Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 4, 2011

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo, read by John Slattery

I’ve had Falling Man to read on my shelves for a while now, but when I saw the audio-book at the library, I thought I would might listen to it while doing some tedious book-work not needing much concentration.  It didn’t take very long to realise that this is a book that demands full attention. After listening to CD 1 three times and still not making sense of it I had to abandon the audio-book altogether.

Listening to it, I simply could not work out what was going on.   Over and over again there were brief episodes featuring un-named characters.  By the time I had worked out from the context or from an ensuing episode what had happened and to whom, the audio had moved on and I was lost again.  I retrieved the printed version from my shelves and began making notes, which, like a difficult jigsaw puzzle, eventually began to come together to make a coherent whole.

Now, I know De Lillo’s reputation.  This messiness is not an accident or incompetence.  I doubt very much if De Lillo took this book as an opportunity to try some fancy modernist experimentation either. I think that in this book about the aftermath of 9/11, the plot is fragmented to represent the fragments of the towers, and that what seems like a muddle of a plot represents the chaos of that day.  I think that the confusion swirling around the characters’ identities represents people in the aftermath who were not themselves any more.

I’ve read (I can’t remember where or when) that 9/11 remains for American writers an impossible event to write about.  No matter how they approach it, it provokes anger and dismay.  Some people feel that it’s not a subject for fiction at all; even now it is still too raw for that. Customer reviews at GoodReads and Amazon show how Falling Man scratches at a festering sore; deleted comments are eloquent too.  I think that DeLillo was brave to tackle it but I feel a bit hesitant even to write this review…

Eloquently, the author reminds us of the horror none of us can forget anyway:

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. (p3)

BEWARE: SPOILERS

But from this first chapter re-creating the event, suddenly chapter two switches to someone thinking about a man and a woman and their sex life.  The woman thinks about the failure of their marriage.  Then she is startled by the incongruity of a postcard referring to Shelley’s poem ‘Revolt of Islam’. It was sent by a friend before the towers fell.

This woman, Lianne, tells her mother about what happened on the day of the atrocity. She took her dazed, dust-and-blood covered husband to a hospital.  Her mother is accusatory.  It turns out that Lianne and her husband, Keith, were separated and Nina, Liane’s mother, thinks a reconciliation is a bad idea.  She thinks that Lianne should throw him out again, not least because of the child, Justin.

Chapter 3 starts with a flashback to the hospital where Keith gets glass shards taken out of his face.  De Lillo explains about an unpleasant phenomenon called ‘organic shrapnel’.  His hand is badly damaged.

And then Lianne is talking with the mother of children Justin plays with.  The mother is anxious about the way the children are talking in a strange code about a mysterious man.

A scrap about Lianne in bed with a man.  Is it Keith?

Another scrap; Keith undergoing an MRI at the hospital.

And so it goes on, little bits and pieces of events, not in chronological order.  These characters are redefining their emotional landscape – and America’s.  They are redefining feelings of anger, confusion, fear, resentment, and suspicion.  They are sifting Old Testament ideas about vengeance and punishment.

What we see here is some of the awful aftermath of 9/11 as it plays out in the lives of ordinary people.  Parents puzzled by the children playing with binoculars and talking about a man called Bill Lawton are appalled to discover that the children are searching the skies for the plane bearing Bin Laden, whose name they have misheard.  These parents tried so hard to protect their children from this event…

Lianne becomes irrationally angry about a woman in her apartment block who keeps playing middle-eastern music.  She struggles not to stereotype; she struggles with the idea that even music is now ‘a certain type of religious and political statement’.  These thoughts are alien to her, from nowhere, elsewhere, someone else’s. (p69).  Keith kicks the door of the woman’s apartment in solidarity with Lianne’s anger.  When Lianne eventually confronts the woman, the woman claims her right to play music that gives her peace.  Is this because she’s rejoicing in 9/11 or because she fears it?  Lianne interprets the insistent playing of this music as ‘a message or a lesson’.  Lianne was not at the towers when they fell, but she is falling apart.

Of all the characters, I felt most for Florence, who lost all her friends in the atrocity.  Until Keith comes visiting to return a briefcase he had misappropriated on the day, she was holed up in her apartment feeling dead herself.  She says that talking about it with Keith saved her life.

It’s shockingly incongruous for De Lillo to include flashbacks to the terrorists’ training and last moments, and the moment of impact is truly horrible as events mesh together.  Equally horrible is De Lillo’s invention of a performance artist who recreates from buildings in New York the impression of the man who falls from the tower.  There is indignant rage about this man’s effrontery: perhaps he is a metaphor for De Lillo himself and his fellow-artists who have tried to pay homage to 9/11 through art.  Perhaps he is a symbol of the crass insensitivity of some people afterwards.

When I listened to this sequence on the CD, the calm, unemotional voice of the narrator seemed almost obscene.

She looked up toward the green steel structure that passes over Pershing Square, the section of elevated roadway that carries traffic around the terminal in both directions.

A man was dangling there, above the street, upside down.  He wore a business suit, one leg bent up, arms at his sides.  A safety harness was barely visible, emerging from his trousers at the straightened leg and fastened to the decorative rail of the viaduct.

She’d heard of him, a performance artist known as Falling Man.  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, a tie and dress shoes.  He’d brought it back, of course, those stark moments in the burning towers when people fell or were forced to jump. He’d been seen dangling from a balcony in a hotel atrium and police had escorted him out of a concert hall and two or three apartment buildings with terraces or accessible rooftops. (p33)

De Lillo has shown in this book the way the event drew some people together and drove others apart.  It seems to me, however, that he muddied the waters by implying that Nina’s lover Martin was perhaps a terrorist.  Maybe that was his way of showing how easy it was for the US to have nurtured a viper in its bosom.

There’s a review at The Guardian

Author: Don De Lillo
Title: Falling Man
Audiobook narrator: John Slattery
Audiobook publisher: Clipper Audio, 2007
ISBN: 9781407405025
Source: Kingston Library
Book publisher: Picador 2007
ISBN: 9780330453172
Source: Personal library, purchased from Kidna Books Hampton, $32.95 AUD.

 

 


Responses

  1. I read this not long after it came out ,I agree with the statment about it being impossible to write about ,but as a stab at it this wasn’t to bad he caught the emmotions well I thought ,all the best stu

    • Thanks, Stu, it’s amazing to think it will be 10 years this year. The Spouse and I set off for overseas shortly afterwards, and the war in Afghanistan started just as we took off and the plane was re-routed so that we were not flying through its airspace.
      I remember visiting the Tower of London and as we waited outside for the tour guide a plane flew overhead. Every single person there stopped what they were doing and loooked up until it was out of sight.

  2. I have read some other De Lillo novels and did not find them as disjointed as what you describe, although he does not make it easy for the reader. I particularly enjoyed White Noise which had quite a bit of humor in it.

    No, I don’t think most Americans (I am one) are able to deal with 9/11 yet. You could say it was only 3000 people and a couple of buildings, but what was destroyed was a smug sense of invulnerability. I remember being in a walking tour in London (before 9/11) and seeing where the Irish bombs had gone off right in the heart of the City. Yet, everyone continued on. They had already gotten over the belief that life owed them safety.

    I have mostly avoided books about 9/11, but I did read Netherland (http://silverseason.wordpress.com/2010/09/17/joseph-oneill-netherland/), in which the loss of the towers is parallel to the loss of the man’s marriage. It didn’t work very well for me. A friend is recommending Let the Great World Spin, so I may try that one.

    • Maybe you don’t need to read books about it if you’re not ready yet?

  3. I too am one of those readers who has found fiction that leans on 9/11 sadly lacking — I abandoned both this one and Updike’s. Indeed, my personal experience of 9/11 fiction is that the greater the reputation of the author, the less satisfying the book. I thought both Netherland and Let the Great World Spin were okay (better than DeLillo and Updike for sure); works by younger authors such as Patricia Engel succeded even more for me.

    • Hi Kevin, I have to admit that De Lillo doesn’t appeal to me much. I borrowed The Body Artist from the library a while ago and sent it back unfinished, wondering what his reputation was all about. And with this one, well, if I hadn’t had a copy of the book to read, the same thing would have happened.
      Silver Season makes an interesting point about Londoners – who haven’t felt ‘safe’ in their city since The Great Fire of London in 1666 or maybe even the Gunpowder Plot in 1605 – and it made me wonder about fiction featuring Islamic terrorism in general. Who’s writing it, and who’s reading it? The issue of voyeurism was never far from my mind when reading Falling Man, and yet for a traumatised nation, it might help people to read works that make them realise that they are not alone. And writers, of course, must write what the Muse sends them…

  4. I have Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’ which I found difficult to read but rewarding. He does not allow the reader to be lazy: mind-wandering will lead to re-reading. I am a fan of a good opening line and I rather like the opening here: ‘He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s always hopeful.’
    It makes me wonder if I had more difficulty reading De Lillo precisely because the author does not speak in my voice. As an Aussie, I may have been handicapped from the start with my lesser knowledge of things like baseball and Kool-Aid and big-city speak. Michael Ondaatje says ‘This book is an aria and a wolf whistle of our half-century’. Nice quote!
    Thanks for this review. I will put ‘Falling Man’ on my list but I think I will be looking for a nice long solitary holiday before I tackle it.

    • You make an interesting point about voice, Karen, but I didn’t find that aspect of this book too difficult. But Underworld? The influence of American culture is so pervasive I probably know more about baseball than I do about Aussie Rules (which is to say, very little indeed) but as one who has read widely around the world I have learned to adapt readily to different cultures in fiction. The only time I can remember being really flummoxed was when reading something by Annie Proulx which kept referring to The Pan Handle. In those pre-Google days I was lucky to have The Spouse able to enlighten me!
      Anyway, I will try Underworld one of these days…

  5. Oh bugger,
    Now I have to go and google The Pan Handle! (LOL)

    • LOL Karen, I wonder how many others will ‘fess up too?

  6. I haven’t read any Don De Lillo yet, but this is the one I have had in mind. But then I have seen favourable reviews and less favourable reviews, and I have wavered. I wonder if it is De Lillo’s style that splits opinion, or his choice of subject manner? I am reminded of Lolita, where for many the style will never be able to compensate for the subject matter.

    I avoided reading your thoughtfully labelled ‘spoiler’ section, but your description of the fractured nature of the book is fascinating, and I find myself convinced again. Thank you.


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