Monday, June 25, 2007


Falling Man is Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel. In most cases, I'm skeptical of novels that treat of real-life events, particularly real-life events that happened less than ten years ago. Fiction is about time, particularly where historical events are concerned. Otherwise we're dealing with something closer to a kind of low-watt creative non-fiction -- and who needs that? In other words, whatever it is fiction can bring to something that actually occurred it brings it through its power of reimagining what is no longer current, another time and place, some angle that the journalists missed because all they have is facts, which is never the story that anyone lives.

But, more than any novelist I can think of, I trust DeLillo to do a credible job in fictionalizing such events, and the world we live in generally. After all, look what he did with the story of Lee Harvey Oswald (albeit twenty-five years after the JFK assassination) in Libra (1988), and think of the kind of clarity he was able to bring to the contemporary world in White Noise (1985) and Mao II (1991). He's also the only novelist who rose to the challenge of giving us a novel, Underworld (1997), that addressed the end of the twentieth century, a kind of fictional summation of life in the Cold War.

In the twenty-first century, his novels have been short and very controlled, even more than before. Compressed. No wasted motion, no excess. The odd thing about a 9/11 DeLillo novel is that the situation, though we all know what it is at once, could have been a DeLillo invention (e.g., the Mao II terrorists cause White Noise's "airborne toxic event"). It's as if he could've written a novel about an event like the World Trade disaster even if such a thing had never happened. But it did happen, and DeLillo is probably the best possible novelist to capture the shocked loss of affect in the aftermath. Because his novels seem to dwell now in a world of lost affect any way. From The Names (1982) to Underworld, DeLillo was on a rise, with each novel making some new discovery about what his prose could show us. Now it's as if the heroic phase is over, and it's gotten very late.

It's a peculiar quality of DeLillo's fiction, that it is so driven by our contemporary world. Look at the author's photograph on the flyleaf. That stricken, searching look. It reads back to us the cost that, as a writer, this fiction extracts from him. As if to say, this is the world you make me write about. No other novelist gives a similar sense that what they write about is to some degree "dictated" by the times they are living through. DeLillo chooses of course the situations and the characters -- that Keith should be a poker player, that his wife's mother's lover should be a German art dealer, that a performance artist -- known as Falling Man -- should be a secondary character (observed, never met). But with DeLillo there is a nagging sense that the mode of depiction is the way it has to be. It's not a restricted palette, it's the only colors available. It's us, not him, that's doing this.

I have a similar feeling reading good Fitzgerald or Hemingway -- the sense that the characters and scenes depicted can only be made accessible, could only understand themselves, in the terms given by the author. It's not that New Yorkers post-9/11 -- or any of the rest of us -- live wholly or solely with the kind of tone DeLillo creates, but something -- some aura -- in the well-chosen certainty of what he gives us speaks with the sense that there's no more to be said. It's eerie and numbing and suggestive and convincing, even if the story itself has no great insights to bring. In fact what seems to be missing -- even more so than in The Body Artist (2001) and Cosmopolis (2003) -- is the wicked humor in how DeLillo generally employs language and delineates his characters' obsessions. In Falling Man, DeLillo's narrative is even more "detached" than usual -- it's detached even from itself. Pervading the novel is a sense that no one is enjoying this, or much of anything, any more.

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