We want our best writers to swing for the fences of history. Don’t we? It’s hard to think for very long about World War I without bleeding into Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms; the Vietnam protest era would not have been the same without the self-conscious brinksmanship of Mailer’s
The Armies of the Night.
But September 11 presents at least three major challenges for any would-be novelist. For starters, it was more or less a discrete event, lacking the narrative arc of, say, an ongoing war. Second, the principal protagonists died without leaving a clear record of their motives. Third, and potentially most insurmountable: Even if the destruction of the World Trade Center represents the most violent cultural inflection in contemporary American history, why does a novelist have anything exclusive to say about it compared to, well, anyone living in New York City on that Tuesday? Hemingway actually saw battle in World War I—most of his readers didn’t.
But Don DeLillo will never cower in the dugout when history calls him to the plate. Libra aimed a flashlight into the mind of Lee Harvey Oswald, a masterful wrestling match with violence, politics, and conspiracy. And while Underworld may have not completely cohered, it offered a sweeping, rollicking trek through half a century of American life, opening with the surreal delight of Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover watching—lest you think these baseball metaphors have been gratuitous—the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant.
Falling Man is a smaller, almost fragmentary book. While it does depict both a Muslim conspirator named Hammad (easily the novel’s weakest portion) and the attack on the towers, DeLillo tellingly saves the actual act for the end of his story. By then he’s already sculpted the fallout in peoples’ lives, the ways in which New Yorkers panicked, adapted, split up, or united in the weeks following the attack. One man leaves the dusty pandemonium of the collapsed towers and finds himself at the doorstep of his estranged wife and son; children watch the skies and whisper anxiously about a man named Bill Lawton who knows when the next suicide jets are coming (it appears to be a mishearing of “bin Laden”); a woman bristles for the first time at the North African music blaring from her neighbor’s apartment.
These vignettes are loosely stitched together by the recurring appearance of a performance artist known as Falling Man. Dressed in a business suit, he attaches a harness to buildings or structures and leaps, then dangles a few feet above the ground—an image too gruesomely evocative of bodies tumbling from the towers for his street audience to accept.
It’s an apt example of what this novel does best: It crystallizes into tangible form the otherwise invisible ways in which we knew that everything had changed. New Yorkers’ new reality goes much deeper than checkpoints in the street or a blindly vengeful foreign policy—all that had been solid melted into air, and much that was less than solid, too, like history, community, identity. One DeLillo character, retired professor Nina Bartos, notices that the everyday quibbles with her here-again, gone-again European lover take on a mildly menacing edge—who exactly is he, and what did he really do in the ’70s, given his vague allusions to the Red Brigades and Baader-Meinhof? Keith, who’d been in the Trade Center when the first plane hit, later crisscrosses the country to play in endless poker tournaments, partly as a way to numb himself, partly as impotent homage to a poker buddy who died that day. Indeed, Keith’s internal monologue just before the second tower falls suggests that even the possibility for subjectivity has been wiped out: “He crossed Canal Street and began to see things, somehow, differently. Things did not seem charged in the usual ways, the cobbled street, the cast-iron buildings. There was something critically missing from the things around him. They were unfinished, whatever that means. They were unseen, whatever that means, shop windows, loading platforms, paint-sprayed walls. Maybe this is what things look like when there is no one here to see them.”
So yes, Falling Man is a powerfully written and compulsively creative work. The inconvenient truth: It is not DeLillo’s best, and it inadvertently exposes the limitations of the “nonfiction novel” that Mailer and Capote and Wolfe unleashed on the world. The sections trying to imagine the thoughts of the terrorist Hammad feel stunted, not only because another novel has already done this better, deeper, and before September 11 (Jennifer Egan’s eerily prescient
Look at Me), but because DeLillo cannot control the story. The “Airborne Toxic Event” in
White Noise is, adjusted for scale, just as terrifying and disruptive as the main event in
Falling Man—but it’s also absurd and funny. As a pure creation of DeLillo’s imagination, the Event can have all those qualities and more; readers can take the requisite comfort that the Event didn’t actually happen, or at least didn’t happen to them. New Yorkers don’t have that privilege with September 11, which dilutes the power of Falling Man to accomplish much more than a semi-public revisiting of grief. That’s not DeLillo’s fault, exactly—it would happen to any author—but it does leave this book as a ground-rule double.