A week after the shootings in San Bernardino, CA, The New York Times online announced that
Americans are more fearful about the likelihood of another terrorist attack than at any other time since the weeks after September 11, 2001.
It seemed like an appropriate time to be reading Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, which he published in 2007.
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.
Thus the novel begins. We are introduced to the protagonist Keith Neudecker, an American everyman, just after he made his way out of the North Tower and onto the street on that fateful morning when the World Trade Center was hit by “the planes.” Stunned, Keith kept on walking.
Soon he heard the sound of the second fall. In the chaos, a passing van offers him a lift, and he heads to his estranged wife’s apartment.
Keith quietly picks up his marriage as if nothing had changed, but a great deal had changed, including Keith. In the following chapters, we learn about his relationship to his ex-wife Lianne and his young son, Justin. Information is provided in fragments by a distant third person narrator. We never really get inside Keith’s head, although we do get a sense of how disconnected he has become. In order to connect, to register the reality of what he and many others experienced, he begins to visit a woman on the other side of the park who also worked in the towers. Although she is virtually a stranger — Keith only meets up with her because he somehow happened to carry her briefcase out of the tower — they understand each other as they both survived the horrendous experience, an experience that simply cannot be put into words. At the end of Part 1, the narrative briefly shifts to Hamburg, Germany, where we get a glimpse of Hammad, who may have been one of the so-called “martyrs, ” that is, a terrorist. We meet him again at the end of Part 2.
Part 3 begins three years later, with Lianne and Justin, who is now ten, walking in protest to the impending invasion of Iraq. Although it is a huge manifestation, some half a million people, we get a sense of how isolated Lianne is. She walks the entire length of the protest and meets no one she knows. We soon go back four months to the luncheon following her mother’s funeral. Her lover Martin,a German art dealer, flies in. His background is murky; earlier we learned he may have been a terrorist during the late sixties, early seventies. He abruptly tells Lianne what the Germans are thinking.
We are all beginning to have this thought, of American irrelevance. It’s a little like telepathy. Soon the day is coming when nobody has to think about America except for the danger it brings. It is losing the center. It becomes the center of its own shit. This is the only center it occupies.
Lianne wonders what brought this on. As a reader, I wonder if this is what DeLillo thinks. Or is it simply what he’s thinking others, especially the Germans, are thinking. But these are Martin’s thoughts, possibly the comments of a former terrorist — but one of ours.
I don’t know this America anymore. I don’t recognize it, he said. There’s an empty space where America used to be.
As the novel draws to a close in the last section, we learn that Keith is now spending most of his time in Las Vegas, gambling. This seems to be the only way he can blot out what happened to him, to his country and to his colleagues. We are now brought back to the scene inside the North Tower before Keith made his way out onto the street. But, first, we are on board the plane as it flies down the Hudson corridor and into the tower, where we rejoin Keith.
The movement was beneath him and then all around him, massive, something undreamed. It was the tower lurching. He understood this now.
Keith takes his jacket from a hook behind the door as he prepares to leave. It is an automatic response, survival instinct taking over. On his way out, he spots the mutilated body of his colleague Rumsey, one of the guys he regularly played poker with. Keith tries to lift him up to carry him out, but it is too late. Like many others, Rumsey is dead. Keith, however, makes it out just before the tower collapses. That fall reverberates through the text. One could say that Keith’s life collapsed at that very moment. Looking back over the wreck of the past decade, one could easily think that America itself collapsed.
This is a powerful novel. As I reread bits to write up my blog, I found it much, much better than the first read, magnetically gripping. Initially, one works through the text and then once one understands the structure and the point of the narrative, one can go back to the beginning and really absorb the power of the writing. The final section is a tour-de-force. DeLillo captures the monumental reality of that unforgettable day and provides a sense of its impact over the years that followed. As a postmodern writer, he truly is the master of contemporary American culture. I can hardly wait to read his new book Zero K, which should be out in May.