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Falling Man: A Novel Paperback – June 3, 2008
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There is September 11 and then there are the days after, and finally the years.
Falling Man is a magnificent, essential novel about the event that defines turn-of-the-century America. It begins in the smoke and ash of the burning towers and tracks the aftermath of this global tremor in the intimate lives of a few people.
First there is Keith, walking out of the rubble into a life that he’d always imagined belonged to everyone but him. Then Lianne, his estranged wife, memory-haunted, trying to reconcile two versions of the same shadowy man. And their small son Justin, standing at the window, scanning the sky for more planes.
These are lives choreographed by loss, grief, and the enormous force of history.
Brave and brilliant, Falling Man traces the way the events of September 11 have reconfigured our emotional landscape, our memory and our perception of the world. It is cathartic, beautiful, heartbreaking.
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The novel's weakness is inherent to the story. The characters, while realistic, have limited emotional range. They are disoriented and disconnected as a result of 9/11 and subsequently, this is reflected in the novel. Presumably this is the point, but the result is Falling Man didn't make much of an impression on me.
Falling Man is beautifully written and raises some provocative questions about faith and our place in the world post 9/11 but it also feels empty and in the end, not completely satisfying.
The story is itself a lot like performance art: a shaggy dog story, a drama without climax, catharsis or denouement. If this were a painting it would be an abstract still life, notwithstanding the violent events that begin and end the story. The "plot" as such, of calculated murder, of survival, of marital infidelity and reconciliation, of lives and relationships -- unraveling, reconstituting themselves, ending -- is almost incidental to the oppressive and suffocatingly intense soliloquies and focused conversations of the various characters (mostly New Yorkers), male and female, young and old. I found myself approaching nausea wading through the conversations of the self-absorbed, affected, "precious," and, frankly, unsympathetic and boring protagonists. Like listening to the guy holding forth in the line at the movies in "Annie Hall" crossed with the tape loop repetitions and disorientations of "Last Year at Marienbad". Hieroglyphs, whispers, mirrors, ephemera, navel gazing.
DeLillo writes beautifully crafted prose, and there are flashes of profound insight in this work. But, ultimately, this is an exercise in reflection, a study of memories (everyone is caught up in their memories, even the Alzheimer's patients with whom Lianne works with to help them tell their stories before they forget). Ostensibly "about" 9/11 and its aftermath, it is difficult to articulate what "moral", if any, "Falling Man" is meant to convey about ourselves or the event that has defined our lives, other than that we pass through life as though in free fall, weightless for a brief instant, and at the end of the day unremarked.
_Falling Man_ focuses on Keith and Lianne, a New York couple who have direct experience with the plane attack on the Towers. Keith was actually at work in the Towers that day, and though he escaped with little more physical injury than a damaged wrist, he and Lianne, who had previously been separated, come back together as a reaction to this tragedy. Keith has even escaped what one doctor calls 'organic shrapnel': pieces of human that get propelled into victims' bodies as the result of a suicide bomber.
But this organic shrapnel is one of the metaphorical centers of this book. The blowing apart of humans, the scattering of humanity, so that they are clutching for whatever they can find that gives them meaning. Lianne explores art and volunteering for an Alzheimer's writing group. Keith throws himself into poker and his estranged wife's bed and an obsession with a briefcase he carried out of the Towers without thinking.
But DeLillo, as any great writer does, examines to actualities of existence, the search for meaning that will almost always direct one down a different path than planned. Memory and philosophy intermix just like bits of suicide bomber flesh may bury itself into the face and chest of the bystander, and the result is that a horrifying event such as this will always be a part of you. Keith and Lianne are looking for a way to live with what has happened to them, and sometimes the bravest thing one can do is accept the realities of themselves and not accept a false change done out of fright. Just like the strange wisdom of Lorne Michaels' question to Giuliani on Saturday Night Live when, weeks after 9/11 he said, "Can we be funny again?", DeLillo shows us that there is courage in allowing yourself to fall short of being a good person, if that is where you were headed all along.