Friday 29 December 2023

Falling Man - Don DeLillo (2017)


Rating: Admirable

The attack by terrorists on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001 was a momentous event in the history of the clash between civilisations. Like most people I was shaken to the core by the scenes of the attacks. I was called by a friend and was told to turn on the TV, just in time to witness the plane hit the second tower and then both towers eventually collapsing. It was incredible, disturbing and historically momentous. Then later I remember reading about the photo of the falling man, an image initially used in the media, but then suppressed due to various moral concerns. Seeing the image is certainly powerful and it makes sense that America's pre-eminent novelist would both write about 9/11 and use that image as an inspiration for its title (although apparently he refutes that notion). Being DeLillo nothing is that simple, of course, with the image being used as a metaphor for the life trajectory of Keith Neudecker, both before and after the event. Another very typical DeLillo trope is the performance artist who falls from buildings dressed in a suit, with just a simple harness for support. This falling man appears at various times during the novel, including a scene in which Keith's wife, Lianne, observes him setting up and waiting to 'perform' for an oncoming train of passengers, a scene imbued with gnostic symbolism open to interpretation. Falling Man is mostly set in the aftermath of 9/11, and the performing falling man acts as a ghostly reverberation of that day, a day that completely changed everything for New Yorkers. Keith goes back to his estranged wife, having survived the attack in the south tower, their son spends the days with other children looking for more planes with binoculars, talking in hushed tones about Bill Lawton, the misheard name they give Bin Laden. Typically for DeLillo this comes across as both a dark, ironic joke, but also imbued with nebulous meaning.

The infamous falling man photo

Falling Man has been criticised for not being as monumental as the 9/11 event itself, however DeLillo had already produced 'monumental' work about America and its citizens, such as Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997) and White Noise (1985), which reads like a guide to postmodernism filtered though the American sensibility. Falling Man's focus is more about the human psychological response to the terrorist attacks, both overt and subtle, in particular during the aftermath. Like the slowly fading circular waves in water after a stone is dropped, DeLillo shows how the characters go on living after the shocking event, eventually being reabsorbed into themselves and their quite ordinary and unimportant lives that were revealed, for a while, in stark relief. There are also sections focussing on one of the terrorists, his drift towards jihad; and then at the very end, a depiction of the attack itself, which is as visceral as the novel gets. As usual DeLillo's prose is minimal and exacting, with dialogue that makes the characters seem like they are revealing insights into the very nature of humanity, our very essence; or, conversely, about nothing at all, merely the minutia of human obsessions in the twenty-first century. Although, as DeLillo novels go, Falling Man is fairly satisfying, there's some extra level of DeLillo frisson that is absent. It's certainly not up there with his best novels, but it is, after all, a DeLillo novel, and therefore worth reading for that reason alone.

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