DeLillo takes on the horror of 9/11 and gets to the heart of the matter

May 20, 2007|By Sven Birkerts | Sven Birkerts,Special to the Baltimore Sun

Falling Man

By Don DeLillo

Scribner / 256 pages / $26

Every great disaster, even at a distance, intensifies our sense of mortality, filling our nostrils with what W.H. Auden called "the unmentionable odor of death." Stunned as we were by the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, we were also returned to a primal awareness: Old bets were canceled, new bets placed. Small surprise that so many novelists took up the challenge of representing the reconfigured present. In the short time since the disaster, John Updike, Claire Messud, Ian Mc- Ewan and several others have mobilized fictional premises around it.

Provocative and engaging as some of these narratives have been, most have used the calamity as a plot element - an unquestionably powerful way to affect the characters and their situations. More than a few readers, I suspect, have been waiting to see what deeper, more metaphysical interpretations might be coming. Waiting, in that sense, to hear from someone like Don DeLillo. Or from the man himself.

DeLillo is our great barometer, fascinated, from his earliest novels on, by the ominous present impinging on the future, by conspiracy, by collective angst. He brewed up an "airborne toxic event" in White Noise; in Libra, he reframed and redramatized the prelude to the Kennedy assassination. And, of course, he wrote Underworld (1997), his most ambitious synopsis of the big picture, a harrowing evocation of how our local world became global. Last year, a New York Times Book Review poll of writers and critics voted Underworld a runner-up, just behind Toni Morrison's Beloved, as the best novel of the past 25 years.

I have Underworld on my desk, and the cover gives me a shiver every time I glance at it. It features the Andre Kertesz photograph of the two World Trade Center towers rearing up and disappearing into a cloud. In the foreground, starkly embossed on their flat gray mass, is a church steeple, with its strong, simple cross. To the right, just beneath the cloud, is a bird with extended wings, looking unnervingly like an airplane on approach.

The cover of Falling Man, DeLillo's new novel, is a deliberate echo. It is the strangest visual antiphon you could imagine: nothing but lettering for the title and author, over a thick, fluffy cloud cover, shot from above. This skyscape wraps around to the back, where, protruding like wire prongs to some huge cosmic monitor, are the two towers.

Then and now. The beauty, the hubris, the terrible loss: What more is there to say? Obviously, much more. We have hardly begun assessing the consequences of Sept. 11. Indeed, given the long-burning fuse of major trauma, we may be only now ready to hear from DeLillo, who in this, his 14th novel, strikes against expectation in the most unsettling ways.

The expectation, of course, is that he will give free rein to his conspiratorial imagination, creating a big-canvas swirl of sects, secrets, technological choreographies. Instead, Falling Man is a gripping, haunting ensemble piece, much less about the public, historical event than about its psychological radiation through the lives of a single New York City family. It is DeLillo at his most bare-bones, asking, "How do we now live?"

The "we" in the immediate foreground consists of Keith Neudecker; his estranged wife, Lianne; and their young son, Justin. Smaller parts are taken by Nina, Lianne's mother, and the mother's lover, Martin; Keith's poker colleagues; and a woman named Florence, with whom he's briefly involved. There are also the performance artist who gives the book its title and, in several unintegrated but thematically essential interludes, a fundamentalist terrorist named Hammad.

The narrative is mainly linear, tracking events in the lives of these characters in the days, weeks and months following the disaster. At the book's end, however, DeLillo bends his narrative line into a circle in an assertion of authorial fiat. Having opened in the midst of the chaos ("It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night"), he moves to a close in the same place.

"All plots tend to move deathward," wrote DeLillo in White Noise. Maybe that helps explain his spare, unplotted schema, for the tragedy has already taken place. What we get is almost all "afterward," a novel full of the sensation of terrifying forces thrust inward and capped.

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