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September 18, 2007

Falling Man confirms DeLillo's standing as the most searching imaginative commentator on contemporary America, argues David Womersley: Falling Man - Don DeLillo

Posted by David Womersley

Falling Man
by Don DeLillo
Pp. 246. London: Picador, 2007
Hardback, 16.99

On the morning of 11th September 2001, in Manhattan, Richard Drew took a memorable photograph. The towers of the World Trade Center were on the point of collapse. Conditions inside the towers must have been literally infernal: smoke, heat, fear, despair, the unnatural smell of materials (steel, concrete) burning which are not meant to burn, on some floors the sickly smell of aviation fuel, throughout the hideous conversion of (to use Corbusier's phrase) a machine for living in into a machine for dying in.

Some, trapped on the floors above the point of impact - necessarily the braver ones? - chose to jump. Television footage, played it seemed endlessly in the week or so that followed the attacks, captured the last moments of these "jumpers" and relayed them to the world. Most flailed and cartwheeled to the ground, their disorganisation of motion recalling late medieval canvasses of the apocalypse, in which naked bodies are pitched pell-mell into the jaws of the underworld.

But the subject of Richard Drew's picture assumed a very different posture. Inverted and perfectly vertical, his right leg extended, his left drawn up, his arms straight by his sides, his pose recalled nothing so much as that of Superman. But in this case, it was a Superman turned through 90o and without any superhuman powers; a Superman not flying to avert catastrophe, but memorialising its inevitability. Nobody knows who that particular jumper was. At first he was identified as one Norberto Hernandez, but Hernandez's family denied the identification; some now claim him to be a restaurant worker, Jonathan Briley. But in fact the Falling Man is the Unknown Civilian of the War on Terror.

Atrocity is an attack on language. This is not the most important thing it attacks, but it attacks it nonetheless. As Henry James said when he heard of the sinking of the Lusitania,

the war has used up words.
But 9/11 was remarkable for the way in which it generated words - word after word, yards of newsprint, dogged commentary and parsing, a steady flow of captions tagged to the extraordinary images of that morning. On 9/12 all the broadsheets were full of language purporting to assess the events of the day before. Bizarrely, some novelists were asked for their opinions (to adapt Homer Simpson on rock stars: "Novelists! is there anything they don't know?"), and some were rash enough to comply. For the most part these punctual effusions do not now bear much re-reading. The most facile comment, naturally, fell from the lips of our Prime Minister, who said that 9/11 had changed "everything" - an unexaminable hyperbole which resonated emptily.

Don DeLillo waited nearly six years before publishing his measured, decorous, intelligent novel about 9/11. Despite its title, it is not in fact about Drew's famous photograph (DeLillo says that he was unaware when choosing his title of the similar label applied to that image). The Falling Man of DeLillo's novel is, in the first instance, a performance artist who, in the days following 9/11, attaches himself by a harness to buildings and structures around New York and assumes the posture of the man in Drew's photograph. More broadly, however, the title refers to all characters whose post-9/11 existence DeLillo examines - they are all falling, suddenly unsupported, catastrophe in full view and approaching terribly fast, yet trying to maintain in even these circumstances some kind of chosen shape, and asserting, not control, but a measure at least of self-control.

The novel opens with a wonderful evocation of the environment of the Manhattan streets as the towers came down. Wandering through the devastation, in which the materials of civilization (paper, glass) have been turned into the edge-tools of terrorism, is Keith Neudecker, a worker in the World Trade Center who has survived with only light injuries. He goes automatically to the apartment he used to share with his former wife, Lianne. The reflex seems to gesture towards an optimistic movement in the novel - as if the terrorist atrocity will prove to be an act of evil which brings forth good, as broken relationships are mended, and the fabric of human life is once more stitched together (one of the promptly-voluble novelists in the days after 9/11, Jay McInerney, in fact confided to humanity that the collapse of the Towers had made him think about getting back together with his ex-wife - a comment revealing a sublime egoism). But this is not the path DeLillo's novel takes. Keith and Lianne's marriage is not mended, for although Keith remains in their apartment, he also begins an affair with Florence, another worker in the Towers whose briefcase he had inadvertently picked up during his trudge down the stairwells.

The affair comes to nothing, but it encapsulates one of the human themes of the book, namely the desire to deny that the events of 9/11, and the alarming re-arrangement of the world which followed it, were so purely random and arbitrary that they cannot be recuperated by the human desire to design and shape experience. However Keith succumbs to the powers of chance that terror has so strengthened. Before 9/11, he was part of a weekly poker game. He now becomes a professional poker player, and leads a solitary itinerant life, exposing himself repeatedly to the forces of chance which so stamped themselves upon his life in September 2001, and trying to extract from them a subsistence. A social ritual, a rite of friendship, has been transformed into a propitiation of the new, harsh gods of the post-9/11 world.

Falling Man is a splendidly controlled and luminously intelligent novel. It confirms DeLillo's standing as the most searching imaginative commentator on contemporary America.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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