By Don DeLillo
The phrase “9/11 novel” packs a complicated wallop. “9/11,” inevitably, conjures up a slew of images: the towers, the second plane banking predatorily through the air, stunned, ash-covered rescue workers, W. with a megaphone, etc. Then comes the word “novel” and one tries to align a roiling mess of associations, which of course extend right up to the present political moment, with one’s expectations of fiction – characters, conflict, the pleasures of language, fresh insights into the collective human experience. It’s natural to be skeptical, and more than a little hopeful, that such a book might be good. Five-plus years after the attacks, there’s still much to make sense of.
Don DeLillo’s Falling Man announces its intent the moment you pick it up. The book jacket depicts the twin towers, seen from on high (bird’s eye, plane’s eye, God’s eye, Allah’s eye), extending up through a layer of clouds. The novel opens with a suit named Keith Nuedecker walking along the streets of New York’s financial district in the hellish moments after the collapse of the first tower, carrying a briefcase he doesn’t own and doesn’t remember acquiring:
It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north 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 opening is both audacious and somewhat obvious, but needless to say DeLillo has our attention. This short section ends with Keith numbly accepting a ride from a truck driver and heading uptown to see his estranged wife, Lianne, and their son, Justin. When asked by Lianne, Keith can’t really articulate why he came to them. Lianne is simply and cautiously glad to have him back. Days pass. They move delicately forward.
New York City after the attacks was a place of great concentrated sadness, and at first the robotic way Keith moves through the novel seems, if a bit theatrical, appropriate to the magnitude of the event. He does his physical therapy. He picks the kid up from school. He sleeps next to his wife. He walks across the park and returns the briefcase to its rightful owner, a woman named Florence Givens who, like him, barely made it out of the towers alive. When Florence needs to unload her tale of survival, he listens. When, later, she needs to sleep with him, he trails after her into the bedroom. First he has shown up at Lianne’s door covered in dust, with glass embedded in his face, and now at Florence’s bearing evidence of her past life. Both women are grateful for the rock to cling to.
DeLillo, understanding that rocks can only be so engaging, even with they’re traumatized and, it turns out, really good at poker, does not make Keith our only guide. The novel, told in third person, slips for the most part back and forth between Keith and Lianne’s points of view. Lianne is given a rich interior life. Her father’s suicide haunts her. Her mother, Nina, an argument-prone ex-professor, has recently embraced her creaky old age and has one foot in the grave. Lianne’s confused love for her is apparent, as is her affection for her mother’s lover Martin, a jet-lagged, German art dealer who pops in and out of town in his rumpled suit, spouting politics, using phrases like “the narcissistic heart of the west,” getting Nina all worked up. DeLillo uses the Nina-Martin dynamic, too overtly I think, to give the book political context. Ian McEwan did the same thing here and there in Saturday on the same subject and to the same effect: we’re still in the scene, yet plot and character development have been abruptly shelved and we find ourselves in the middle of a lecture. I don’t know about most people, but when lectures crop up in real life I usually excuse myself and go to the bathroom. A challenge facing any 9/11 novel seems to be how to address readers’ naked desire to understand that day, and the subsequent days, without allowing the enormity of the event to eclipse the characters.
Lianne is the most alive character in this book, the most actively in search of answers. Early on we see her lying in bed, her mind racing, “thoughts from nowhere, elsewhere, someone else’s,” grateful for her husband’s presence but ultimately too agitated by a neighbor’s blaring of vaguely middle-eastern music to think about much else:
Do this. Knock on the door. Adopt a posture. Mention the noise as noise. Knock on the door, mention the noise, use the open pretense of civility and calm, the parody of fellow-tenant courtesy that every tenant sees as such, and gently mention the noise. But mention the noise only as noise. Knock on the door, mention the noise, adopt a posture of suave calm, openly phony, and do not allude to the underlying theme of a certain kind of music as a certain form of political and religious statement, now of all times. Work gradually into the language of aggrieved tenancy. Ask her if she rents or owns.
Unlike Keith, she’s openly struggling, and she struggles throughout the novel. DeLillo limits Keith’s struggle to the rare, detached philosophical musing, and to flashes of images from the towers, which Keith suppresses on his way to have sex with Florence or, later, in between card games in Vegas. We understand that he’s overwhelmed by what he’s been through, but this is a purely clinical understanding. We never experience his pain along with him, and as a result it’s quite difficult to care about him. It doesn’t help that Keith was self-absorbed and distant before the attacks, too, as Nina makes clear in a speech to Lianne, and as Lianne herself knows but never quite concedes. Keith’s closest friend, if he has any at all, is a quirky poker buddy named Rumsey, who compulsively counts women’s bare toes in public:
The persistence of the man’s needs had a kind of crippled appeal [to Keith]. It opened Keith to dimmer things, at odder angles, to something crouched and uncorrectable in people but also capable of stirring a warm feeling in him, a rare tinge of affinity.
With Keith, it seems, there’s no there there, and never was. It’s a relief when his shared experience with Florence compels him to defend her honor once, in a department store, in an aggressive act that echoes a similar encounter Lianne has with her neighbor. Both tangles are sudden and sloppy and over quickly. But in Keith’s case the act leads nowhere, and soon he’s unceremoniously breaking it off with Florence and walking farther away, as he might see it, from the smoking towers, and into the orderly, rule-bloated world of poker. Some of DeLillo’s most dead-on and detailed writing in the book has to do with the ritualistic nature of card playing. The atmosphere in and around the poker tables in Vegas is wonderfully rendered. But by the time we get there we suspect, correctly, that Keith’s story is over, that while confusion may persist, change is not coming, and so whatever pleasure those parts of the book provide feels oddly incidental.
Falling Man is divided into three main sections, and toward the end of each one we check in with Hammad, a terrorist-in-training whom DeLillo ultimately places on the plane that strikes the first tower. DeLillo casts him as an outsider, overweight and unsure of his devotion to Islam, partial to take-out food and filled with lustful thoughts. He’s troubled at the prospect of killing so many innocent people. His doubts and small failings humanize him—he’s often seen in the company of Mohammed Atta, nicknamed Amir, and envying the fiercer man’s ability to think “clearly, in straight lines, direct and systematic”—but something about his characterization smacks of wishful thinking.
But what about this, Hammad thought. Never mind the man who takes his own life in this situation. What about the lives of others he takes with him?
He was not eager to bring this up with Amir but did finally, the two of them alone in the house.
What about the others, those who will die?
Amir was impatient. He said they’d talked about such matters in principle when they were in Hamburg, in the mosque and in the flat.
What about the others?
Amir said simply there are no others. The others exist only to the degree that they fulfill the role we have designed for them. This is their function as others. Those who will die have no claim to their lives outside the useful fact of their dying.
Hammad was impressed by this. It sounded like philosophy.
It’s comforting to imagine some of the nineteen as on the fence, and certainly there are gradations of fanaticism. Still, Hammad’s ambivalence strains credibility. Maybe it’s because DeLillo’s deadpan way with language renders him a little slow on the uptake—a loveable lug with a box cutter. It might be that we never learn why he joined the terrorist cell in the first place. With no knowledge of his life outside the cell, it’s difficult to consider his private conversion, and his death, as truly tragic.
What pulled me through Falling Man, once I accepted the fact that everyone was going to go around feeling generally numb and ambivalent, was DeLillo’s moment-to-moment aesthetic. I like the way the guy constructs a sentence. I find it more thrilling than irritating, for some reason, that everyone, child or adult, male or female, happy or sad, talks in snub-nosed sentences, like some ball-jostling character from a Mamet play. And when he goes internal, DeLillo is expert at capturing the rich, fumbling rhythms of real thought, whether it concerns the neighbor’s stereo or the existence of God.
The book, I think, can be looked at as a record of the many kinds of fumbling that took place after 9/11—for meaning, for relief, for safety. In that way it’s accurate and inventive, and hopefully useful. But what new information it has to offer those of us who were there—and weren’t we all there?—is much less clear. DeLillo closes several scenes in the novel with images of the planes or the towers—returned to in memory, seen on television, glimpsed in still-life paintings—as if those images, after all this time, could possibly direct us to some concise emotion.
Let the fumbling continue.
Jeff O’Keefe is a Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University, where he was a Stegner Fellow. His fiction has been published in Epoch.