About Me

Ithaca, New York
MWF, now officially 42, loves long walks on the beach and laughing with friends ... oh, wait. By day, I'm a mid-level university administrator reluctant to be more specific on a public forum. Nights and weekends, though, I'm a homebody with strong nerdist leanings. I'm never happier than when I'm chatting around the fire, playing board games, cooking up some pasta, and/or road-tripping with my family and friends. I studied psychology and then labor economics in school, and I work in higher education. From time to time I get smug, obsessive, or just plain boring about some combination of these topics, especially when inequality, parenting, or consumer culture are involved. You have been warned.

Monday, June 22, 2009

#55 - Falling Man

In my last review, I wrote about authors who explode out of nowhere into tremendous popularity. Well, then there are those authors you've heard about for years, but never actually read. Don DeLillo was one of those, until I read Falling Man (Scribner, 2007), and wow -- was this different, and much weightier, than I expected. For some reason, I thought he'd be an entertaining but not terribly serious author of adventure-thrillers, somewhat akin to Nelson DeMille. Well, I was wrong. I don't know firsthand how it compares to DeLillo's earlier books, like Libra and Underworld; I do know most reviewers considered Cosmopolis (his first post-9/11 novel) a disappointment -- but I found Falling Man both powerful and well-written, even literary.

Falling Man is a book about September 11 and its aftermath, as experienced by one otherwise-unremarkable New York City couple. The opening sequence, in which leading man Keith walks away from the rubble of the Twin Towers with an injured wrist and a stranger's briefcase, sets the stage for the gritty and often-disorienting vignettes in which the story unfolds:

"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 roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall."

Bleeding and probably in shock, Keith appears on the doorstep of his estranged wife, Lianne, and their son, Justin. While Lianne doesn't know how to react to Keith's resurfacing in such a manner, the two tentatively begin to go through the motions of being a family again, and she wonders whether the mundane arguments that drove them apart have been eclipsed by the looming shadow of the towers. "'Is it possible you and I are done with conflict? You know what I mean. The everyday friction. The every-word every-breath schedule we were on before we split. Is it possible this is over? We don't need this anymore? We can live without it? Am I right?'" At the same time, Justin and his friends process the attacks in their own way, compulsively scanning the sky for planes, and insisting that mysterious bogeyman Bill Lawton (a seven-year-old's take on "Bin Laden") will be back to terrorize them again soon.

Over the weeks and months that follow, Keith and Lianne cope with the upheaval and strangeness around them in their own ways. Lianne, a writer and editor, continues to facilitate a writing group for Alzheimer's patients, and the reader can't help but notice the similarities between their disorientation and that of her otherwise-healthy neighbors after 9/11:
"[Rosellen] could not remember where she lived. She stood alone on a corner near the elevated tracks, becoming desperate, separated from everything. She looked for a storefront a street sign that might give her a clue. The world was receding, the simplest recognitions. She began to lose her sense of clarity, of distinctness. She was not lost so much as falling, growing fainter. Nothing lay around her but silence and distance."
Likewise, Lianne's struggle with the decision to embrace or renounce her faith mirrors the confusion of many New Yorkers after the attacks confounded lifelong habits of skepticism and rationality.
"There was religion, then there was God. Lianne wanted to disbelieve. Disbelief was the line of travel that led to clarity of thought and purpose. Or was this simply another form of superstition? She wanted to trust in the forces and processes of the natural world, this only, perceptible reality and scientific endeavor, men and women alone on earth. She knew there was no conflict between science and God. Take one with the other. But she didn't want to. There were the scholars and philosophers she'd studied in school, books she'd read as thrilling dispatches, personal, making her shake at times, and there was the sacred art she'd always loved. Doubters created this work, and ardent believers, and those who'd doubted and then believed, and she was free to think and doubt and believe simultaneously. But she didn't want to. God would crowd her, make her weaker. God would be a presence that remained unimaginable. She wanted this only, to snuff out the pulse of the shaky faith she'd held for much of her life."
At the same time, Keith, haunted by memories of 9/11, is all but paralyzed by grief, fatalism, and hopelessness. He finds a fellow survivor in Florence, owner of the briefcase he carried out of the rubble, and their shared experience of unspeakable horror leads to a cathartic but joyless affair. After losing a poker buddy in the towers, he is drawn to high-stakes card games in the casinos of Las Vegas, enjoying yet another streak of luck in the midst of the random and surreal.

While Keith and Lianne's ordinary stories, and the language DeLillo uses to describe them, resonated with me, I can't quite say the same for some of the book's other characters. There's a subplot involving Lianne's ailing mother, Nina, and her long-time lover, Martin, whose history as a 1960's radical gives Lianne pause. Maybe I Just Didn't Get It, but this story line didn't seem particularly well-developed to me, and it wasn't clear why it was included or what it was supposed to add to the narrative. Even more baffling, perhaps, is the story of Hammad, one of the terrorists, and the experience that led him from an underground extremist school in Germany to a flight from Boston that never made it to California.
"The world changes first in the mind of the man who wants to change it. The time is coming, our truth, our shame, and each man becomes the other, and the other still another, and then there is no separation. ... There was the feeling of lost history. They were too long in isolation. This is what they talked about, being crowded out by other cultures, other futures, the all-enfolding will of capital markets and foreign policies."

To me, this thread felt almost tacked-on, as if the author felt no 9/11 story would be complete without some look at the terrorists, and thus decided to throw it in there. Hammad's scenes do contribute to an excruciating closing sequence, but otherwise seemed distracting rather than compelling -- possibly because the language DeLillo uses here seems rather clinical, especially compared to the subtle but raw insights he offers into Keith's and Lianne's experiences and emotions. Nonetheless, New York Times reviewer Frank Rich sums up the novel's impact succintly: "In the ruins of 9/11, relationships are a non sequitur. Disconnectedness is the new currency. Language is fragmented. Vision is distorted." If you're prepared to be more than a little unsettled, Falling Man is well worth reading.

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