Thursday, May 31, 2007

Falling Man

I've not read any DeLillo before, but I had heard that if you wanted one novelist in particular to come along and sort out the events 9-11 for us, he'd be your man.

I found this book strangely gripping and have yet to work out why. It lacks the usual adhesives in terms of traditional plot and character development. Instead DeLillo has strung together a series of short vignettes which are book-ended by set-piece descriptions of the more immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre.

It's a narrative which is cleverly structured to pick-up momentum in an unconventional way. Somehow I always knew that we would end up back in the North Tower on September 11 for a final flashback which would contextualise the meditations on the individual and cultural impact of "the planes" ('9-11' is never mentioned) which form the inner ingredients of the sandwich. And this 'faith' in the narrative loop helped to pull me along through all those rather loosely connected scenes (and conversations about pencils).

It begins with an attorney from the North Tower of the WTC called Keith Neudecker stumbling around lower-Manhattan's dust-palled streets covered in fragments of glass and dollops of blood, mostly not his own. Offered a lift by a passing lorry driver he gives the address of his estranged wife Lianne and their son Justin. The marriage then re-ignites on the basis of their urgent need for a shared localised meaning, but Keith also briefly pursues a relationship with a woman called Florence, a fellow-survivor with whom he shares a unique set of personal experiences that overrides their everyday incompatibility.

Lianne's mother Nina has a long-term relationship with a German art-dealer called Martin who may or may not have been a terrorist himself in his youth. Their discussions about "the planes" lead to the inexorable dissolution of their bond. Lianne's father had killed himself during her childhood upon learning that he was suffering from dementia, and she now works with a group of patients with early-stage Alzheimer's, while being quietly obsessed with the idea that she in turn will soon start to disintegrate. After Keith moves back in she is angered by a fellow tenant of Greek origin who plays new-agey Sufic music all day in her flat (e.g. Islamic) and ends up attacking this woman.

'Falling Man' is the name given by the media to this poor chap, caught by camera in a strikingly composed instant within his flailing fall from the Windows on the World restaurant. In DeLillo's novel it is the name of a performance artist called David Janiak (I instinctively went to Wikipedia to check whether he was real!) who, dressed as a businessman in a suit and tie, throws himself off bridges and buildings attached to a non-elastic harness. This spectacle is an incremental form of self-murder as the equipment Janiak employs is slowly destroying his spine. He eventually dies of 'natural causes', apparently depressed by his gathering physical ruin, but his brother later tells the media that he had been planning one final jump without a harness. Crucially, when asked by reporters, Janiak has nothing else to say about the meaning of his gesture beyond the act of doing it. (One of the striking aspects for me about reading this novel is that it unconsciously triggered me to fully imagine taking that immense fall myself, but for some reason I was looking up as I plumetted, not down.)

This sub-plot serves a double purpose here I suspect. On the one hand as a bit of a pre-loaded decoy for any criticism that DeLillo might himself attract from making art from tragedy and on the other, showing how the victims of grand-scale terror have their own illusions of society so completely shattered that they end up sharing many aspects of the Jihadist outlook. (Keith ends up hiding from the numbness within him by becoming utterly absorbed by the narrow code of the professional poker player.)

There were times when I suspected that DeLillo was trying to disguise the fact that he had nothing particularly new or insightful to say about this event by resorting to calculated obliqueness. Indeed the most direct representation of character in the novel, Hammad the terrorist, is tellingly shallow. Yet Hammad's journey from the Hamburg Cell to American Airlines Flight 11, which DeLillo weaves into his other post 9-11 plot segments, provides the necessary rational for returning to the point of entry in the final few pages.

Scott had warned me that DeLillo wasn't exactly a "wordsmith" along the lines of a Cormac McCarthy and the prose is indeed of an up and down quality. Yet DeLillo is obviously more considered in his vocabulary than McCarthy, and in this novel there are some incredibly well-fashioned descriptions of the kinds of things that one might otherwise refer to as non-descript.

My only other quibble with the writing style is that everyone seems to talk like an essayist, whilst appearing to be too busy listening to their own words rather than reacting to the other little essays being worded around them. But you might also regard it as an interesting, idiosyncratic technique.


scott said...

Terrific review. Now I have another book on the halfway through Against the Day, The Road remains untouched, and I'm stuck near the end of Heat (about Mario Batali).

Anonymous said...

nice review. Just finished the book. His other books are great. I've always been more about the character development in stories than the actual plot. Like the Royal Tannenbaums.. Great characters, though I can't remember the storyline.. You should try Libra, my favorite DeLillo.