There is a strange, shifting air of congruence between Don DeLillo’s two most recent novels, Cosmopolis (2003) and Falling Man, the first seeming to call for or provoke the second. In fact, the second revokes the first, abruptly strands it in a forgotten time and mentality. The time of Cosmopolis is “the year 2000, a day in April,” and soon after that the days changed.
Falling Man, set in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, presents a situation no character in Cosmopolis could imagine, although, perversely, the protagonist of that novel would no doubt have loved to. He is Eric Packer, an immensely wealthy young money manager who lives in a fancy high-rise apartment with forty-eight rooms, a borzoi kennel, and a shark tank; makes reckless, erroneous financial predictions; and has always, we learn, “wanted to become quantum dust, transcending his body mass.” He gets his wish, setting out for a haircut and getting himself killed, but then he doesn’t die straightaway, and we are told that “his pain interfered with his immortality.” There’s always a downside. That’s what it’s like when you’re a hero of your time in 2000 and it seems that nothing short of the end of the world could meet your needs or ambition or ego. Then, in Falling Man, a version of the apocalypse arrives, and the landscape of this new novel in no way resembles the scene of Eric’s fears and fantasies. The very idea of the self has become something the financier would not recognize. Well, the world didn’t end in 2001 and doesn’t end in Falling Man. But a world ended in history, and the novel is about the world that remains, above all an America no longer protected by the assumption that all the violence that matters is homegrown—kids on the rampage, American psychos, presidential assassins, that kind of thing.
“It was not a street anymore but a world” are the opening words of Falling Man, introducing a character who has escaped from a collapsing tower and is now walking north, glass in his hair and face, another person’s blood all over him. “This was the world now,” the narrator says. And again, “The world was this as well.” The world is smoke and ash and also human figures dropping through space. In this novel, children stand at a window for hours, looking for more planes. They murmur a mysterious name, Bill Lawton, their domestication of the overheard “bin Laden.” A delayed postcard from Rome mentioning Shelley’s poem The Revolt of Islam looks like a prophecy. A woman hits another woman in her building for repeatedly playing music that sounds Arab to her, a terrible mark of insensitivity, she thinks. And the man walking out of the ruins heads home to his estranged wife, for no reason he or she can fathom. Everything might mean something; nothing much does. That is the world now.
A good portion of Falling Man appears in a recent issue of the New Yorker, under the title “Still-Life.” “Don DeLillo has a new novel,” the contributor’s note says; but it doesn’t say that an elegantly edited selection from that novel is precisely what’s before us in the magazine. The work reads very well as a story—it concentrates on the reunited couple, Keith and Lianne—and makes us wonder whether it is part of a longer version. What sort of novel could be shrunk in this way, and what happens when it grows to its full size again? One answer would be that even the longer version is spare and elliptical, less a narrative than a series of takes on a condition. Another would be that the filling out of the couple’s contexts does more than just fill them out. The novel depicts, as the story does not, Keith’s old working and poker-playing life; the distant suicide of Lianne’s father and the post-9/11 death of her mother; Keith’s brief affair, even after his return to his marriage, with a woman who also worked in the towers; Lianne’s “storyline sessions” with Alzheimer’s-disease patients in East Harlem; various sequences picturing New York three years after the attacks; and a return to the precise moment of Keith’s exit from the destroyed building. It also gives us assorted moments in the life of one of the hijackers. This all adds up to a portrait of a time rather than of just a baffled, rather stilted relationship; to a portrait of a world, even.
The novel’s structure contributes strongly to this portrait. The three parts are each represented by a name: Bill Lawton, Ernst Hechinger, David Janiak. We’ve seen who Bill Lawton is: a phantom Anglo twin of bin Laden, carrying the whiff of a suggestion that violence always does begin at home after all. Ernst Hechinger is a man now known as Martin Ridnour, the lover of Lianne’s mother and once a radical activist, perhaps a terrorist, in Germany and Italy. The implication is that Martin’s European past is somehow part of the American present, although, curiously, Lianne, who couldn’t bear the sound of Middle Eastern music, is perfectly friendly with Martin, even as she is leery of his old activities. The question here is not what’s rational, but what’s thinkable and what isn’t. And David Janiak is the name of the novel’s performance artist, also known as Falling Man, who, wearing an awkward but functional harness, throws himself from various structures in the city and hangs in the air, a living memento mori or, more precisely, since in spite of his name he is not falling, a material reminder that suspension and free fall are quite different things. DeLillo carefully directs us to the analogies in the tarot pack (Arcana XII, the Hanged Man) and in Richard Drew’s famous photograph of an employee of the Windows on the World restaurant dropping head first, one leg bent, down the face of one of the Twin Towers. “This picture,” Lianne thinks, “burned a hole in her mind and heart, dear God, he was a falling angel and his beauty was horrific.” But what do the analogies mean, and what is Janiak up to? “The man eluded her,” the narrator says of Lianne, who has seen Janiak in action more than once. He eludes us, too. But perhaps this is DeLillo’s point: variations on the unthinkable. You can’t fall in a photograph, can only stay at exactly the same frozen point; a fall in a harness is only a short fall; and a character in a novel can only refer to the reality of falling, or to anything else. Perhaps Janiak’s act, like the memories of Martin’s old activities, like the anglicization of “bin Laden,” is a glance at what we can never more than glance at. All three instances dramatize the defeat of the interpreting, analyzing mind.
Still, it is a real achievement to represent people trying to think what they can’t think, see what they can’t see, and Falling Man has a string of remarkable hits here, and a small run of misses. The hits are everything from the evocation of the day of September 11 itself, through Lianne’s erratic attempts to cope with what has happened to her city, and on to Keith’s compulsive plunge into the world of poker tournaments. The misses are the attempted evocations of the hijacker’s mind. “Forget the world. Be unmindful of the thing called the world. All of life’s lost time is over now. This is your long wish, to die with your brothers.” This is literature’s terrorist, talking like a novel. Compare this with the description of Keith in the poker room, trying to come to terms with his brush with death:
The money mattered but not so much. The game mattered,
the touch of felt beneath the hands, the way the dealer burnt
one card, dealt the next. He wasn’t playing for the money.
He was playing for the chips. . . . It was the disk itself that
mattered, the color itself. There was the laughing man at the
far end of the room. There was the fact that they would all be
dead one day. . . . The game mattered, the stacking of chips,
the eye count, the play and dance of hand and eye.
This is not literature’s poker player, and he thinks the way DeLillo writes at his best.
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.
Michael Wood teaches at Princeton University and is the author, most recently, of Literature and the Taste of Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 2005).