By Don DeLillo
(Scribner, 246 pp., $26)
Don DeLillo's new book is not a 9/11 novel but a 9/11 short story,or perhaps a 9/11 poem. It is not a synthesis or an argument oreven, really, a sustained narrative, but an arrangement ofsymbolically productive elements-- two towers and two paintings;people falling from the towers and a performance artist named"Falling Man" who re-enacts that fall; the artist named Falling Manand a main character who is also a man in free fall, or emotionalcollapse; Islamic terrorists and an art dealer who was once aGerman terrorist; old people losing their power of speech throughAlzheimer's and a troubled little boy who refuses to speak inanything but monosyllables; a woman terrified of losing her memoryand a man trying to escape his. This highly formal, and quicklyformalized, still life is sometimes affecting; more often it ismildly suggestive, with the reader feeling that a lot of whitespace on the page is glaring at him beseechingly.
The woman afraid of losing her memory is Lianne, painfully marriedto Keith Neudecker, the man who is trying to run from memory. Keithworked in the World Trade Center, and the novel opens with adescription of the terrible day--the planes, the plague-like cloudsof dust, the dazed survivors like whited sepulchers, the ash andpaper: "contracts, resumes blowing by, intact snatches of business,quick in the wind." Keith staggers home, caked in white, and amarriage that had been broken--the two were separated--begins again,shakily. The book returns repeatedly to descriptions of thatmorning, perhaps in conscious imitation of the repeated,digitalized loop that television news forces on us, and partly, ofcourse, because the characters themselves cannot leave it alone.DeLillo is at his best in these passages, at once a keen imaginerand a cool analyst. Only a few days after the event, Keith andLianne watch the news on television, and she sees again one of theplanes roaring through the sky, and thinks that in a second
they would all be dead, passengers and crew, and thousands in thetowers dead, and she felt it in her body, a deep pause, and thoughtthere he is, unbelievably, in one of those towers, and now his handon hers, in pale light, as though to console her for his dying.
He said, "It still looks like an accident, the first one. Even fromthis distance, way outside the thing, how many days later, I'mstanding here thinking it's an accident."
"Because it has to be."
"It has to be," he said.
"The way the camera sort of shows surprise."
"But only the first one."
"Only the first," she said.
"The second plane, by the time the second plane appears," he said,"we're all a little older and wiser."
This novel attempts an evocation of what Lianne thinks of as this"deep pause"--not just the pause before the impact, but the pauseafter it, when everything changed, when time stopped.
The problem is that the novel itself falls into that "deep pause,"too. It seems to drift in a stunned, meaningless void, wheresentences--"These are the days after. Everything now is measured byafter"--are given rather too much credence. When Keith goes back inhis mind to that morning, it is the slow, oddly calm walk down theemergency staircase that he dwells on, a passage out of time whenthousands made an orderly exit, when "he walked in a long sleep,one step and then the next." Days later, he visits a woman, FlorenceGivens, who was in the same building--he is returning herbriefcase, which he was handed in the chaos--and they begin arelationship that has less to do with sex than with conversationand shared trauma; what they have in common is "the timeless driftof the long spiral down." The phrase nicely compacts the hellishescape downstairs, the collapse of the buildings themselves, and theway a life might "spiral down" after witnessing these incidents.
Keith's life is indeed spiraling. He had never been, perhaps, aneasy husband--uncommunicative, driven, adulterous, tediously male.(He is one of those dull men of few words and affectless action whothrong the pages of American fiction, high and low. How one tiresof these inert beings.) At the time of the terrorist event, Keithwas living apart from his wife and nine-year- old son, in abachelor pad not far from the World Trade Center. His unexpectedreturn to Lianne--she can never rid her memory of the shock ofseeing him at her doorstep, covered in dust--does not so much healan old wound as simply add a new one to the old. The marriage mustnow accommodate Keith's incommunicable memories, his driftingtrauma, the hours he spends at Florence Givens's apartment.
In addition, Lianne has her own torments. Her father committedsuicide when she was nineteen, at the first sign of his seniledementia. Haunted by this and the potential menace of her ownmemory loss, she runs a kind of literary support group for elderlyvictims of Alzheimer's, people who are aware of their decline butstill able to write down their experiences and impressions.Privately, she counts down from one hundred in increments of seven,to test her mental fitness. Her mother, Nina, a formidable New Yorkart historian now given to hypochondria and a premature, willedsenescence, is a difficult presence in her life. There is someobscure way in which Lianne, a freelance book editor, has not quitereached maternal expectations. Nina has an aging lover named MartinWidnour, a European art dealer who, it turns out, was a radicalactivist in Germany in the 1970s. How involved he was withterrorist groups like the Baader-Meinhof Gang is unknown, but hewas criminal enough to have changed his real name, which was ErnstHechinger. "Maybe he was a terrorist," Lianne catches herselfthinking, "but he was one of ours ? and the thought chilled her,shamed her--one of ours, which meant godless, Western, white."
DeLillo can write exceptionally well, with exactitude and lyricaloriginality. The set scene descriptions of the morning of September11, which open and close the novel, are fine examples of the kindof epic panning that opened Underworld. He can be aphoristic andfunny, as his shorter novels, such as White Noise and Mao II, haveshown. In DeLillo's new book, Keith is described at one point likethis: "He used to come home late, looking shiny and a littlecrazy." That is somehow both exact and mysterious, in the rightproportions. A doctor who treats Alzheimer's, Dr. Apter, is seenthus: "Apter was a slight man with frizzed hair who seemedformulated to say funny things but never did." Lianne remembers theway her father would get red after sitting out in the sun,"appearing to buzz with electric current." A patient at the therapygroup brings breakfast pastries, "large jellied bladders that noone else would touch." "Large jellied bladders" will be one ofthose images forthwith hard to dislodge. There are lots ofsentences of this high quality.
But DeLillo is a very strange writer. For every elegant, compactsentence closing around its meaning as if delicately preying on it,there are passages that bear the other DeLillo mark, which couldbest be called a kind of fastidious vagueness. These are passagesin which fancy words are deployed with a cool, technicalconfidence, in a spirit of precision, as if they have actualreferents, but in which meaning is smeared and obscured. Considerthis description of poker, a game that Keith had played every weekwith three other men, before "the day":
They played each hand in a glazed frenzy. All the action wassomewhere behind the eyes, in naive expectation and calculateddeceit. Each man tried to entrap the other and fix limits to hisown false dreams, the bond trader, the lawyer, the other lawyer,and these games were the funneled essence, the clear and intimateextract of their daytime initiatives. The cards skimmed across thegreen baize surface of the round table. They used intuition andcold-war risk analysis. They used cunning and blind luck. Theywaited for the prescient moment, the time to make the bet based onthe card they knew was coming. Felt the queen and there it was.They tossed in the chips and watched the eyes across the table.They regressed to preliterate folkways, petitioning the dead. Therewere elements of healthy challenge and outright mockery. There wereelements of one's intent to shred the other's gauzy manhood.
If I were given this passage in a blind test and asked forprovenance, I would first murmur: "American, not English," for thiscould only be contemporary American prose, and then, more thanlikely, I would say: "Don DeLillo." What is most striking is theway the prose lifts itself up into a lyricism that is not quitelyrical: "glazed frenzy ? funneled essence ? preliterate folkways ?gauzy manhood" (whatever that is). The effect, very common inpost-White Noise DeLillo, is an uneasy sense that the author isperhaps trying to be a bit funny, but not half as funny as he isunwittingly being. The passage is unwittingly funny because it isso awfully earnest, in an adolescent writer's kind of way. Theearnestness makes itself felt in the peculiar shifts into solemnpseudo-scientific registers: "They regressed to preliteratefolkways, petitioning the dead." In other words, DeLillo means, theplayers muttered every so often: "Mother, help me!" It is no good toclaim that this is free indirect style--DeLillo deliberatelymimicking the earnestness of his poker players--because this is howDeLillo always sounds, and because there is no reason to assumethat his poker players think like DeLillo. But what, except a kindof pomposity, is gained by the quasi-profound diction, with itsbogus air of massive anthropological expertise? After all, this isjust a poker game. And why "preliterate"? Pre-literacy was a very,very long time ago: has no one called on the dead for the lastliterate four millennia?
DeLillo has a habit of letting his prose inflate itself when hescents a Big Question, at which point anything can happen. Yetthere are times when a marvelous and sharp little phrase is stillalive inside the layers of meaning. Toward the end of the novel,Lianne gets a brain scan, which determines that her "morphology isnormal."
She had normal morphology. She loved that word. But what's insidethe form and structure? This mind and soul, hers and everyone's,keep dreaming toward something unreachable. Does this mean there'ssomething there, at the limits of matter and energy, a forceresponsible in some way for the very nature, the vibrancy of ourlives from the mind out, the mind in little pigeon blinks thatextend the plane of being, out beyond logic and intuition."
Lianne is having theological thoughts, and this passage is a queryabout whether there is such a thing as God. Most of it is DeLilloin full inflationary mode, and one can take or leave the windystuff about "a force responsible in some way for the very nature,the vibrancy of our lives from the mind out ? the plane of being,out beyond logic and intuition." Carl Sagan writes better thanthis. But "the mind in little pigeon blinks that extend the planeof being" is oddly catching, and catches us because it is so oddand unexpected. I suppose DeLillo means something like theneurological connections that light up the brain, or he may meansimply the way our eyes--and thus our brains--continuallyphotograph and re-photograph the world, adjusting thousands oftimes a minute. Whatever he means, "little pigeon blinks" somehowcaptures the meaning: we can see the instantaneous re-adjusting ofthe bird's body and make the metaphorical leap.
DeLillo can be patient and precise at burrowing into troubled mentalstates. Some of the best passages in this book manage to convey asense of Keith's blank, traumatized isolation, and Lianne's anxiouspost-disaster self- questioning, and the political andpsychological tensions between Lianne's mother and Martin. (Martinthinks that America "had it coming," while his lover moreatavistically defends her country against the Islamic threat.) Heshows himself astute and delicate in a moment like this, forinstance, as Lianne watches her domineering mother light acigarette: "Her mother lit up. She watched, Lianne did, feelingsomething familiar and a little painful, how Nina at a certainpoint began to consider her invisible. The memory was locatedthere, in the way she snapped shut the lighter and put it down, inthe hand gesture and the drifting smoke."
And there is pleasure to be had from watching DeLillo assemble thesymmetries and asymmetries of his artful construction. Nina, the arthistorian, has two beautiful still lifes by Morandi, gifts fromMartin. (Highly implausible, unless Martin is a good deal richerthan he seems to be.) Nina announces that these are what she willlook at when there is nothing else to look at, when she is dying.In one of them, two tall dark columns remind everyone--in thesecharged days "after"--of the Twin Towers. These paintings,described several times by DeLillo, appear to be models for howFalling Man is itself organized. The book has a curiously staticformation, exaggerated by DeLillo's habit of moving regularly fromone character to another, from one episode to another, sometimesdonating only a spare paragraph at a time to the subject at hand.In addition, the prose itself--sometimes effectively, sometimespretentiously--often breaks into dangling aphorism: "She lived inthe spirit of what is ever impending." (This sentence is, worse,its own one-line paragraph.) The characters are also givenDeLillo-like prose to speak, hard and cool and repetitive riffs.Here Keith meets an old poker-playing friend in a casino in LasVegas:
"I go to the sports book to relax. Eat a sandwich and drink a beer.I like the action going on around me, all the screens, all thesports. I drink a beer and pretty much ignore it."
"I like to sit by the waterfall. I order a mild drink. Ten thousandpeople around me. In the aisles, in the aquarium, in the garden, atthe slots. I sip a mild drink."
In this spirit of still life, of natura morta (the Italian phraseappeals to Lianne), the novel deploys patterns. There are thetowers, which are "painted" by DeLillo at the start of the book.There are the two Morandi paintings, one of which reminds itsviewers of the towers. There is Keith, who is the "Falling Man" ofthe novel's title. But there is also a performance artist, whocalls himself "Falling Man," who is going around New York hangingfrom buildings and bridges, bizarrely re-enacting the visual memoryof the people who threw themselves from the towers. There is toomuch memory (Keith) and too little memory (Lianne's anxiety aboutAlzheimer's). There is Islamic terrorism (Mohammed Atta) and"Western" terrorism (Martin). And three times--at the start, in themiddle, and at the end of the book--there is a description of ashirt, which Keith remembers seeing blowing away from the towersand over the river on "the day."
This painterly assemblage has its satisfactions, but they are thekind that would work better in a short story, where pleasures canbe had, precisely, from the pressurized, compact formality, andwhere such obviously "symbolic" patternings (for instance, the oldpeople losing their memories counterposed with thememory-saturation of Keith) are more easily forgiven, as part ofthe price we pay for the poetic rhythm of short forms. The shortstory, in effect, announces: "Here, make of this installation whatyou will." Its very reticence-- its brief four-thousandish-wordspan--is a lattice on which we can hang our interpretations. Thenovel, one feels, must do a little more than that--but Falling Maninsists on retaining the reticent formality of a much shorter work,so that one feels it has been pumped with rarified air, and is justfloating away on its own pretentiousness. For example, DeLilloneeds to have made something--as, say, Ian McEwan would havedone--of Martin's terrorist past; he might have productivelyopposed it to its more vicious Islamic version (if this is thecase). Instead, nothing much is made of it beyond the fact ofMartin's "mysterious" history, and it seems only a wisp, anaesthetic balancing, another in DeLillo's row of patterns, a milddab of paint on one side of the canvas to match a violent slash ofpaint on the other. Likewise in the twinning of the two FallingMen, Keith and the performance artist. The symmetry seems manneredat best, unsubtle at worst; above all, unproductive of seriousmeaning or suggestion.
Paradoxically, despite the good writing that attends the set-piecedescriptions of "the day," Falling Man is most successful at theevocation of a shattered domestic existence, of life in the shadowof "after." DeLillo is interested in the strategies that his peopleemploy to soften the pain of this trauma, and he can be an acuteexaminer of such deliberate waywardness: Keith begins to spend moreand more time in Las Vegas, that degree zero of America, where hecan escape into the sweaty anomie of the professional poker player.Nina fixates on her still lifes, while Lianne starts going tochurch. The most sensitive touch concerns Keith and Lianne'snine-year-old son Justin, who, along with his young friends, simplyrefuses to believe that the towers ever came down. The worriedparents notice that the children are scanning the skies with a pairof binoculars. Why? Because, say the kids, "Bill Lawton" will comeagain, and this time, the towers will really fall. Who, they ask, isBill Lawton? It is the name the children have been hearing on thenews, and around the house. Subtly, DeLillo leaves open thequestion as to whether these children are haplessly or willfullyignorant. It is enough to know that they have their coping rituals,and the adults have theirs.
The 9/11 novel, if one must call it that, has been effective atdepicting the impact of the trauma on ordinary lives: marriagesrepaired or broken by the event, projects and plans sundered, livesrecalibrated, and the presence of a new, seeping anxiety. What ithas been unable so far to achieve, as this novel and John Updike'sTerrorist prove, is anything like the examination of thepsychological sources of resentment that Dostoevsky and Conradproduced. Updike's eighteen-year-old Muslim firebrand was entirelyincredible, nothing more than a scarecrow and scapegoat stuffedfull of obvious authorial research. In Falling Man, DeLillo devotestwo brief, misbegotten sections to the 9/11 plotters: we see themassembling in Hamburg, and then later in Florida. The writing is agood deal better than Updike's, but it lacks conviction, againbecause inquiry is not sustained but merely arranged. The chaptersare so short that they lack the space to become serious; they seemdropped into the novel. The book, one feels, should either haveomitted the terrorists altogether or trained its gaze centrally onthem, as DeLillo sustainedly pictured the impotence and resentmentof Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra. As it is done here, the fleetingimagining of radical evil seems shallow, and only adds to thegeneral impression of a book that is all limbs--many articulationsand joints, an artful map of connections, but finally no living,pulsing center.
By James Wood