Posts Tagged ‘Falling Man’

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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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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.