There is September 11 and then there are the days after, and finally the years.
Falling Man is a magnificent, essential novel about the event that defines turn-of-the-century America. It begins in the smoke and ash of the burning towers and tracks the aftermath of this global tremor in the intimate lives of a few people.
First there is Keith, walking out of the rubble into a life that he'd always imagined belonged to everyone but him. Then Lianne, his es-tranged wife, memory-haunted, trying to reconcile two versions of the same shadowy man. And their small son Justin, standing at the window, scanning the sky for more planes.
These are lives choreographed by loss, grief and the enormous force of history.
Brave and brilliant, Falling Man traces the way the events of September 11 have reconfigured our emotional landscape, our memory and our perception of the world. It is cathartic, beautiful, heartbreaking.
When DeLillo's novel Players was published in 1977, one of the main characters, Pammy, worked in the newly built World Trade Center. She felt that "the towers didn't seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their bulk than some routine distortion of light." DeLillo's new novel begins 24 years later, with Keith Neudecker standing in a New York City street covered with dust, glass shards and blood, holding somebody else's briefcase, while that intimation of the building's mortality is realized in a sickening roar behind him. On that day, Keith, one half of a classic DeLillo well-educated married couple, returns to Lianne, from whom he'd separated, and to their young son, Justin. Keith and Lianne know it is Keith's Lazarus moment, although DeLillo reserves the bravura sequence that describes Keith's escape from the first tower--as well as the last moments of one of the hijackers, Hammad--until the end of the novel. Reconciliation for Keith and Lianne occurs in a sort of stunned unconsciousness; the two hardly engage in the teasing, ludic interchanges common to couples in other DeLillo novels. Lianne goes through a paranoid period of rage against everything Mideastern; Keith is drawn to another survivor. Lianne's mother, Nina, roils her 20-year affair with Martin, a German leftist; Keith unhooks from his law practice to become a professional poker player. Justin participates in a child's game involving binoculars, plane spotting and waiting for a man named "Bill Lawton." DeLillo's last novel, Cosmopolis, was a disappointment, all attitude (DeLillo is always a brilliant stager of attitude) and no heart. This novel is a return to DeLillo's best work. No other writer could encompass 9/11 quite like DeLillo does here, down to the interludes following Hammad as he listens to a man who "was very genius"--Mohammed Atta. The writing has the intricacy and purpose of a wiring diagram. The mores of the after-the-event are represented with no cuteness--save, perhaps, the falling man performance artist. It is as if Players, The Names, Libra, White Noise, Underworld--with their toxic events, secret histories, moral panics--converge, in that day's narrative of systematic vulnerability, scatter and tentative regrouping. (June) Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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May 14, 2007
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Excerpt from Falling Man by Don DeLillo
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.
He wore a suit and carried a briefcase. There was glass in his hair and face, marbled bolls of blood and light. He walked past a Breakfast Special sign and they went running by, city cops and security guards running, hands pressed down on gun butts to keep the weapons steady.
Things inside were distant and still, where he was supposed to be. It happened everywhere around him, a car half buried in debris, windows smashed and noises coming out, radio voices scratching at the wreckage. He saw people shedding water as they ran, clothes and bodies drenched from sprinkler systems. There were shoes discarded in the street, handbags and laptops, a man seated on the sidewalk coughing up blood. Paper cups went bouncing oddly by.
The world was this as well, figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air. The noise lay everywhere they ran, stratified sound collecting around them, and he walked away from it and into it at the same time.
There was something else then, outside all this, not belonging to this, aloft. He watched it coming down. A shirt came down out of the high smoke, a shirt lifted and drifting in the scant light and then falling again, down toward the river.
They ran and then they stopped, some of them, standing there swaying, trying to draw breath out of the burning air, and the fitful cries of disbelief, curses and lost shouts, and the paper massed in the air, contracts, resumes blowing by, intact snatches of business, quick in the wind.
He kept on walking. There were the runners who'd stopped and others veering into sidestreets. Some were walking backwards, looking into the core of it, all those writhing lives back there, and things kept falling, scorched objects trailing lines of fire.
He saw two women sobbing in their reverse march, looking past him, both in running shorts, faces in collapse.
He saw members of the tai chi group from the park nearby, standing with hands extended at roughly chest level, elbows bent, as if all of this, themselves included, might be placed in a state of abeyance.
Someone came out of a diner and tried to hand him a bottle of water. It was a woman wearing a dust mask and a baseball cap and she withdrew the bottle and twisted off the top and then thrust it toward him again. He put down the briefcase to take it, barely aware that he wasn't using his left arm, that he'd had to put down the briefcase before he could take the bottle. Three police vans came veering into the street and sped downtown, sirens sounding. He closed his eyes and drank, feeling the water pass into his body taking dust and soot down with it. She was looking at him. She said something he didn't hear and he handed back the bottle and picked up the briefcase. There was an aftertaste of blood in the long draft of water.
He started walking again. A supermarket cart stood upright and empty.