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Survivors of 9/11 struggle to live in a changed world.
Survivors of 9/11 struggle to live in a changed world.

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, May 13, 2007

FALLING MAN

By Don DeLillo

Scribner. 246 pp. $26

Nobody bothered to think about it at the time, but from the moment the first airplane hit the World Trade Center in September 2001, one thing was inevitable: Don DeLillo would write a novel about it. DeLillo, as has been noted before in this space, is the novelist as op-ed pundit, a '60s recidivist who simply cannot resist the temptation to turn his novels into lectures or, upon occasion, harangues. So, of course, DeLillo simply had to write about Sept. 11, even though -- as the results all too clearly demonstrate -- he has nothing original or interesting to say about it.

Students of DeLillo's work (and university English departments are full of them) are going to be surprised by Falling Man and not, I suspect, happily. In the past, however gratuitous or disagreeable the political opinions with which his novels were larded, the clarity and sinew of his prose always had to be acknowledged and respected. At his most confident and accomplished, DeLillo can write. But Sept. 11 seems to have paralyzed him stylistically. The prose here often reads as if it were an entry in the annual Bad Hemingway competition, or perhaps a parody of Joan Didion at her most strained and breathy:

" 'What's next? Don't you ask yourself? Not only next month. Years to come.'

" 'Nothing is next. There is no next. This was next. Eight years ago they planted a bomb in one of the towers. Nobody said what's next. This was next. The time to be afraid is when there's no reason to be afraid. Too late now.'

"Lianne stood by the window.

" 'But when the towers fell.'

" 'I know.'

" 'When this happened.'

" 'I know.'

" 'I thought he was dead.'

" 'So did I,' Nina said. 'So many watching.'

" 'Thinking he's dead, she's dead.'

" 'I know.'

" 'Watching those buildings fall.'

" 'First one, then the other. I know,'

her mother said."

Precisely what DeLillo means this gibberish to signify is a complete mystery. Near-speechlessness in the face of incomprehensible calamity? Profundity so deep that only monosyllables can express it? Who knows? What is certain, though, is that people simply don't talk that way. Obviously, a writer of fiction is free to have his characters talk in any old way he likes, but if they end up babbling like caricatures, they forfeit all claim on the reader's credulity. If this were satire, it might work, but it isn't. It's the exact opposite: DeLillo is dead serious, solemn to the max.

Okay. The "he" to whom Lianne and her mother refer is Keith Neudecker. He is in his late 30s, and he was in the first tower when it was struck. He managed to get out and to stumble to Lianne's apartment on the Upper West Side. They had been separated for months, but instinct guided him back to her and their young son, Justin. Keith was injured (a torn cartilage in his left arm) and dazed, but sentient. He wanted human contact and so did she, and now that's what they have.

He also has a briefcase, "smaller than normal and reddish brown with brass hardware." He took it away from the World Trade Center, but it isn't his. Among the items inside are a "wallet with money, credit cards and a driver's license." He gets the owner's number and calls her, so he can return everything. Her name is Florence Givens. She is "a light-skinned black woman, his age or close, and gentle-seeming, and on the heavy side." They start to talk, and they like each other. Later he returns to her apartment:

"There was music coming from a back room, something classical and familiar but he didn't know the name of the piece or the composer. He never knew these things. They drank tea and talked. She talked about the tower, going over it again, claustrophobically, the smoke, the fold of bodies, and he understood that they could talk about these things only with each other, in minute and dullest detail, but it would never be dull or too detailed because it was inside them now and because he needed to hear what he'd lost in the tracings of memory. This was their pitch of delirium, the dazed reality they'd shared in the stairwells, the deep shafts of spiraling men and women."

Of course they end up in bed together -- from the minute Keith first walks through Florence's door, the reader knows they're going to end up in bed -- because, naturally, human contact is needed here, too. Their affair doesn't last long, and it ends with regret and mutual respect, but it's meant to be the connection Keith makes with what happened in the tower, a connection that Lianne cannot give him for the obvious reason that she wasn't there.

At one point in Falling Man, DeLillo writes: "They were still talking ten minutes later when Lianne left the room. She stood in the bathroom looking in the mirror. The moment seemed false to her, a scene in a movie when a character tries to understand what is going on in her life by looking in the mirror." Well, unfortunately most moments in this novel seem false to me. None of the characters ever emerges from cardboard wrapping, and none of the emotions DeLillo tries to arouse feels earned. He's letting the shock of Sept. 11 do his work for him, supplying the passions that his own surprisingly limp and lifeless prose cannot.

Apart from the three members of Keith's little family and Florence, there are a few other characters: Lianne's mother, Nina, and Nina's lover, Martin, a mysterious European who supplies the hint of darker things without which a DeLillo novel would not be a DeLillo novel; the men with whom Keith played poker in his bachelor apartment before the towers fell; playmates of Justin's with whom the boy speculates about a man called Bill Lawton, i.e., Bin Laden; older men and women, teetering toward Alzheimer's, who participate in "storyline sessions" that Lianne monitors; and a performance artist known as Falling Man. Lianne sees him near Grand Central Station:

"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. . . . He brought it back, of course, those stark moments in the burning towers when people fell or were forced to jump. . . . Traffic was barely moving now. There were people shouting up at him, outraged at the spectacle, the puppetry of human desperation, a body's last fleet breath and what it held. It held the gaze of the world, she thought. There was the awful openness of it, something we'd not seen, the single falling figure that trails a collective dread, body come down among us all."

Sorry, but that doesn't work. Once again, DeLillo is merely piggybacking on Sept. 11, counting on those vivid images cemented in our memories to give this novel the force he's unable to instill in it himself. In the past, DeLillo has been a notably chilly writer, clinical rather than compassionate toward his characters, more interested in what he wants them to stand for than who they are. Here he's obviously trying to invest them with more human qualities, and he gets points for the effort, but he can't pull it off. The only emotions in this novel come from outside, from pictures on television, and that's not good enough.

Presumably this won't bother DeLillo's many admirers, and perhaps they will be able to find virtues in Falling Man that have eluded me. Fine. But this novel never pulls the reader in, never engages the reader with the minds, hearts and lives of its characters, never manages to be what readers most want from fiction: a story with which they can connect. "Learn something from the event," Martin tells Lianne, and that's not bad advice. But there's nothing to be learned from Falling Man about September 2001 -- or about anything else -- that you don't already know. ยท

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.

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