Friday, November 16, 2007

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

I read DeLillo’s White Noise two years ago, didn’t like it, and decided to give him another chance with Falling Man. His writing didn’t develop much. I still don’t like it.

Falling Man tackles 9/11 head-on, opening with 39 year old businessman Keith walking bruised and bloody out of the ash of ground zero. He attempts to repair his marriage to Liann and his relationship with his son. All three struggle to put their lives back together after the attacks. Within this story are chapters with terrorists as protagonists, and chapters involving a performance artist named Falling Man.

Despite the potential in the subject, DeLillo doesn’t deliver. He suffers the worst post-modernist failings, and has written a novel that is occasionally good, mostly dull, and at best, inconsistent.

His characters are ordinary to the point of caricature; there’s no reason to like them, or to dislike them. I really have no feelings for them at all. The setting is spare and lacking in richness and detail. For obvious reasons the novel is set in New York City, but you wouldn’t know it. There’s no feel for place, no sense of locale, no unique or particular qualities that say New York. Central Park and Manhattan could be any inner city; the crowds could be from Des Moines.

Even worse, DeLillo’s dialog is unbelievable, stiff, and at best, burdened by having to propel a hollow, directionless plot. I grew fed up with the repetition of stock dialog. Keith and Liann frequently make statements qualified with “you understand this;” reading it over and over again felt like DeLillo was trying to force something on me. It also makes each character sound identical. The phrase reaches an apogee of farce when Liann’s son, who is not yet ten, blames his father for taking a pen. Liann hands him a pencil, and preaches the respectability of the pencil for being made of earthly components such as wood and graphite. She tells her son “We respect this.”

My response to this exchange can only be “what in the hell are you talking about?”

I had the same response in the chapters told from the terrorist’s point of view and those with Falling Man. They add nothing to the plot, or even to our understanding of terrorism or how people cope with trauma (without explanation, Falling Man throws himself off buildings, catching himself with a rope and harness; I could be generous and say that his actions and Liann’s reactions allow a slightly better understanding of Liann’s character).

Anthony Burgess once complained that the American publisher of A Clockwork Orange, in choosing to excise the pivotal last chapter, gutted the book by eliminating one of the requirements of a novel: that characters demonstrate growth and change over the course of the narrative. DeLillo fails to develop characters and thus fails the reader as well. A novel about 9/11 should provide more, especially a novel written by someone with DeLillo’s skill; craft is no substitute for lack of emotional sustain.

Perhaps that’s what Falling Man is actually about: our collective response to traumatic events such as 9/11. Most Americans reacted initially, but then we absorbed, internalized, and packed away the shock, and got on with our day-to-day lives. That may be a gross generalization, but even in Portland, OR, bastion of progressives, liberals, and peaceniks, we grew apathetic. For better or worse, we assimilated the trauma, and moved on, just as the nation moved on to war, a stumbling economy, a belligerent government and reductions in civil liberties. We all had jobs to go to or classes to attend. Life continued, just a little differently – and I don’t need DeLillo to tell me that. I’d hoped for more, for something new.

We can all say where we were on 9/11, but we can’t necessarily say were we are now. How we relate to 9/11 is also how we relate to books like Falling Man – our interest is held for only so long. There is only so much time in our lives, and we must use it wisely.

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