Falling Man is not only a study in grief, but an elegy to a grieving city. While earlier, roving works like Underworld (1997) sought to capture ‘the whole picture, the whole culture’, Following on from the disappointing Cosmopolis (2003), a novel lacking heart and gravity, Falling Man is slight and tenderly hushed into being. The set-pieces are there. The parallels of art and atrocity, coolly precise. But there is crystalline shock. Deeply bruised. A mood of sadness, of morbid recollection. Falling Man is DeLillo writing with his guard down, walking headlong into brutal combinations of grief and loss.
The opening is harrowingly real, hauntingly human:
It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and a space of falling ash and near light. He was walking through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him.
Falling Man begins with the fall of the Twin Towers. A crippling event. Keith Neudecker walks among the shocked bystanders and rising smoke of burning rubble. He has forgotten himself. The plot – if a story so slight can be called a plot – follows Keith’s return to domesticity with his estranged wife Lianne and soon begins an affair with Florence, a fellow survivor of the attacks. Her mother, Nina, is in a relationship with an art dealer, Martin, who may or may not have been part of a Baader-Meinhof like gang. He takes an anarchistic view of terrorist violence as rebellion against Western imperialism:
Don’t you see what you’re denying? You’re denying all human grievance against others, every force of history places people in conflict.
His partner, New York intellectual Nina, believes religious fanaticism and masculinity are root causes:
[It’s] the thing that happens among men, the blood that happens when an idea begins to travel, whatever’s behind it, whatever blind force or violent need.
Novelists are unfairly criticised for creating exchanges like these. It can be a cheap attempt to add gravitas and exposition, but it can add perspective and reach to a story. Do we deny there are people who talk like this? What else do intellectuals do all day? Why should characters in novels not talk about the big issues? It can be clunky, graceless. But these conversations so often are. The exchange sets the intellectual tenor since the attacks and the subsequent War on Terror. The truth of fiction gets deeper. Picking up the human urges, the irrational reflexes, the struggle for breath. The terrorist’s urge for mass murder and self-immolation.
DeLillo, himself a proud New Yorker, brought up by Italian immigrants in the Bronx, has brought his full person to the project of the novel. Maybe Falling Man is a modest apology to the philosophical bravado of those earlier works? He feels the shock of terror. The world flash of a coming future. The gutting of American self-confidence and grief as civilians burned, or fell to their deaths.
The writing, stark and anaemic, lacks the seminal force of earlier works. The doom mongering and prescient, clear-sighted vision. Falling Man is not a vision. DeLillo’s intention is to console, to understand. This approach is largely successful as the story follows its group of New Yorkers, each of them coping in different ways, struggling to cope with sudden loss. They seek meaning in different ways. Martin theorises. Keith resorts to gambling. Lianne tries to find sense anywhere and everywhere.
Falling Man refers to a photograph taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew. It depicts a man leaping to his death from the Twin Towers, his arms by his side and his head piledriving perilously deathward. In Falling Man a performance artist has taken it upon himself to mimic the ghostly image with a harness in many public settings across New York City. It’s a unsettling symbol, genuinely haunting: the artist eventually falls to his own death. The Falling Man can only parody the horror of the attacks, the expression of violence. The attacks on the Twin Towers define America in its response to the attacks, to its zeal for the war on terror, for its assault on its own liberties. And DeLillo himself seems to acknowledge the powerlessness of art to shape or transform:
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, a body come down amongst us all. And now, she thought, this little theatre piece, disturbing enough to stop traffic and send her back into the terminal.
The Falling Man simply stops a few cars and earns an overlooked obituary in the papers. This is art in an age of mass-media, of the imminence of twenty-four hour news and crackpot terrorists affecting the movement of crowds, the awareness of individuals.
A decade after the September 11 Attacks, US forces have killed Osama Bin Laden. This may offer closure to the victims at 9/11, a symbolic act of vengeance. In death, Osama Bin Laden’s face will last, a simulacra, reproduced like a Warhol print while a nexus of maddrasses are still in place and Al-Qaeda operatives at large, Falling Man remains a heartfelt and poignant work, bravely understated, a candle-glow of hope in fearful times.