This page lists various mentions of Falling Man, a 2007 novel by Don DeLillo, including reviews, interviews, etc.
One of the great pleasures of reading DeLillo, however, can be found in his enchantment with language itself. The writer attends not only to the sound of language - alliteration and the like - but also to how language looks on the page. On the first page of Falling Man we can find examples of this interest. Referring to the glass in Keith's hair and face, the narrator mentions "marbled bolls of blood and light." A short phrase, but remarkable for the way it delights in the sight and sound of a few repeated letters.
IN THE PICTURE, he departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear intimidated by gravity's divine suction or by what awaits him. His arms are by his side, only slightly outriggered. His left leg is bent at the knee, almost casually. His white shirt, or jacket, or frock, is billowing free of his black pants. His black high-tops are still on his feet.
Junod wrote a review of Falling Man for the May, 2007 Esquire, "The Man Who Invented 9/11";
And so what I asked of DeLillo's Falling Man was not that it be inventive, but that it be commensurate -- commensurate to all the falling men, and the falling women, and their agony; commensurate, at the very least, to the capsule profiles that people forced themselves to read day after day, five years ago. And it's not. It's a portrait of grief, to be sure, but it puts grief in the air, as a cultural atmospheric, without giving us anything to mourn.
DeLillo the novelist prepared us for September 11, but he did not prepare himself for how such an episode might, in the way of denouements, instantly fly beyond the reach of his own powers. In a moment, the reality of the occasion seems to have burst the ripeness of his style, and he truly struggles in this book to say anything that doesn't sound in a small way like a warning that comes too late. Reading Falling Man, one feels that September 11 is an event that is suddenly far ahead of him, far beyond what he knows, and so an air of tentative rehearsal resounds in an empty hall. What is a prophet once his fiery word becomes deed? What does he have to say? What is left of the paranoid style when all its suspicions come true?
Falling Man is about shock, about avoidance strategies, about life in the ruins of an old world. It is also about art at the end of its capacity to talk to us, and all its brilliant paragraphs become vivid variants on the phrase "This was the world now." If the result feels a little enclosed, it is because DeLillo can't tell us as much as he plainly wants to about worlds that were not ruined in 2001 and worlds that have been ruined since.
Obviously, we can read DeLillo backward, as if his detective novels, science fictions, road shows, espionage thrillers, academic hanky-pankies and hockey porn were warming up for Falling Man--a novel that reminds us of how we really felt before we were bushwhacked; of our fugue state on that election day, in the endless nightmare feedback loop of jet plane, firebomb, towers falling, another in a long line of cheesy Hollywood films in which the crystal palace of Manhattan is destroyed by comets, plagues, apes, aliens, insects, androids, hydrogen bombs, tidal waves or toxic waste. Yet on the strange parenthetical streets outside, silent but for sirens Tuesday night and Wednesday, in the compulsive cluster of people on the streets walking to air the mind, there was behind the eyes a kind of inner Beirut, the rubble left behind by the kamikazes of Kingdom Come. If the contemptuous purpose of terrorism is to dominate and humiliate, to turn citizens into lab rats and cities into mazes, then Al Qaeda did not succeed. But we certainly couldn't say that the bombs had scattered seeds of anything savory or uplifting. We really needed time to think. Unfortunately, the event was hijacked immediately by putschniks.
DeLillo returns us to that parenthesis.
But DeLillo is not being cute. His ersatz Falling Man is just a warm-up act for the novel's depiction of the actual men and women jumping and falling to their deaths. As Keith tries to move forward - enlisting in the pro poker circuit in half-articulated solidarity with a poker buddy who didn't survive - the past keeps coming back to claim him. Lazarus cannot rise until he fully remembers his fall into the underworld. Keith must descend back into the hell of 9/11 if DeLillo is to provide the counternarrative to terrorism he promised, the story that takes us beyond the hard, anonymous numbers of the dead to retrieve what he called in Harper's "human beauty in the crush of meshed steel."
There are some who will say it is too soon to write about this awful turn in American - in Western - history. I do not think so. And obviously DeLillo doesn't, either. What he faces, of course, is the expectation that he manage to set 9/11 into some kind of usable perspective; that is, that he find a way to arrive at the full meaning of the tragedy, that he explain it to us, no less. But DeLillo's honesty is so searing that, in fact, he doesn't find any meaning in the individual experience, either. The personal cost is only and always just that - personal.
In fact the faults in DeLillo's work are so obvious and central that they're actually not faults at all: They're the whole point. In the same way that Lindbergh loaded The Spirit of St. Louis with extra fuel at the expense of safety and reliable steering, DeLillo has deliberately handicapped his books to allow them to cover territory that traditional realism could never possibly approach. For DeLillo, it would be redundant, even immoral, to produce highly structured plots in a culture that generates endless plots on its own and then folds us into them without our consent (cf. the War on Terror)-so instead he writes plotless novels about plots, in which secret narratives (terror, assassination, the illegal distribution of psychotropic drugs) run with frightening momentum behind a foreground in which everyone tries, plotlessly, to digest or thwart or avoid or ignore or deal with the consequences.
Falling Man ends in a quiet and masterful crescendo, a lamentation for the dead on 9/11 but also for the living, and therefore proof that time outlasts every ending. The novel has the intelligence of DeLillo's White Noise and a few of the grace notes of "Underworld," though its haunting sparsity belongs to it alone. And DeLillo has done something wrenching and exquisite that few writers could do: He has evoked a moment of immeasurable dimension in three words. "Bright day gone."
Students of DeLillo's work (and university English departments are full of them) are going to be surprised by Falling Man and not, I suspect, happily. In the past, however gratuitous or disagreeable the political opinions with which his novels were larded, the clarity and sinew of his prose always had to be acknowledged and respected. At his most confident and accomplished, DeLillo can write. But Sept. 11 seems to have paralyzed him stylistically.
DeLillo's title has echoes of Saul Bellow's early, rather existentialist novel The Dangling Man, but it also connects with a series of photographs taken that September day. There is also a falling man in the novel, a performance artist who dangles from a wire in a business suit (concealing a safety harness) in various parts of the city.
The man's story, as it finally emerges, is far more interesting, a genuine case of repetition compulsion with a sacrificial aspect, a sort of suicide in instalments, since the safety harness was rudimentary and the jumps physically damaging. This would be a more striking basis for a novel - both more and less obviously symbolic - than what we are offered.
Falling Man is a mean, cramped, irresolute novel. It's all the more astonishing because he's been so good on such things before: this is the writer who, in 1991, darkly anticipated the present glut of 9/11 fiction by having the protagonist of Mao II amiably explain to a friend: "What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous." This book attempts a tacit riposte to that sinister pronouncement, and it fails.
Falling Man, on the other hand, provides a context that only moves and engages us because our thoughts wander, away from the book itself, to our own memories of that ghastly day, and what we did, and how we felt. For that reason, I predict great cries of praise for this novel, as critics and readers mistake their own emotional stories for the text of the novel. Falling Man will be called a good book. It is not a good book. It brings it back, of course, those stark moments in the burning towers when people fell or were forced to jump, but that is not a good book. It is a spectacle, a book that dangles itself in front of us, offering nothing but our own outrage to support its puppetry of human desperation.
DeLillo's prose has always had the quality of seeming stunned by the world, vitrified into shards of glassy perfection by the sheer force of light bouncing off people and things. A style often taken as deliberately remote or studiedly cool, it seems almost the opposite, a function of exquisite sensitivity. But can one still be sensitive to small things when such a big thing has happened?
Certainly it's unfair for the reader to expect any work of fiction about 9/11 to come close to the visionary scope and depth of Mr. DeLillo's masterpiece Underworld, which so brilliantly captured the American experience of the cold war era: not enough time has passed for any novelist to put the events of that day and its shuddering consequences into historical perspective; perhaps not even enough time has passed for any novelist to grapple convincingly with those actual events, without being eclipsed by the documentary testimony (from newspaper articles, television footage and still photographs) still freshly seared in readers' minds. And yet even within these parameters of reduced expectations, Falling Man feels small and unsatisfying and inadequate.
The magnetic effect of plot is a subject Mr. DeLillo knows well. In Libra, he wrote: "There is a tendency of plots to move toward death." In Falling Man, the terrorist plot accelerates the gravitational pull of death, an implacable force that snares us all willy-nilly. The new novel is about falling-falling through space, through time, through memory, being tugged down or forward or back-and about how some of us try to slow or speed the motion.
Mr. DeLillo's aim in Falling Man is almost that of a lyric poet - not so much to tell a story as to evoke a state of mind. What we learn about Keith and Lianne, and their families, friends, and neighbors, is kept to a deliberate minimum. We know them less as people with histories than as psychic litmus strips, dipped into the poison of September 11 and brought out blanched with dread.
Despite all this, Falling Man is not the book you imagined that DeLillo might write about the event that began the 21st century. All his writing has appeared almost a preparation for the particular imaginative effort of getting into the mind of a suicidal jihadist (in the way that John Updike recently attempted, not successfully, in Terrorist), but he stops short. The martyrs have only a bit part in this story, and a faintly caricatured one at that (perhaps fundamentalists are so sensitive to cartoons because they always seem so cartoonish). Instead, DeLillo offers a more conventional, if dislocated love story between survivors.
Exquisitely written sentence by sentence, perfectly constructed and infused with a harrowing momentum that never relaxes its grip on the reader's nerves, this is arguably the crowning work of DeLillo's estimable career: a compassionate and despairing dramatization of current events that shows how inextricably the political and the personal worlds are fatefully entwined. You'll scarcely be able to draw a breath throughout its lucid, overpowering climactic pages.
Full review is here.
February 23, 2007:
I've gotten a few positive notices about Falling Man. Here's one from a Maria Campbell, a reviewer in the trade:
The book is a meditation through time, following a family as they attempt to right themselves in the few years after 9/11. The book represents an important articulation of the current American state of mind, giving narrative form to the process of dealing with our doubts, our fears, and the idea of existing in a new, shifting world. DeLillo takes on all the big questions and brilliantly reflects the personal process that his characters struggle through as a document and testament to the current moment in American history.
She calls the book a 'tour de force.' The full entry is at this link; look for the entry on January 9, 2007.
November 12, 2006. Three links indicate that Falling Man is the title of DeLillo's next novel.
German Amazon listing (thanks to Florian!)
Simon & Schuster listing.
Mentioned on Frank Heibert's page. Heibert has translated DeLillo into German; see if you can find the mention!