Falling Man explores post-9/11 New York, falls short

By Colin Williams

An author can be taking a risk when writing a novel focused on current events. Many books take place in a past more removed from the reader or in a present or future less bound to actual events. Don DeLillo’s latest novel, “Falling Man,” takes that risk. The novel deals explicitly and directly with the aftermath of 9/11, an event barely six years past and with serious and continuing implications for our society.The novel mainly concerns a man, Keith, who escaped from the towers during the attack, and his wife, Lianne, and their families. Many other characters, however, play a significant role, including a 9/11 hijacker named Hammad. The plot is somewhat disjointed, with the book divided into three parts and the narrator often changing focus from one character to another within the chapters. The story begins with Keith walking in a daze from the towers with a briefcase (not his own), appearing unannounced at the apartment of his ex-wife, Lianne, with whom he starts to live. Later, Keith returns the briefcase to its owner, a “light-skinned black woman” named Florence, with whom Keith shares a stark emotional connection due to their survival of 9/11. The two engage in a brief affair.

The novel also comes back to Lianne’s search for meaning in her marriage with her somewhat obtuse husband, her and Keith’s attempts to raise their standoffish son, the trials of Lianne’s family and her work with Alzheimer’s patients, and many other minor characters who appear through dialogue or in flashbacks. Hammad’s personal experiences of his approach to matyrdom and dealing with his faith are also woven throughout.

DeLillo deals with these people’s lives in a hazy and meandering manner, which is alternately poignant or boring. The main strength of the novel is its overarching sense of alienation-all of the characters struggle with their own experiences in the aftermath of the attacks and the jolting change it brings upon their lives. On top of this is the fact that many characters have family issues, personal demons, neuroses-in short, the characters are realistic.

Hammad, the terrorist, is particularly interesting. With his mix of excitement and apathy and of piety and humanity, Hammad is quite round and well played out and probably merits more time in the novel (if not his own book). The characters do not always stand out in their moments of dialogue, but DeLillo’s foggy descriptions of the world inside their head often shine. Though stark and sometimes almost impulsive, the descriptions of the characters seem genuine and, at rare moments, truly moving.

However, the clipped prose of the novel too frequently falls flat. The dialogue often feels stilted, and the humanity of the characters sometimes renders them dry-though they are flawed, they’re sometimes just too uninteresting or too neurotic. In addition, the book is held back rather than enhanced by some of the minor characters who create needless digressions away from the main plot. The separate parts of the novel are named after ambiguous characters that seem almost irrelevant, and the title character, Falling Man (a performance artist who harnesses himself above the street to look like a 9/11 “jumper”), does relatively little except make people gasp and ask “why?” In addition, the novel winds down with Keith shallowly flying to Las Vegas more or less all of the time to play poker instead of actually resolving his experiences. Overall, this just makes him come off as a bastard and makes DeLillo’s story unfeeling at its conclusion.

“Falling Man’s” humanity and realism is both its triumph and its downfall. Though DeLillo is effective at realistically portraying his characters, there is either too much going on in their lives within the novel or not enough, and DeLillo’s self-consciously terse writing doesn’t do much to make the dull moments or tangential events exciting.

The novel is, essentially, too much like real life, and is ultimately unsatisfying, especially in the way Keith dips out toward the end. Regardless, “Falling Man” represents an interesting way to deal with the aftermath of an earth-shaking event through literature. DeLillo is able, if callously, to bring a certain “everyman” feel to a novel about dealing with catastrophe.