The Book Club

DeLillo Seemed Almost Eerily Primed To Write a Novel About 9/11

Falling Man, Don DeLillo

Dear Ruth,

I’m very eager to learn what you think about Don DeLillo’s novel about 9/11, Falling Man—which I both admired and found flawed. As nearly everyone who’s reviewed Falling Man has observed by now, DeLillo seemed eerily primed to write a novel about the events of Sept. 11. His early novel Players (1977) launched an enduring preoccupation with terrorism, tracing a bored young man who gets embroiled in a vague plot to bomb the New York Stock Exchange. In White Noise (1985),he explored the aftermath of an “airborne toxic event” and offered an astute sendup of the televisual metabolism of American life. In Libra (1988),he brilliantly tackled the assassination of JFK, producing a historical novel that transforms, rather than merely documents, our understanding of that chapter in American history. He often invokes the World Trade Center as a spectacle of late modernity, noting as far back as Players that “the towers didn’t seem permanent. They remained concepts.” Creepy, no? (The towers are on the cover of Underworld.) Rereading some of his earlier books, including the terrorism-riddled Mao II, I wondered, half-seriously, if Mohamed Atta and crew had been studying DeLillo.

Of course, it’s the other way around: It is DeLillo who has been studying us, and America’s place in the world, for more than 30 years now. He is our great late-20th-century chronicler of the hallucinatory realities that make up American history, and he has always viewed terrorism as one of the prime tools of nations and entities jockeying to have a role in global politics. His “paranoid” style is almost surreal, but (as we now understand more than ever) he kept one foot firmly planted in the tides of mass consciousness. “The future belongs to crowds,” he wrote in Mao II. And he has always been interested, almost eccentrically so, in the specific relationship between the writer and the terrorist. “For some time now I’ve had the feeling that novelists and terrorists are playing a zero-sum game,” the reclusive novelist Bill Gray tells his book editor in Mao II, explaining, “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought.”

What is so fascinating about Falling Man is the way its fragmented vignettes seem to capture the aftershocks not only of 9/11 butof the sudden rupturing of the “real world” into the realm of DeLillo’s fiction. The strengths of the book are just what you’d imagine: the way the intersecting strands of his preoccupations come together; the way language and ritual become a kind of totem against terror and pain; the insights into how fanaticism can suddenly flare in the soul, like a struck match; the deconstruction of lives lived in the glare of the 24-hour news cycle. But there are some significant flaws, too—some having to do, I think, with DeLillo’s exploration of questions about faith and what gives personal narratives their meaning, set against his characteristic feeling for the frenzying impermanence of contemporary life. Stylistically, sections of the novel felt rather inert to me, too. The sentences simply weren’t as good as his best.

But first, the particulars. Falling Man opens on 9/11 as Keith Neudecker runs through the debris of the Twin Towers, where he had worked. Lower Manhattan is an apocalyptic landscape, “not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” He makes his way to the apartment of his ex-wife, Lianne, who lives with their young son, Justin, and over the subsequent weeks tries to recover from the shock of that day. (Among the horrors he witnessed was the death of a close friend, a guy with OCD named Rumsey.)

The couple tentatively reconnects and then splinters apart again, as Keith has an affair with a fellow survivor and becomes a poker pro, absorbing himself in the tactile rituals of the game. Meanwhile, Lianne can’t get past the fact that her estranged husband is alive—appearing as an ash-coated Lazarus at her door—and that they are together again. She throws herself into her work with Alzheimer’s patients and worries about her own sanity; her father killed himself when he was diagnosed with encroaching dementia, we learn. She worries about Justin, who has become obsessed with an imaginary man named “Bill Lawton” (a mishearing of “Bin Laden”). And she is haunted by the occasional appearances of a performance artist who dives off buildings in a rope harness.

For the “falling man” of the title isn’t just the businessman who was photographed falling upside-down from the tower, one leg bent at the knee, but a performance artist, in a characteristically DeLillo-esque twist. Structurally, the novel resembles earlier books like Players. It splits into two or three narratives, following Lianne and Keith as each finds a way of dealing with this moment of history gone wild. But—perhaps uniquely among 9/11 novels?—it also darts forward and backward through time, ultimately fracturing into nonlinear shards of perception and intimations of deeper understanding. The doctor who treats Keith after the tower’s collapse explains that victims of suicide bombers often develop infections from “organic shrapnel”—that is, pieces of the bomber’s body that embed themselves in the victims. (“This is something I don’t think you have,” he jokes.) But by the end of Falling Man, I thought DeLillo’s point (one of them) is that this is something we all have—that memory and fear and intuitions of death (or our actual encounters of it) are themselves organic shrapnel. They cause fevers of confusion, and infect and reconfigure our sense of identity.

I think—do you agree?—that this novel isn’t just about 9/11 but, more broadly, about how contexts shape and alter identity. Lianne works with Alzheimer’s patients who are beginning to lose their sense of “clarity”—they’re forgetting where they live. (One describes herself as “falling.”) It makes Lianne remember how her father would stare at her when she was a girl, as if he were “trying to place her in context.” Keith, too, has lost his context; as the towers come down, he thinks, “Things inside were distant and still, where he was supposed to be.” Even the syntax of that sentence suggests dislocation. And, of course, there is another character, crucially, who has lost his context—and that is the figure of the terrorist Hammad, whose splintered narrative weaves through the book. When we first meet him, he is in the process of training for jihad (in Germany, no less—home of the Baader-Meinhof crew), but he has some questions about self-martyrdom. When we last see him, he is on one of the planes headed at high speed for the World Trade Center. Do all these people have to be who they are? Does the collision have to take place, Hammad asks? Or as one character puts it, “Who is that man? You think you see yourself in the mirror. But that’s not you. That’s not what you look like. That’s not the literal face, if there is such a thing, ever. That’s the composite face. That’s the face in transition.”

Finally, and this is something I hope we can talk about, it seems to me that partly DeLillo here is himself one of the people without context. DeLillo has written about “real” things before (see Libra and Underworld), but from a more distant vantage point. And it seems to me that the proximity of 9/11 may hinder him, too: The first third of the novel is largely preoccupied with Lianne and Keith’s marriage and the way that unspeakable public trauma had caused a radical re-evaluation of their intimate lives. Fine, but isn’t this a rather conventional point of entry—one we’ve seen Jay McInerney, Ken Kalfus, and Helen Schulman, in her forthcoming novel, use? I was expecting a little more brash originality from DeLillo, who usually writes about marriages (if he writes about them at all) as a way of writing about subterranean currents of cultural feeling.

Finally, DeLillo, who has written about the glamour of terrorism as the shock tactic of the left against the encrusted assumptions of capitalist societies, ends up—it seemed to me—in a kind of battle with himself. One question in the book is whether the 1970s-style terrorism of the radical left—embodied here by the character of Martin, boyfriend to Lianne’s mother—is different in substance from Islamist terrorism.

But I’m out of space. If the terrorist and the novelist are in some kind of struggle over mass consciousness, what can the novelist say about 9/11? And eventually I’m hoping we can get to a bigger question: Why do so many novelists feel the imperative to write about 9/11 in the first place—when the challenges it presents are so self-evident?

All the best,