Sunday, December 20, 2009

Falling Man

It seems fitting that of the books I've read in 2009, only two were audio books and both of them were 9/11 novels. I say fitting because I don't feel the same connection to an audio book that I do to a tangible book. I can't dog ear a page or highlight a paragraph. When I want to write my impressions about it, I can't go back and skim through to remember the names of characters or to refresh my memory.

The events of 9/11 feel like that to me too. Although volumes have been written about it and the video events recorded that day are readily available online, the thoughts and emotions in those moments of realization and in the days, months and years afterward are more difficult to reconstruct with accuracy. Naturally, we can all recount where we were and what we were doing that Tuesday morning and most of us would say we have a vivid recollection of what we felt at that horrific moment when it became clear what was happening. I have my doubts that our memories are as lucid as we'd like to think they are. The very act of remembering something slightly alters it each time we remember and so regardless of how confident we are in the veracity of those thoughts and feelings, we unconsciously change them.

And as the news coverage in the minutes, hours, days and weeks consumed us, it seems to me that the task of trying to comprehend what it all meant was a private process. We craved information but were at a loss as to what to do with it. We talked about what had happened and what may happen, but I don't think many of us were able to verbalize what it might mean.

Fortunately, there are plenty of reviews and blog posts about Falling Man by Don DeLillo to help aid my memory about the book. It was not long, but the appearance of simplicity was deceptive and it's not surprising that this story of a handful of characters left me with no real comfort or answers. What book could?

The story begins after the first tower has collapsed and DeLillo's opening sentence approaches perfection:

"It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night."

Keith Neudecker, a 39-year old lawyer has escaped the building with minor injuries and walks to the home of his estranged wife, Lianne. He arrives carrying a briefcase he'd picked up on the stairway on his way out of the tower. Several days afterward, Keith locates the woman who owns the briefcase and returns it to her. The shared experience of having been in the tower makes a physical affair inevitable, although the sex seems almost a necessary excuse for them to continue talking about it.

Lianne is an editor, but also leads a workshop to help sufferers of early stage Alzheimer's to chronicle their lives. As time passes, the participants begin to dwindle as their memories disappear.

Keith and Lianne's young son Justin exhibits troubling behavior "after the planes" and engages in secretive behavior with two neighbor children that includes staring out the window with binoculars, looking for more planes and whispering about "Bill Lawton".

The instinct Keith initially follows back to his family opens up the possibility of reconciliation. Their failed marriage has fractured under the weight of their dwindling ability to communicate, but the events of 9/11 spin them apart further, now in new, still separate directions.

The book is divided into three sections and at the end of each, we enter the life of one of the hijackers and follow him on his path from indoctrination into a terrorist cell to the moment of impact. Because the story flashes back and forth in time, the interjection of Hammad's story serves to further disorient. Hammad's final dedication to Jihad provides a disturbing counterbalance for Lianne's private longing for the possibility of God.

The "Falling Man" is a performance artist who appears at random locations around New York City. Dressed in a suit and tie, he "falls" from the ledges of tall buildings, horrifying bystanders. His performances end as he dangles upside-down in a safety harness in emulation of the horrific, iconic photograph depicting one of the hundreds who fell or jumped to his death, rather than be consumed by fire and smoke.

The Falling Man's performances elicit public shock and outrage and eventually even debate on an academic panel as to the appropriateness of 9/11 "art". This loose thread that weaves through the novel begs questions about the timing and appropriateness of the novel itself. After years of writing fiction that came eerily close to predicting the terrorist attacks and the subsequent conspiracy theories that followed, it is interesting to note that none of the usual stylistic flourishes in DeLillo's larger works are present. There are no big messages, no analysis or commentary on much at all about the factual aspects of the event. The characters are detached from each other and from themselves. There is a numbness that pervades all of them and although they remain together, Keith and Lianna are even less connected after 9/11 than they were before.

Published in 2007, Falling Man made me recognize some realities about the impact of 9/11 on my own life. On that September day I was married to another man, living in another city and I was, I now understand, a different person. It took nearly this long to make a connection.

For more complete synopsis and analysis, see the reviews at The New York Times Book Review,
The Quarterly Conversation, The Guardian and The Village Voice.

Next up: Library: An Unquiet History by Matthew Battles

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf