Sunday, November 23, 2008

Don DeLillo's "Falling Man": Book Review.

This post-9/11 novel features DeLillo's detached, reflective perspective. The prose, while at times moving and well-crafted, retains its distance from trauma. This may mirror the shock of Keith, an executive in the Twin Towers who escapes, and his estranged wife Lianne's own complicated emotions when she finds him, a victim of "organic shrapnel," at her doorstep where he's staggered post-blast. Yet, I rarely felt drawn in to the pain of their revived relationship, nor did their son Justin's own reaction, or that of Lianne's mother or her lover keep me immersed in their responses to that memorable day and its aftermath.

However, Lianne's mother, Nina, and her enigmatic German paramour Martin do engage in spirited debate about the role that God played on 9/11. Both the perpetrators and their victims called out His name in their last moments. DeLillo's at his strongest when he considers the role that faith plays in Lianne and Nina's lives, or its lack. Nina rails: "God used to be an urban Jew. He's back in the desert now." (46) Martin ripostes: "One side has the capital, the labor, the technology, the armies, the agencies, the cities, the laws, the police and the prisons. The other side has a few men willing to die." (46-47) Whether its a social revolt or a fundamentalist surge charges Martin and Nina's conversations with an energy often lacking otherwise in these pages.

Hammid, a German-educated hijacker, one of the nineteen, earns his own small role, yet these chapters do not flesh out his character much. I compare this with the attempt of a similar work (also reviewed by me on Amazon US and this blog), John Updike's "Terrorist," to delve into the mind of a Western-schooled Islamic jihadist. DeLillo and Updike plant their young fanatic into the suburban malaise of our nation, yet DeLillo holds back his descriptions, favoring restraint. This stance permeates the whole novel.

Therefore, some may welcome this tamped-down delivery. I found it, on the other hand, too far away from what I wanted to find out about Keith and Lianne. Keith gets into gambling, and while this realm's detailed extensively, it failed to engross me; similarly, a subplot with Florence, a fellow survivor of Keith's tails off abruptly. DeLillo does this as before, as in "Underworld," and while this adds verisimilitude, it doesn't satisfy the reader wanting more fictional standards of closure.

Lots of this story drifts along as if hermetically sealed off. I understand this intent, but it fails to move me. The couple's son, Justin, speaks for a portion of the plot in monosyllables as an experiment, and I felt like DeLillo almost was parodying his own minimalism. Echoes of a less-foul mouthed Mamet echo in many sentences here, so pared down are they.

So, while this novel leaves me with enough to think about, there are far fewer particular sentences that stand out. The passages on belief stick longest. Lianne near the end of the story goes to Mass and wonders:

"She thought that the hovering possible presence of God was the thing that created loneliness and doubt in the soul and she also thought that God was the thing, the entity existing outside space and time that resolved this doubt in the tonal power of a word, a voice.

God is the voice that says, 'I am not here.'

She was arguing with herself but it wasn't argument, just the noise the brain makes." (236)

Such moments make the novel worthwhile, but it's an uneven (as in the anti-war march attended by Lianne and Justin, or the Falling Man performance artist's appearances) rendition of the aftermath of the attacks on NYC. Martin sees a painting reminding him of the attacks, with "the two dark objects, too obscure to name," (49) and in such instances, the dread reverberates well before it fades into the airlessness of most of this text. Again, while this may capture the dislocation of contemporary New Yorkers in the early decade, it may not satisfy those expecting a more in-depth, less pared-down depiction of these domestic upheavals.

(Review posted to Amazon US today. I show the British edition's cover, as it has the names more prominently shown.)

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