My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have avoided Falling Man for a decade because a novel about 9/11 by Don DeLillo seemed so literal—every novel by Don DeLillo is about 9/11, is about people driven to desperate acts by the desire to feel some real encounter with the numinous otherwise barred by modern secular society, is about the ambient and endless anxiety with which modern secular society replaces the numinous as memento mori.
On the first page of Falling Man, as its hero stumbles from ground zero through the wreckage, we read: “This was the world now.” The past tense of the verb is demanded by the grammar of free indirect discourse—the character’s present impression is recounted retrospectively by the narrator. But it also serves to pre-date the attack, to say that the world disclosed in the fall of 2001 always was the world, or if not “always” it has been at least since the Wright Brothers took off at Kitty Hawk or Napoleon invaded Egypt or Luther nailed his theses or the Genoese invented double-entry bookkeeping or the angel spoke to Muhammad or whatever it was that has by a long and circuitous path brought us to the edge of this abyss. DeLillo has always written about the apocalypse, and about how the apocalypse is not just one large event that you see on the news but is rather something that happens everyday, to everyone; it is not only ongoing right now, but it also happened yesterday and the day before. A good novel by Don DeLillo about 9/11 would have to not quite be about 9/11, then.
Falling Man is not quite about 9/11. It is very good, but not quite great. Relatively plotless, arranged conceptually, of an almost Jamesian obliquity, it eschews the kind of conspiratorial narrative readers might have expected from the author of Libra. There is no paranoid tracing of hidden networks, not even a hint of a suggestion—from the man who suggested that the CIA killed JFK—that the Towers were brought down by PNAC or some such.
The novel focuses instead on one family. The husband, Keith, survived the attacks though he worked in the World Trade Center; he walks from ground zero all the way to the home of his estranged wife Lianne, who lives with their son Justin. This brings the family back together somewhat, though Keith also has an affair with a fellow survivor whose briefcase he mistakenly took in the chaos of the attack. DeLillo also dwells on Lianne’s relationship with her art-historian mother; she has had a long affair with a European art dealer who may—or may not—have been involved in Red-Army-type terrorism in Germany in the 1970s (this is the extent of the novel’s paranoia). Lianne, furthermore, leads a writing group of Alzheimer’s patients, this motivated by the suicide of her father, also suffering from the disease. At intervals, we hear about a mysterious performance artist called the Falling Man, who perilously reenacts in public spaces the plunge of those who leapt from the burning Towers.
The novel is divided into three parts, each named rather mysteriously for a man: “Bill Lawton” (this is Justin and his schoolmates’ mishearing of “bin Laden”); “Ernst Hechinger” (which is possibly the real name of Lianne’s mother’s terrorist lover); and “David Janiak” (the name of the Falling Man performance artist). Between these sections are place-named interchapters, which recall how the aforementioned Libra charted Lee Harvey Oswald’s deathward odyssey as they follow one of the 19 hijackers from his training “On Marienstrasse” through his plotting “In Nokomis” to his fate “In the Hudson Corridor.”
Falling Man‘s plotless heterogeneity is not its weakness. DeLillo’s fragmentary montage style, unified by his distinctive narrative voice and trademark missed-connection dialogue, allows him to lay disparate elements end to end without losing control or creating confusion. (Personally, I often prefer novels organized by theme, symbol, and feeling to those with overbearing story-structures.) Each character from major to minor is struggling not only to endure the attacks themselves—and one is struggling to carry out the attack—but to find some larger experience that may redeem the loss and pain at the heart of the experience.
DeLillo strips an enormous amount of topical material from his novel; while there are a few arguments about the nature of Islam and America, there is no discussion of practical politics, no mention of Bush and Cheney, and no debate over geopolitical strategy. In the last section of the novel, set years after the attacks, Lianne and Justin do attend an anti-war protest, but even here political argument recedes before aesthetic judgment: they are bored by the demonstration and go into a bookstore instead, where Lianne meditates on the mystery of the stars. Whatever minimal faith DeLillo might ever have placed in politics—power politics or protest politics, right-wing or left-wing—is gone from this book. There is only the jihad in every polity and beneath every faith to transcend and thereby to save everything we are doomed to lose. He might have borrowed an epigraph from a novel written in Arabic: “All of us, my son, are in the last resort travelling alone.”
DeLillo’s point, though, is not to relativize terrorism, as if it were equivalent to performance art or peaceful religious practice; Lianne’s mother’s lover, the haughty Euro-leftist and former Marxist terrorist, is the novel’s only character for whom the author seems to feel actual contempt. I suspect the point, no less true for being banal, is to suggest that making art or going to church are far better channels for the upward drive than sublime violence. DeLillo is subtle, though, and hints that the lines among these things are frail; the titular Falling Man as good as kills himself through devotion to his dangerous art, while Lianne fears her own incipient religiosity, seemingly anxious that once one submits to God, holy war is not far away:
God would consume her. God would de-create her and she was too small and tame to resist. That was why she was resisting now. Because think about it. Because once you believe such a thing, God is, then how can you escape, how survive the power of it, is and was and ever shall be.
Falling Man‘s stark crypto-Christian Existentialism (there is a little hymn to Kierkegaard in the middle: “straight into the Protestant badlands of sickness unto death”) creates an atmosphere hard to breathe in, but it is without a doubt more admirable in its high-altitude climb than the sickly fulsome materialistic complacency of something like Ian McEwan’s own post-9/11 novel, Saturday. The situation of the Alzheimer patients in Lianne’s writing group is described as follows: “No one knew what they knew, here in the last clear minute before it all closed down.” That minute is the novel’s setting, that knowledge its aspiration.
But Falling Man is not an unqualified success. DeLillo seems to care about some of his materials more than others. The ostensible protagonist, Keith, is a blank and a bore, a generic DeLillo Man, another running dog with a half-concealed capacity for violence that he sublimates through eccentric living; by the end of the novel, he is a professional poker player, as if in a parody of something that would happen in a Don DeLillo novel. His mistress, Florence, has even less existence, is really just a plot device, and the capsule descriptions of his co-workers and former poker buddies who died in the attack attempt to evoke pathos through quirkiness (for example, one of them has a foot fetish that requires him to count women’s toes: “The counting always led to ten. This was not a discouragement or impediment”). This reach for vitality achieves only the tasteless and morally dubious—do people without quirks deserve to be slaughtered by terrorists?
Only the pages about Lianne and her family and her encounters with the Falling Man and the pages about Hammad the terrorist (so tactfully free of mere journalism or ethnography) are alive. Falling Man would be better if shorter by a third: it did not need to be about a literal 9/11 survivor; it would have been enough to write about the artist (David Janiak), the terrorist (Hammad), and, most importantly, the witness (Lianne: “She was the photograph, the photosensitive surface”). There might have been a hole in this novel where the Towers stood; it is to DeLillo’s credit that he came so close to realizing this.
 “DeLillo is an Italian Catholic,” the small-minded sociologists of literature will tell us. So am I, but I believe the American novelist, to be an American novelist, must pass through the Protestant badlands.