Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Review: Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

With full awareness of the tackiness of this statement, I find "Falling Man" lands flat as a pancake.

Though we've had millions of words, pictures, blogs, movies and other media address the Sept.11 disaster, we haven't had much in the way of novels yet.

And maybe we still need some distance because Dom DeLillo doesn't quite do it here. Maybe he tried to be too clever: after all, the photo that so frightened and disturbed so many, the picture that provoked outrage when newspapers ran it, showed a man falling from the North Tower, dressed in his business clothes, seeming so ordinary, so unperturbed as he plunges head first to his death.

To choose to name his novel and build a character around the name by which that photo is best known may just be too clever by half and set up unreachable expectations for the story the novel tells even as it gets off to a decent start by describing the walk through the streets to escape the disaster.

The book tries to pull together a series of disjointed stories of that day and its aftermath, starting with Keith Neudecker, a tower survivor who, covered in blood and the whitish gray ashes of the tower's collapse, arrives at his estranged wife's apartment. He is carrying a stranger's briefcase, though he doesn't know how he obtained it. He is welcomed there, with the only question being why he turned up at her Upper East Side residence instead of somewhere else. He proceeds to recover

Perhaps we expect more of survivors, or at least their portrayal, given their heroic image. (Remember? No one was unkind that day, no one pushed others to their deaths so that they could survive, everyone was brave. Remember what we read, what we were told?)

Neudecker soon takes up in a meaningless affair with Florence, the owner of the briefcase, who also worked in the same tower, though they hadn’t known each other before the disaster.

I don’t doubt that there are walking wounded left from those days, people who experienced first hand the horror of seeing others die ugly deaths and barely escaping. In fact, I know a couple of them, people who have walked away from the fire department, for example, in total despair. There have been divorces, at least one suicide, deaths attributed to the filthy air during the cleanup and children born to fathers never known. So certainly there’s room for a character in a novel like this who is unable to reconnect with life, who is destined to drift through life without purpose, having lost that day whatever had driven them.

But this book, oh, this book doesn’t do what it could. As Neudecker gives up whatever he has left and moves on to a purposeless life playing cards in Las Vegas, we can’t help but remember that he was already living a limited life, a soon-to-be-divorced man in a virtually empty apartment. Even the card playing is a carryover but a meaningless one beyond the fact that two of the original players were killed in the towers.

There are some children, including Neudecker's, who try to make themselves safe by watching the skies for “Bill Lawton,” the misheard name they believe to be threatening. Names and other people pop up, only to drift away. But there are no people, before or after, who seem to connect with him or he with them.

And so the Falling Man, besides being a tacky recurring character who re-creates the fall using a harness, is whom? Surely not Neudecker; he’s more the Fallen Man but why, how, we don’t know and, for sure, we’re not convinced we should. And we certainly could have done without Harness Guy, who, as best I can tell, adds nothing.

No comments: