Falling Man: A Novel Paperback – Jun 3 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. When DeLillo's novel Players was published in 1977, one of the main characters, Pammy, worked in the newly built World Trade Center. She felt that "the towers didn't seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their bulk than some routine distortion of light." DeLillo's new novel begins 24 years later, with Keith Neudecker standing in a New York City street covered with dust, glass shards and blood, holding somebody else's briefcase, while that intimation of the building's mortality is realized in a sickening roar behind him. On that day, Keith, one half of a classic DeLillo well-educated married couple, returns to Lianne, from whom he'd separated, and to their young son, Justin. Keith and Lianne know it is Keith's Lazarus moment, although DeLillo reserves the bravura sequence that describes Keith's escape from the first tower—as well as the last moments of one of the hijackers, Hammad—until the end of the novel. Reconciliation for Keith and Lianne occurs in a sort of stunned unconsciousness; the two hardly engage in the teasing, ludic interchanges common to couples in other DeLillo novels. Lianne goes through a paranoid period of rage against everything Mideastern; Keith is drawn to another survivor. Lianne's mother, Nina, roils her 20-year affair with Martin, a German leftist; Keith unhooks from his law practice to become a professional poker player. Justin participates in a child's game involving binoculars, plane spotting and waiting for a man named "Bill Lawton." DeLillo's last novel, Cosmopolis, was a disappointment, all attitude (DeLillo is always a brilliant stager of attitude) and no heart. This novel is a return to DeLillo's best work. No other writer could encompass 9/11 quite like DeLillo does here, down to the interludes following Hammad as he listens to a man who "was very genius"—Mohammed Atta. The writing has the intricacy and purpose of a wiring diagram. The mores of the after-the-event are represented with no cuteness—save, perhaps, the falling man performance artist. It is as if Players, The Names, Libra, White Noise, Underworld—with their toxic events, secret histories, moral panics—converge, in that day's narrative of systematic vulnerability, scatter and tentative regrouping. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*Starred Review* There have been a number of novels written in the past years about 9/11 that have attempted to come to grips with what that horrible day means to us. None of them are like this one, although Jess Walter's The Zero (2006) comes closest in terms of re-creating the emotional reality of the post-9/11 world. The novel's searing opening pages follow lawyer Keith Neudecker, who has just emerged from the World Trade Center, as he makes his way up the street, fighting raining debris and "seismic tides of smoke." It's not until he's almost there that he realizes where he's heading--the apartment of his ex-wife and son. And over the succeeding months, we are made privy to the family's reactions to that heartbreaking day. Keith's young son plays a game with his friends in which they search the sky with binoculars, looking for signs of planes and for Bill Lawton (their misheard name for bin Laden); meanwhile, Keith's ex-wife is both mesmerized and horrified by a performance artist dubbed the Falling Man, who, dressed in a blue suit and tethered by a bungee cord, launches himself headfirst off train tracks and balconies. Keith, having learned firsthand the benevolence of luck, dedicates himself to playing poker, elevating the rituals of the game to a sacred rite. Inevitably, inexorably, DeLillo ends his devastating novel with the sights and sounds Keith's experiences on 9/11 as he watches his colleagues die while slumped in their office chairs. And it's a testament to DeLillo's brilliant command of language that readers will feel once again, whether they want to or not, as scared and as sad as they felt that day. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Top Customer Reviews
Readers are immediately caught by one of the most devastating opening lines in fiction: "It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night." With those few words one is transported back to the shock, the horror of that dreadful day that changed our lives forever.
We see the devastation through the eyes of Keith Neudecker whose office was in the south tower. He emerges dazed, confused, carrying someone else's briefcase. When a helpful truck driver offers a ride he asks to be taken to the apartment of his wife, Lianne. They have been separated for some time and have a young son, Justin.
Lianne seeks to know why Keith has returned to her, while Justin responds to the tragedy by scanning the sky with binoculars - searching for another plane. As time passes Nina, Lianne's mother, reconnects with her lover and Keith finds common ground with another survivor.
Landscaping the emotional terrain of these people is DeLillo at his finest - staccato voices, brief phrases, revealing so much.
Later in the book we are privy to the thoughts of Hammad who "...thinks of the rapture of live explosives pressed to his chest and waist."
Reading Falling Man is almost painful, a reopening of old wounds. Yet DeLillo has so precisely captured the then and now of 9/11 that it merits attention by all.
- Gail Cooke
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
1. This is not mainstream fiction. DeLillo uses his own conventions and the conventions of postmodern fiction to great extent.
2. This novel is not primarily a retelling of the events of 9/11. Rather, it is an exploration of the mindset of New Yorkers (and one European) after 9/11, how this particular watershed event changed people's worldview.
3. This is not a political work. It does not seek to espouse any political point of view.
That being said, I very much liked this book. I found it very chilling at some points, and difficult to read. I found myself dealing with emotions I had not felt since the days just after 9/11 (deftly referred to in the novel as 'since the planes'), and an exploration much different from the film United 93.
I did feel some of the characters were hollow, but that is kind of typical of DeLillo's storytelling style. Characters in DeLillo works tend to be people to whom things happen, reactors as opposed to actors. I felt that this helped enhance the feelings of some of the characters in this work, accentuating the helplessness and fear I know I certainly felt in the wake of 9/11.
While the book does deal directly with the events of 9/11 (those were some of the most emotionally difficult to read), it is primarily an exploration of the 'post-9/11' world. In this, I feel it succeeds, and is a brilliant work.
This book made me think about myself in ways that few books do. I didn't so much imagine "walking in the shoes" of the characters so much as I thoughtfully considered their actions and reactions in search of some understanding, or empathy. Actions and behaviors that would otherwise appear selfish, Delillo exposes as superficial manifestations of penetrating emotional wounds. It is not always our actions that define who we "are," but rather the events in our lives that shape the consciousness and identity from which our actions result. In "Falling Man", Lianne is not obsessed with the degradation of her own memories (or potential onset of Alzheimer's) as one could conclude. Instead, Delillo gives us the opportunity to see Lianne as a woman traumatized by her father's suicide, which had been prompted by a seemingly rapid onset of Alzheimer's while Lianne was in college. Likewise, Keith's experience of having been in the South Tower when it was first struck altered his sense of self and the life he was choosing to live. Delillo allows for no moral judgments to be made against his characters, or against us by proxy. Instead we delicately observe the frailty of the human condition. Delillo shows that at our best, we are all simply walking on a path, unable to know if it is the right one. There is no proof of salvation, just a set of possible outcomes, some expected and foreseeable, and others that are not.
Other reviewers have wondered why the plot seemed to be missing from this novel (not an ignorant question on its face). To those with similarly open questions I ask this, if someone was writing the story of your life or mine, what would the plot be? In this novel the plot is of little significance. What is important are the themes and how they are interwoven, like memories forming a consciousness. Delillo explores the subtleties between understanding and faith, memory and history, realities and fictions, and how there are few, if any, certainties.
Reality and fiction, history and memory, the differences between each is a matter of perspective. How is it that two people witnessing the same event often present completely different versions of what happened, yet genuinely believe they are themselves correct? Just as many believe accepting Christ is the path to salvation, the Koran professes that it is the one book of truth. These issues are irresolvable; it is impossible to know in this life which, if any path, is correct.
Again, in this life we are all looking for "the" right path, at least those of us with a choice. Just like the people in the Towers when they were attacked, those lucky enough to try an escape could have either walked up or down the stairs, a choice that ended up being one of life and one of death. Others, trapped above the fires, faced a much deeper dilemma and had to choose between two types of death. Those who survived are left with ever-fading memories and the burden of knowing that it was nothing more than chance that kept them alive; except for those who attribute their survival to some divine intervention without explaining why others were then "selected" to die.
There is no way to understand how another would feel after making a choice that ends up being, in hindsight, one between life and death. Even more impossible would be to predict how someone should react in the aftermath. Delillo captures the essence of these experiences, both the personal experience and the one that we all share. In the end we are left with a beautiful story which reflects our own set of moral and spiritual ambiguities, our lost and faded memories, and our shared version of these events that altered the course of history.
The tone here is dispassionate, almost like a list of details. I heard echoes of Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," that same gripping weight. The word "ash" comes back over and over and that's what we were all coated with, the emotional ash, the "organic shrapnel" that might not at first be visible, that might take its toll slowly, over time. The mattress scene in "Falling Man" is a brilliant, along with the recurring performance artist, the gambling and the odd emotional connections forged and forced by the devastation of the attack.
"Falling Man" starts shortly after the attack and ends up just before the attack, a haunting choice, taking us back to the beginning, to try and imagine how "God's name" could be on the "tongues of killers." Read "Falling Man" when you want to try and push the limits of your own understanding and/or you don't want to forget, for whatever reason.
The book consists of rapidly shifting, mostly short, disconnected scenarios involving these characters. The book in essence mirrors the disorientation undoubtedly felt by those who endured the 9/11 catastrophe. Whether intentional or not, the characters exhibit limited emotional range, unable to fully engage with life. One exception is the intimate connection that Keith makes with fellow survivor Florence when he returns her briefcase, which inadvertently wound up in his hands as he stumbled down the stairs of the tower, a week later, though he had not known her pre 9/11. The device of interspersing a "falling man," mimicking those who were forced to jump from the towers, jumping from structures in full public view with a concealed harness to stop his fall is unnecessary.
Overall the book, the story, and the characters are lacking in capturing post 9/11 life. Keith becomes ever more detached as he winds up living a reduced life playing five-card stud in Las Vegas with the pretence of maintaining a relationship with his wife and son. Given the backdrop of 9/11, the expectation is for a fuller, more meaningful account. As it is, life is excessively bleak in the author's post 9/11 world.
Plainly speaking, I was bored. I didn't find the novel compelling. Adding to the problem, I guess, is I really don't like DeLillo's writing style. To me, it was pronoun-laden, making it quite confusing oftentimes exactly which character he was referring to. Add this to the inexplicable and usually undefined jumps in time and I spent a lot of time wondering exactly what was going on. Never one to quit in the middle of a book unless it's absolutely excruciating, though, I held on to the end, at which point I felt I got a bit of a payoff. The description of the moments after the plane impacted the tower in which Keith was working is most definitely moving.
I was thinking I must be the only one who felt this way about this novel before seeing the other user's reviews, so it's good to see I'm not alone. I thought maybe I just didn't get it.
It's obvious that DeLillo is a good writer, but this one was just didn't hook me. I'll probably still give "Underworld" a chance based on my brother-in-law's recommendation, but I won't be advising anyone to read "Falling Man." It apparently just wasn't for me.