Falling Man – Andy can’t quite believe it’s nearly 10 years since the towers came down

March 8, 2011

Don DeLillo’s one of those writers I know I should’ve read years ago. He’s pretty much what this Challenge is about. Of course the fact that THE DeLillo book we probably should read is Underworld, which is like fifty thousand million pages long, isn’t the sort of encouragement you need to delve into someone’s oeuvre. That said, next time I see a secondhand copy of Underworld for under ten bucks I may just pick it up.

Falling Man is, I think, the first 9/11 novel I’ve read (apparently, disturbingly, it’s almost a sort of genre). The falling man of the title is a reference to a famous and still distressing photograph (I’ve just googled it, looked at a dozen or so crops of it. There’s not just the one photo, either, there are at least three photos of people falling from the towers – presumably different people. Nearly ten years on they are still upsetting). The falling man of the title is also a reference to a man who, in the novel, in the days after the towers come down, makes a performance piece of that famous photo – harnesses himself up in busy public areas and recreates the pose of the falling man. Netty’s done the research and can find no suggestion that such performances actually occured post-9/11; she and I are not surprised. In the book his efforts earn him scorn, anger, outrage, disgust; in New York 10 years ago he’d have been lynched, for sure.

One of the crits in my edition berates those who find DeLillo a “cold”, “detached”, “cerebral” writer. It seems strange to me to criticise people for thinking that about his writing because he is, very definitely, a cold, detached, cerebral writer. That he can be those things and still move his readers is indicative of his talent. Given his concerns in Falling Man it would be difficult for him not to be cold and detached. While the book is, to some extent, concerned with the socio-political elements of the attack to a large extent DeLillo is more interested in exploring the impact of this earth-shattering event on the lives of the Little People. The attacks force an estranged family back together; that family, over a period of days in the novel’s first two parts and then years in its concluding chapters, once again disintegrates, its demise the result of the attacks that originally brought it back together. I’m not sure that a writer could be anything but cold and detached to depict a family’s dissolution, especially under these circumstances. DeLillo’s depiction of Lianne and Keith and Justin is clinical and yet also emotionally involving; we care about these people, we care about what is happening around them. And his depiction of the dissociation that occurs is itself cold and detached – “restrained” might be a better word. Justin, Lianne and Keith’s son, is a focus of their attention in the days after the attacks; in later pages he is more often than not referred to as “the kid”. Keith becomes more interested in his gambling, Lianne in her literary translations and her Alzheimer’s therapy group. Justin, their son, fades disturbingly into the background.

The gambling motif is interesting. On a basic level I guess it’s a reference to Keith’s luck in surviving – he was in one of the towers when the planes hit, he survived, his friend didn’t. But since finishing Falling Man I’ve read Between a Rock and a Hard Place, the book by Aron Ralston on which the movie 127 Hours is based. Ralston makes reference to a gambling term I wasn’t familiar with, “deep play”. Deep play refers to wagers  where the value of what you may lose vastly outweighs what you may win. Ralston’s talking about hiking, skiing, mountain climbing, specifically doing those things solo – where what you may win is an adrenalin rush and a sense of achievement; a foot wrong may cost you your life. I’m not sure that deep play is a concept that can be applied to Falling Man, although Keith has clearly chosen to abandon his family for the sake of the occasional win at the poker table, and the men who fly the planes into the towers (who feature in only three chapters) have clearly chosen to abandon life for the sake of an eternal reward they will never receive.

Martin is an intriguing minor character in the book. Lianne’s mum’s boyfriend (estranged, like so many others, by the end of the book) is an art dealer with a shady background. Possibly involved in the Baader-Meinhof gangs in Germany, possibly the Red Brigades in Italy, Martin despises the West – most especially the US – and has scant sympathy for the nation in the wake of 9/11. When I re-read Falling Man – and I will, probably in the not-too-distant future – I will pay more attention to Martin. I will pay more attention to a lot of things. Falling Man is a deceptively straightforward read. There are clouds of the cover; there’s a lot going on under those clouds.

Perhaps, on re-reading, I will pick up on some socio-political commentary that I missed first time round. Or maybe not. That doesn’t seem to be DeLillo’s primary focus. Still, it is galling to think that fewer than 3000 people died in the towers – a horrific total to be sure, but dwarfed by the number of people slaughtered by the American military or those funded by the United States in the 10 years since the attacks (and that’s not even taking into account the millions murdered under similar circumstances in the decades before). The image of the novel’s final two sentences in magnificent, haunting, beautiful, heartbreaking. A significant proportion of the world’s population don’t have time to appreciate magnificent, haunting, beautiful, heartbreaking literature. They’re too busy trying to dodge the bullets sold to their governments by the US of A.

OK. I’m off my high horse now. Need wine.

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