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Falling Man

1 rating: -5.0
A book by Don DeLillo

Escaping from the World Trade Center during the September 11 attacks, Keith Neudecker makes his way to the uptown apartment where his ex-wife and young son are living and considers the ways in which the day's events have irrevocably changed his perception … see full wiki

Author: Don DeLillo
Genre: Current Events
Publisher: Center Point Pub
Date Published: September 01, 2007
1 review about Falling Man

Thin in all respects

  • Jul 24, 2007
Rating:
-5
Pros: Nothing

Cons: I only have 15 words, so I am stuck saying, everything.

The Bottom Line: This is a surprisingly horrible novel. I have to hope he has at least one more novel of quality; otherwise Mr. Delillo may become irrelevant.

There have been rumors for a little over a year that the personally tacit Don Delillo was writing a novel about the terrorist attacks in New York. Falling Man is that novel. In the late 1990s, similar rumors came from the same circles that Mr. Delillo was working on a baseball novel that was going to be a type of epic; Underworld was the fruit of those rumors.

I have been a fan of Mr. Delillo’s for some time now. I can say this: when rumors precede a novel, the novels have failed to deliver the same quality of the novels released without such.

Falling Man is a thin volume both in pages and in content. Keith Neudecker makes it from the tower to the home of his estranged wife, Lianne, on the Upper East Side. He is covered in dust and blood and carrying a briefcase that doesn’t belong to him. Their separation of about 18 months ends. Lianne is both a freelance editor and a volunteer at a community center working with Alzheimer patients doing writing therapy. They have a son, Justin, who starts the novel hanging out with two siblings (called the Siblings by his mother) who spend lots of very secret time scanning the sky for more planes. The novel moves them from the immediate aftermath of the attacks (about two weeks after what Mr. Delillo calls ‘the planes’) to a point three years ‘after the planes.’

The briefcase belongs to Florence. She and Keith have a limited affair and each seems to be the only one who can relate to them as survivors. Lianne’s mother, Nina is an art historian in somewhat failing health. Nina’s lover is Martin (Lianne and Nina know this is a fake name, but nothing is made of it at the time—more on this in the analysis below). In the space between the planes and three years after Nina dies after suffering a series of strokes; Martin comes for the funeral and this is the last we see of him. Tommy Cheng is a friend of Keith’s who played a weekly poker game with him and others, two of whom are killed and one severely injured in the attacks. Keith and Tommy reconnect on the semi-professional Texas Hold ‘Em circuit. The only other person is the eponymous character. David Janiak is a performance artist who secures a harness to the top of a building or elevated train track and then takes the pose of one of the men who jumped from the towers. Unlike all the other characters, he has no speaking part.

Possible plot spoilers, but since the event is well understood, it is unlikely that I will give anything away that will ruin the plot

So much of the novel is unbelievable or just silly that I checked the spine of the book a few times (I read my hardcovers without the jackets on) to make sure it said Don Delillo. It still says Don Delillo as I look at it now, but it never feels like one of his novels (admittedly I couldn’t finish either The Body Artist or Cosmopolis despite trying, I intend to try again to see if perhaps Mr. Delillo has been taken over by one of the body snatcher pod people).

Mr. Delillo’s style, focusing on the internal narrative and how it tries to function in an environment of tenuous relationships and tenuous reality and his penchant for conspiracy, should lend itself well to the terrorist attacks. However, he made some extremely poor narrative choices that render Falling Man nearly irrelevant and not interesting at all to read.

First, how is it possible that Florence and Keith are the only people that the other can relate to in the two weeks after the planes? Most of Florence’s company was killed, but not really true for Keith; therefore, the relationship they form is not only artificial but simply impossible to believe. Much can be made of something artificial artistically, but not much can be made of something that strains credibility. The closest relationships in his previous novels still have a rather large amount of the accidental and the hidden about them—pretty much everyone has a secret to their life that they keep from their partners. The problem here is that the tenuousness seems to be for totally different purposes. The biggest cue for this is the fact that Justin is called ‘the kid’ in the interior narratives of both mother and father as if he were a pet. I believe this is unique. Where children exist in other novels they are not treated as pets, so this is just one piece of the narrative that is very jarring to the point where I really don’t like either Keith or Lianne.

Second, the symbolism for the first two sections of the novel is simplistic. The falling man represents the fact that horror, terror, accident, anything that is out of the ordinary can happen at any time. He never says anything, which is completely unnecessary anyway because he isn’t a character, despite Lianne looking up as much information on him as she can when she comes across his obituary 3 years after the planes. David Janiak is just a name attacked to a silly trope. That the silly trope is the name of the novel only magnifies the stale imagery and symbolism throughout the novel.

Lianne works with people who have Alzheimer’s. Her role is just as moderator anyway. The participants pick the topic and they read their material and discuss it. The fact that they suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease is a red herring in search of a mystery. They are not in the story because they will all fail to remember anything they have written as well as the rest of their pasts and even presents, but to give Lianne something to fret about. She believes there is something indicative about their stories, the problem I have is that I found their stories indicative of nothing. They wanted to write about the planes. So? This just means they are still aware and nothing more. As they begin to fail, so does Lianne; she cannot bring herself to continue the therapy with another group. She wasn’t a therapist in the first place, just a moderator, so whatever emotional energy she spent on these people is only implied, and her reservoir of empathy seems to be an extremely shallow one.

The worst symbolism is the whole poker concept. If it had just been poker it would have been bad but it wouldn’t have truly and deeply sucked. Texas Hold ‘Em lasted for all of 18 months and allowed a couple of thousand people 15 minutes of fame and now, thankfully, it is dead. This matters because in most of his previous novels Mr. Delillo has avoided fads like this one. Tie a significant portion of a novel to a passing fad and you make it largely irrelevant; this is even more true when you realize that the fad is already dead. I have to wonder if Mr. Delillo didn’t realize this too late and threw in a conversation between Keith and Tommy where Keith says that the fad will end but the two of them would still be playing.

Symbolically, poker is as silly as it is dated. Keith sees the rituals as binary—call or fold, call or raise. The rituals belong to the religion of chance; you may think talent means something, but since Keith doesn’t even try to read the tells of other players, they may as well not exist, which means his only opponent is chance. Chance will always win no matter how lucky you may be at any given time. That his profession is now playing chance is not only stupid it is irresponsible (but since he refers to his son as ‘the kid’ then he may not have a strong since of responsibility to begin with). This is apparently disposed of when he and Lianne sell her mother’s apartment for a “criminal” sum of money—how convenient.

At the end of each of the three sections there is a 10-12 page narrative about the terrorists. The focus is Mohamed Atta (first in Germany, then Florida, then flying American 11 into the WTC). The narrative is driven by a character called Hammed—the problem with this is that none of the men on Atta’s plane were called Hammed. Why use a fake person when he could have just as easily used a real person? Mr. Delillo told huge sections of Libra, about the JFK assassination, from Lee Harvey Oswald’s perspective. Oswald was dead when he wrote Libra; all five terrorists on American 11 are dead, so why not pick one of them as the ‘narrator?’ This is just one more indication of the sloppy storytelling.

Finally, there is just that the Neudeckers are horrible subjects when they are compared against the terrorists. This is disturbing and maddening. I am not one of those people blinded by the attacks such that they open the door for the United States to commit any manner of horror in the name of these attacks, but I cannot overlook what the comparison implies.

The Neudeckers (at least the adults) are each stuck in their own form of a mental condition called asthenia—basically a serious form of apathy. They each go about their days letting conditions determine their actions. Neither Keith nor Lianne seems to have even the slightest amount of control over their surroundings, but this isn’t the issue; what is at is at issue is that neither adult even tries to take control over his or her life. There is also no indication that either character believes in fate or destiny.

Compare this to the terrorists. At least Atta believes in fate. The second section of the terrorists in flight school in Florida has the others apparently doubting they will ever be able to go through with their plans because ‘the state’ certainly is aware of their actions. View it as fate or not, these men actively seek to control their days. They have a goal in mind and they go through with it.

Is this an indictment of American culture? Given how much of the third section Keith spends in Las Vegas, it may be. Vegas is the symbol of conspicuous and even idiotic consumption. It is probably best that the general public isn’t aware of the amount of energy wasted to keep that over-lit and over-technological piece of desert running 24 hours a day, cooling it during the day and heating it at night, and encouraging the over-consumption not only of energy but of energy intensive foods. However, if this is an indictment then it is poorly placed and, what is worse, poorly written. There are many aspects of American culture that can be lambasted without using the terrorist attacks as the framing narrative.

I cannot help but think that this is one topic that Mr. Delillo is either too close to for an effective narrative, or he realized too late that he doesn’t have the vocabulary to tell this story. If you are a Delillo fan, I’ve given you ample warning. If you want to become a Delillo fan, then avoid this one.

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