Falling Man by Don DeLillo
Scribner 2007 256 pp.
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Don DeLillo doesn’t do plots. As narrator Jack Gladney said in DeLillo’s White Noise, all plots move deathward. Moods, intimations, harbingers: DeLillo is not much concerned with surface or depth. As he noted in Underworld, he is a dietrologist. “It means the science of what is behind something. A suspicious event. The science of what is behind an event.” Not plots, but what’s behind them inform his writing.
Ironically, his fourteenth novel, Falling Man, finds its core in a plot, not a novelistic one, but the plot of 19 young Arabs, deranged by zealotry, who brought the Twin Towers down. This being DeLillo, the story is not about “the terrorist attacks of 9/11,” but an inward tale of a few of the survivors and the psychological aftermath.
Keith Neudecker, 39, a lawyer for Royer Properties (whose offices were housed in the north tower), finds himself trooping down the stairwell that day, along with hundreds of others, stepping aside as the firemen raced upward. Having worked at Royer for 10 years, he lives nearby in a small apartment, after separating from his wife, Lianne, a year and a half earlier. One wrist seriously injured, he carries a briefcase in his other hand.
Emerging into the smoking chaos, he catches a ride with a fleeing truck driver, landing on his wife’s doorstep. After a visit to the hospital, he and Lianne try to pick up the pieces of their marriage, as well as rebuild Keith’s strained relationship with his young son, Justin.
However, Keith discovers that the briefcase he carries is not his own, but belongs to another survivor, Florence Givens. In a development reminiscent of that between Max Klein and Carla Fransisca in Rafael Yglesias’ Fearless, the two survivors construct their own way of being together, outside the orbit of Keith’s family.
The Falling Man of the title is one David Janiak, also 39, a performance artist. “He’d appeared several times in the last week, unannounced, in various parts of the city, suspended from one or another structure, always upside down, wearing a suit, tie and dress shoes. … Falling Man was known to appear among crowds or at sites where crowds might quickly form.”
His presence across New York unnerves the inhabitants, who had recently seen far too many people falling from two tall buildings. He is, though, but one of those falling in this novel. Lianne supervises a group of Alzheimer’s patients as they struggle to write down something meaningful from their fractured lives. One, Rosellen S., was “not lost so much as falling.”
Keith flees into a routine of card playing, spending days away in distant cities. Yet for him, “the lucky jack did not fall,” while Lianne, in a brief moment of physical reconciliation with Keith, feels that “on these nights . . . they were falling out of the world.”
Interspersed in the narrative are the musings of some of the hijackers. One ruminates on his future victims: “The others exist only to the degree that they fill 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.”
Much of DeLillo’s work is a meditation on the equalizing tendencies of technology and mass society, and how that flattening out of culture results from a single source, our collective fear of death. Fear of death is what drives American culture, creating a culture of distraction. Television, pill-popping, and consumption are among our collectively unconscious strategies for forgetting the omnipresence death.
9/11, at least for a time, rubbed our noses in the immediacy and irrationality of death. In examining its effects on a few of the survivors, DeLillo is seeking to restore our collective awareness of the fragility of life. He finds, of course, powerful opponents: Anna Nicole Smith’s baby-daddy, Katie Couric’s nightly ratings, and Sanjaya’s fate. Reading this absorbing work makes one wonder what the hell we’re doing with our lives.