Fiction and Nonfiction

On Don DeLillo's latest novel, Falling Man

Pulp

by Jonathan B. Frey

Merely inches below what has now become the obligatory disclaimer (â“any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons â is entirely coincidentalâ”), the Library of Congress catalogues Don DeLillo's latest, Falling Man (Scribner, $26), â“September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001 â" Fiction.â” While it's ironic that the novel concurrently declares and denies its subject on the same page, the incongruence aptly represents not only this particular title but also much of DeLillo's work.

DeLillo elides the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. His most elaborate example, 1997's Underworld , proceeds from an extended riff on a famous 1951 Giants/Dodgers pennant game, to capture a cacophony of voicesâ"some historical, some notâ"from every stratum of America. Less comprehensive or well-known, but more successful still, is Libra from a decade before, a fictional biography of Lee Harvey Oswald.

Taking 9/11 as its point of extrapolation, Falling Man commences as the twin towers fall. Keith Neudecker, employed at a real-estate firm in the north tower, is among the last to evacuate, arriving ash-covered at the apartment of his estranged wife, Lianne Glenn. The novel is divided into three parts, named after Bill Lawton, Ernst Hechinger, and David Janiak: Bill Lawton an imaginary creation of Keith's young son and his friends, the name a distortion of Bin Laden; Ernst Hechinger the birth name of a man better known to Lianne as the art dealer Martin Ridnour, her mother's lover and a former member of a 1970s European terrorist organization; performance artist David Janiak, â“the falling man,â” falls off structures in a safety harness, maintaining â“the body posture of a particular man who was photographed falling from the north tower of the World Trade Center, headfirst, arms at his sides, one leg bent, a man set forever in free fallâ.â”

Consistent with his other works of this century ( The Body Artist , Cosmopolis ), DeLillo appears to have permanently abandoned the conventional narrative. Fragments and anecdote replace plot, dialogue is disjointed and incomplete, characterization and scene are essentially by-products. Keith drifts into an affair with another WTC survivor, Florence, whose briefcase he mysteriously carried out of the towers. Meanwhile he abandons his former profession in favor of professional poker (a signature example of DeLillo incorporating a contemporary enthusiasm). Lianne, a freelance editor, counsels recently diagnosed Alzheimer's patients and hopes to edit a prescient text purporting to have foretold 9/11, â“a series of interlocking global forces that appeared to converge at an explosive point in time and space that might be said to represent the locus of Boston, New York and Washington on a late-summer morning early in the twenty-first century.â” Both over-react violently to common offenses, Keith punching a man who comments vulgarly about Florence, and Lianne accosting a neighbor who plays vaguely Middle Eastern music. On three occasions the novel adopts the viewpoint of Hammad, one of the 19 hijackers and associate of Mohammad Atta.

Such literary components comprise less a novel than a set of laboratory samples for DeLillo to scrutinize for traces of our contemporary condition. What he finds there is rich with loss, suspicion, and fear of decline signified by Alzheimer's disease, the Falling Man artist/metaphor, and xenophobia, all of which are perhaps best summarized by Martin/Ernst's assessment: â“There is a word in German. Gedankenübertragung . This is the broadcast of thoughts. We are all beginning to have this thought, of American irrelevance. It's a little like telepathy. Soon the day is coming when nobody has to think about America except for the danger it brings. It is losing the center. It becomes the center of its own shit. This is the only center it occupies.â” Indeed, that is precisely the effect of Falling Man . At its end, after a short 246 pages, one senses having been exposed to a broadcasting of thoughts, which combined are neither uninteresting nor irrelevant, yet fail nevertheless to deliver on the words that share space on the work's title page: â“a novel.â”

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