way of writing of course, but if properly done, the effects can be infinitely more powerful for the reader.
DeLillo’s skill in writing this way is often felt, but unfortunately the emotion in Falling Man mostly ceases to be subtle and becomes simply flat and boring. If I pictured the characters I inevitably saw blank-faced people standing around, barely moving, speaking in monotones, never looking at each other. They seemed inhuman, just cardboard cut-outs wearing words. I tried instead to take an interactive approach and invest them with the kind of emotion that I thought they should be feeling. I wondered if perhaps this was DeLillo’s intention – to create an emotional space that the reader would then fill. His way of addressing the myriad complex reactions to the victims of 9/11, perhaps. If that’s the case, then this book might be better appreciated by those who have strong feelings about attacks, or who have some personal connection to it. And that’s not me. I hadn’t heard of the World Trade Centre until the towers fell. I was in grade 11 and studying for a major biology exam, so although I heard the news I was so preoccupied I didn’t see a picture until the next day. If it wasn’t such a dramatic kind of event and if it hadn’t happened to the USA, it might simply have faded to a vague memory. Now, I know of it as a great tragedy, but one among many other great tragedies in our greedy, violent world, some of which are far worse but often less dramatic or less documented.
The result is that Falling Man evoked very little in me and I found most of it hopelessly boring. I kept thinking that there must be more interesting, evocative stories to tell about the 9/11 attacks, and much more interesting characters to tell it. Besides the novel’s lack of energy, I was also dragged down by its many minute details. Such details can be vivid, revealing and haunting, but they can also be banal, and in this case it was almost always the latter. Keith exercising his injured wrist, the different ways in which he played poker with his buddies, Keith and Lianne worrying about their son – I could not have cared less.
I gave Falling Man four stars for the bits of exquisitely elegant writing, but I could give it no more because reading it was an experience in emotional lethargy, with no real story or insights to give the novel a sense of life. If that was intentional, fine, but then it’s intended for someone else.