Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Final Thoughts on Don DeLillo's Falling Man

One of the most significant parts of my experience of 9-11 -- comfortably far away upstate -- was reading the little biographies of the victims in the Times. I tried to read all of them. Every single person seemed so interesting, and every life so complex and full, that the hugeness of the loss (3000 of those big rich lives) was made real.

So I couldn't help but wonder why DeLillo chose his main character, a numb, zombied-out businessman named Keith. All those potential characters, plus of course the imagination's limitless offerings, and he chooses this guy? Keith copes with the death of his friends and his own narrow escape from the towers by first returning to his ex-wife, then having an affair with another tower survivor, and then going to Las Vegas and playing poker. There is definitely something right about these ways of dealing with what happened to him (retreating to the past, seeking connection, then trying to exploit his good luck -- sounds like post 9-11 America all right) but it's not that interesting, mostly because he is just an empty suit.

I tried and tried to engage with this book, but I couldn't. I even found it hard to stop seeing the words on the page, to sink into the consciousness of the novel. It remained, stubbornly, an intellectual exercise. The writing, though of course brilliant at times (it is DeLillo!) is stylized and conscious of itself, and the dialogue is exactly like a David Mamet play. Everyone sounds the same.

In Michiko Kakutani's review of the book, she asks if maybe it's just an impossible literary task 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." True enough. But is that the only problem? Because I can imagine a 9-11 novel succeeding as a specific character's interpretation of those events -- something incredibly personal and idiosyncratic. I couldn't write it (God forbid) but someone could, and maybe someone has. I'm still looking, though.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Paul West wrote a really great post-9/11 novel in The Immensity of the Here and Now. Almost nobody mentions it though. It was published by a small press.

rmellis said...

Thanks, I'll look for it. Paul West is an Ithaca neighbor but I have never heard of that book...

Mark said...

A 9/11 novel would have to be hugely idiosyncratic to work (for me, at least). Psychological realism, even when it's a bit exaggerated (as I imagine the DeLillo is, and as the Ken Kalfus book, which I quit on about halfway through, is), is just too unsurprising, given how much psychological-realistic imagining of the events most of us have already done. The call for writers to "address" the event feels so pedantic, and DeLillo is so obviously the easy answer, that I was disappointed even to hear that he had written the book. It is doubly disappointing to hear that he didn't do anything very idiosyncratic with the material.

5 Red Pandas said...

Interesting that you mention the NY Times bios. The company I was working for during 9-11 was the parent company of the pub house that eventually put out those bios in book form. When I had to handle that particular book it always struck me as being very strange and I wondered who exactly was buying the book. It seemed to be one thing to read the bios in the newspaper, but an entirely other thing to actually own the book. It was a big coffee table sized book, something that would be difficult to tuck away onto a book shelf, so I imagined that it was meant for display, but what a display! In my head I kept reffering to the book as the "9-11 yearbook of the dead" because that's what it looked like to me. The grainy thumbnail print photos, the bios underneath-all looked like your typical high school year book.

jrlennon said...

I wish DeLillo had written the 9-11 equivalent of Libra...a highly indiosyncratic novel about the conspiracy behind the Kennedy assasination. There's certainly a novel to be written about the conspiracy behind September 11th--that of both the people who made it happen and the people who let it. Why didn't DeLillo write that book?