In which Netty falls for DeLillo’s Man. No pun intended.

March 13, 2011

I imagine that everyone remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. Without doubt it’s a touchstone for our generation, much the same as previous generations who remember where they were for the declaration of V-day, the advent of television, the assassination of JFK, man landing on the moon, the death of Elvis Presley, the murder of John Lennon, the Challenger space shuttle crash, the collapse of the Berlin wall, the beginning of the (first) Iraq war, the death of Princess Diana …

Here’s my 9-11 tale (well, part of it, anyways). 10.40pm Tuesday night, September 11, 2001. AEST. I’m a journo, right? And it’s a pretty slow news night, really, as you’d expect for a Tuesday night in early September. Biggest story in town is Matthew Lloyd – the Bombers are on their way to the Grand Final, but Lloyd, their spearhead, is up at the tribunal; I can’t remember the charge, but the gist of the yarn is, is he going to be wiped out for the Big One? I worked in sport back in those days – we’d finished edition, we’re watching Talking Footy on Seven; they’re talking about Lloyd, and he’s our poster for the next day; we’re wrapped up for the night and looks like we’ll get a (slightly) early cut; one of our guys goes round the corner to the news desk to ask about our cabs home. He fair-dinkum sprints back to our section. “Turn over the channel,” he says – but Channel 7 is already going straight to a report out of the United States; a plane has crashed into one of the twin towers in New York City …

Well, you know the rest … And as for me, I got home around 6.30am, just before the fourth updated edition for the night hit the streets …

Don DeLillo has been on my – and Andy’s – radar for a while now. And yeah, maybe we should have tackled Underworld, but you know what? It’s a mother-fucker of a book (1000-ish pages), and yeah, we both like to read, but we’ve also got lives – you know, we’ve got to work, and sleep, and other stuff … So, instead, we chose Falling Man. I mean, yeah, it’s only a couple of hundred pages and it’s one of DeLillo’s more recent books – you’ve gotta start somewhere …

Falling Man was published in 2007 – six years after the towers came down. If you’re that way inclined, there’s a fair raft of fiction around that deals with that particular September morning in 2001. I’ve read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I would recommend in a heartbeat, and Nick McDonnell’s The Third Brother, which I probably wouldn’t. It’s the 10-year anniversary of that event this year, but it’s still – to me, anyway – like a wound that never really heals; you pick off the scab, and it starts to bleed all over again. And I’m saying this as someone who lives on the other side of the world; who didn’t know anyone involved in those attacks; who has no reason whatsoever to have any emotional attachment to those events; and yet … it’s still pretty raw to me, so I can only imagine what it must be like to people who lived through it.

Falling Man opens with Keith Neudecker, covered in soot, grime and blood, injured, but not seriously, carrying a briefcase, making his way through the city centre. A lawyer, he has escaped the destruction and collapse of the twin towers, and winds up on the doorstep of his ex-wife Lianne. The couple’s seven-year-old son Justin, whom they have sheltered from the news of the attacks, is nonetheless partially aware of what has happened  – he and two of his young friends isolate themselves from their parents to scour the skies with a pair of binoculars, looking for a man they know as Bill Lawton (whom they have misheard from Obama Bin Laden), fearing he will bring more destruction to their lives. Keith tracks down the owner of the briefcase he carried out of the towers; it belongs to a fellow survivor, Florence, and their connection results in a brief affair, even as Keith tries to rebuild his life with Lianne. She juggles the self-imposed demands of a group of Alzheimer’s sufferers with the ailing health of her mother Nina, and is increasingly annoyed by a neighbour in her apartment block who plays loud and – to her mind – “inappropriate” Arabic music.

Interspersed with the main narrative are several chapters relating the story of Hammad, an Arab who has undergone religious-based training in Germany and is now in the United States, undertaking flight instruction and quietly preparing for his destiny – which is to be part of the crew that pilots two commercial planes into the twin towers. That DeLillo gives these characters the names of the real-life terrorists makes these passages especially disquieting.

Several years pass after that fateful day, and Keith and Lianne have established some sort of quiet, desperate rapport on which to rebuild their marriage. Keith has abandoned law in favour of a career as a professional poker player and is often away from home, memorably crossing paths in Las Vegas with Terry Cheng, a member of his old group of poker pals, most of whom perished in the towers. Lianne’s beloved mother Nina has since died; her mother’s long-time lover Martin – who may or may not have been involved in some sort of terrorist activity himself in his youth – returns to Europe, and her Alzheimer’s group has splintered. A man whose post-9-11 performance art appals locals – and, in one elongated passage, Lianne – also passes away, from natural causes.

The book ends with Hammad aboard the plane that flies into the tower, which segues into Keith’s experience in, and subsequent escape from, the tower. There are not words that can do justice to this final chapter, a mere 10 pages long, which contains some of the most sparse, perfectly constructed and elegant prose I have ever read, and which also packs one helluva emotional punch without ever resorting to histrionics – much like the rest of this slim volume. God, this man can write. And presumably DeLillo – a New York born and bred native – has ties to this event above and beyond what someone such as myself can comprehend.  Which just makes this novel all the more astounding.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the NYC attacks. I hope I never again see anything like it in my lifetime, but then again the natural disasters that have abounded in its wake are horrific enough. When you think about it, it’s a pretty fucked-up world all around. So thank god (figuratively speaking, that is) that there are writers such as Don DeLillo around to try and make sense of it all. So, if you haven’t already done so, read Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud, and read Falling Man, and then read more DeLillo. We all owe it to ourselves. Andy and I don’t have a rating system per se on this blog, but I’m putting this one out there – right here, right now.

Five stars.


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