Delillo’s most recent and ominously titled novel tackles the aftermath of September 11th by giving us the story of two New Yorkers – Keith and Lianne. We meet Keith on the horrifying day itself as he slogs, dazed and stunned and holding someone else’s briefcase, away from the rubble and toward Lianne, his almost ex-wife, whom we are told he has been separated from for over a year. Lianne, who we learn later had watched the towers fall believing Keith was inside, believing he was dead, lets him in and slowly these two bewildered individuals find themselves a family again.
Bewildered, stunned, shocked, numb…these are the predominant flavors of Delillo’s exquisitely-written feast. Both Lianne and Keith seem to move through a foggy haze. There are moments that they lose control, like when Lianne finds herself attacking a neighbor woman for playing music too loud in their building, but that stronger emotion is swallowed up by the whale of her own shock. And again for Keith, who gets in a fight in a department store, he seems to experience this loss of control as a curious and misplaced moment in his day, a fluke. Although this myriad of astonishment and numbness seems to ring true, psychologically speaking, following this kind of traumatic event, it did create a wall between me as the reader and the novel’s characters. Neither Lianne nor Keith, despite the carefulness of Delillo’s description and the thoughtfully attended subject matter, managed to create a ripple on my reservoir of sympathy. Their stunned bearing kept them watching their own lives from a distance and therefore, held me behind the same restraining wall.
On the day the novel opens, the twin towers are no longer a part of the New York City skyline but their ghost looms over the entire novel with a lurking shadow and Delillo parallels this metaphorical reality in several places: Lianne’s father’s years-before suicide, the children hunting the skies for planes and believing that the already fallen towers will fall again, and even the sporadic attention paid to Keith’s missing friends. It’s extremely well-done, this idea that something missing can take up more space in its absence and just one example of the many questions that Delillo poses in Falling Man.
Despite the more personal nature of this novel, Delillo is still exceptionally good at turning a microscopic lens on America in a general sense, at its nuances, its eccentricities and emotions and Falling Man is no exception. His characters may remain enmeshed inside their own personal story but they externalize more global fears and opinions:
But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it? Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction? You build a thing like that so you can see it come down. The provocation is obvious. What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice? It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice? You are saying, Here it is, bring it down.
There is quite a lot packed inside this novel, a lot of questions and a lot of ideas in only 246 pages. In one sense it presents just one single road inside September 11th, only one example of an individual’s reaction to the trauma and damage of that day. But at the same time, Keith and Lianne’s couple offers the dual perspectives of survivor and spectator and Delillo works these distinctions very well.
Among other literary explorations of America’s response to September 11th as a defining moment, Falling Man stands out as careful and specific, as honest but still kind, and most of all, as an attentive work of art.