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The Falling Man / Don DeLillo (2007)

DeLillo’s novels always become better in my mind a few weeks, a few months after I’ve read them, when they start to haunt me. Presumably this one will be the same. But it starts with ‘the planes’, the towers coming down on 9/11, and it feels like his characters don’t know what to do afterwards and they drift away, which might be what life is like, but isn’t how a novel should be.

Keith, who was in the tower, returns to his estranged wife, Lianne, and son. He’s there but he’s not there. A private, inscrutable man. He returns the briefcase he grabbed in the tower to its owner, an overweight black woman. He listens to her talk about the haunting memory of going down the stairwell, down and down with thousands of others; it’s a powerful image. After starting an affair with her, he ends it out of guilt. In a well-handled scene he imagines her different responses when he confesses to what he did. But then he doesn’t confess to what he did.

Instead, he becomes obsessed with gambling. He starts going off to Las Vegas for weeks at a time. Lianne can only ever have a little piece of him. The novel ends with a description of his escape from the tower; it is, of course, the beginning of the novel and reflects DeLillo’s problem (or theme?) that he has started with the climax. There’s nowhere to go after the towers have come down. Just dissipation in both senses of the word.

Keith’s son, Justin, takes to watching the skies with binoculars, waiting for ‘Bill Lawton’ (Bin Laden) to send the coded message that he will be returning. (In Justin’s worlds, the towers haven’t come down, they’ve only been damaged, and it’s not too late to save them.) These sections – and many others – are beautiful.

Lianne is coping simultaneously with ‘the planes’ which have brought her husband back and her mother’s decline. She’s sick in 2001; in the final part of the book, we jump forward three years to anti-war protests and her funeral.

Her coping mechanisms are much less destructive: she runs a writing therapy group for Alzheimer’s patients; later she turns to religion. Through it all, is the shadow of her mother’s lover, a man living under an assumed name, who was involved in a European terrorist group in the 1970s. The parallel to the present day terrorists is mentioned without being explored. She also encounters ‘the falling man’, a performance artist who hangs himself in a pose like that of the famous photograph of the man jumping from the tower.

The third section carries the falling man’s real name. The second section carries her mother’s lover assumed name. The first section carries the name Justin gives to his myth of Bin Laden – Bill Lawton.

There are two anomalous interludes from the pov of one of the terrorists; beautifully written but not fitting in. These interluding chapters have no numbers but location titles. Significantly, the second, as the terrorist waits on the plane about to smash into the tower, segues from the terrorist to Keith inside the tower at the point of impact. Or I assume it’s significant, and it is a powerful image, from the terrorist watching a water bottle roll in the corridor seconds before oblivion to the man feeling the shock of that impact. But I feel like I don’t get it, or many other important things about this novel. Yet we’re probably not meant to get DeLillo.

And even if I don’t get it, in the midst of it, there’s DeLillo’s beautiful non-sequitors, his repetitions, his delightful dialogues. He is one of the best dialogists I have read and a writer I feel that I’m going to have keep engaging with.