Falling Man — Don DeLillo

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Before I started booklolly in earnest, I experimented with a few days of reading and blogging to see if I could read a book a day. It was tough but definitely doable and, being the sort of person who heads right into the thick of a guerrilla war to discover the truth about it, I created a blog and sat down to read. This book is one of the early experiments–saved it because the book is interesting and the read was relevant to its location and the day I read it. 

I grabbed Don DeLillo’s Falling Man from a display shelf at the library, thinking it would be the perfect novel to read on September 11th. I confess to my own hardcover copy of Underworld, spine cracked but never really started due to single-parent-small-child-around-house-who-has-time-to-read-huge-books-? syndrome. It isn’t getting read for this challenge either because there aren’t enough hours in one day and DeLillo is worth reading slowly enough to savor. That said, Falling Man was probably not the best choice for 9-11.

Everyone has their story about where they were and what they were doing on that day, at that moment, and most particularly when the towers came down. I have mine. I have the futile attempt to protect a four-year-old from too much knowledge, too burning a memory of that day. I have the images—the man in a suit, clutching a briefcase and covered in white ash, trudging up Central Park West hours after, not looking, not seeing, just walking. He might have been DeLillo’s Keith, minus the glass shards and the blood.

What was ripped apart on that day was the fabric of the world we imagined we lived in. Just ripped like the old canvas of a circus tent, ripped right across your heart. The grief was sharp, personal and inexplicable—meaning I could never explain it and still can’t. Meaning certain sights will always bring tears to my eyes and shadows hover not far out of sight, ready to cast a pall. Sadness and loss are tangible things; they drain all the energy from the day and from your body. September 11th, ten years later, spun the wheel backwards and it was as if the planes veered out of the blue into black smoke, flames and everything falling  just yesterday.

So, Falling Man. Very very beautiful and true in its detail and a potent reminder. Keith walks down the stairs, away from the buildings, out of the mushroom cloud of debris and dust, to the apartment of his estranged wife who is sure he died in the towers where he worked. In some way, he did. In the same way, Lianne stops feeling safe, moves in a dream through the streets to the emergency room, accepts the husband who reappears in her life by accident and then cannot leave. Lianne is haunted by her father’s Alzheimer’s and his refusal to watch his memory fade. Lianne’s mother is deliberately fading before her eyes. Lianne’s child, and Keith’s, Justin, is self-composed beyond his years and has his own stories about what happened on 9-11. He takes binoculars on playdates to search the skies out the window for planes.

Even those who escaped the inferno and the collapse never escaped from that moment and that day. DeLillo’s people replay their memories like an endless tape loop, revisit their own minds for what they can’t remember, don’t bother to reinvent themselves, seem incapable of moving on. There is healing from events so huge and so terrible that they stop time but this nation did not choose healing and these characters can’t find it. There is loss that saturates everything it touches and lingers in the air. Falling Man slowly collects the fragments of that day and holds them up to the light. Bits and pieces surface and fade back into the rubble of memory. Lives bob, float and swirl in the eddies. Desolation seeps into the soul and stains it forever.

9-11 was a game-changer. From that day forward we began to live in a different world. There are many ways of falling. DeLillo captures the brief angels spilled from a hundred stories up, the performance artist dangling in his suit from hotel balconies and railroad trestles, the tower survivors who walked away but did not really survive, the witness in thrall to an altered landscape, half understood. Falling Man is a beautifully wrought book and very sad. I wish I’d chosen to read it on some other day when the ghosts of loss hovered farther back and the consolation of small, normal things was not so overshadowed.    

Falling Man: A Novel   Don DeLillo | Scribner  2007

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2 responses »

    • That’s DeLillo’s doing. He is an exquisite writer. Sad subject matter but the consolation of beautifully chosen words. I do want to tackle Underworld now but can’t imagine how to complete it in a day. Glad you liked the review.

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