Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

I didn’t care much for Falling Man by Don DeLillo. There is some fantastic writing, especially in the description of the horror of the attacks on the World Trade Center, and there are some other excellent moments – Keith, who worked in the towers, and his son; Keith and his wife; Keith and another survivor – but at no point did it ever feel like a novel to me. I read the excerpt from the book that appeared in The New Yorker in April(and about which I commented here) and I think if you’ve read that story you could skip the book.

In fact, James Wood makes a similar point in his review of the book (The New Republic, July 2, 2007):
“Don DeLillo’s new book is not a 9/11 novel but a 9/11 short story, or perhaps a 9/11 poem. It is not a synthesis or an argument or even, really, a sustained narrative, but an arrangement of symbolically productive elements . . .”
And some of these elements are either unnecessary, or not given sufficient attention. (Wood points to the German lover of the protagonist’s mother-in-law, who seems to be much more important to the story than he actually is.)

Point of view is mostly Keith’s, but we also get the perspective of Lianne, Keith’s wife and, inexplicably, the terrorists themselves. For me, the sections with the terrorists added nothing, although there is a brilliant moment near the end of the book when the narrative is in the point of view of one of the highjackers but at the moment when the plane hits the building (and the terrorist presumably dies) point of view seamlessly shifts into Keith who is inside the building:
“A bottle fell off the counter in the galley, on the other side of the aisle, and he watched it roll this way and that, a water bottle, empty, making an arc one way and rolling back the other, and he watched it spin more quickly and then skitter across the floor an instant before the aircraft struck the tower, heat, then fuel, then fire, and a blast wave passed through the structure that sent Keith Neudecker out of his chair and into a wall. He found himself walking into a wall. He didn’t drop the telephone until he hit the wall. The floor began to slide beneath him and he lost his balance and eased along the wall to the floor.”

However, except for that passage and a few others, I think I got more out of the Wood review than I got out of the book. Sticking with his notion that this is really a short story and not a novel, Wood elaborates:
“This painterly assemblage has its satisfactions, but they are the kind that would work better in a short story, where pleasures can be had, precisely, from the pressurized, compact formality, and where such obviously ‘symbolic’ patternings (for instance, the old people losing their memories counterposed with the memory-saturation of Keith) are more easily forgiven, as part of the price we pay for the poetic rhythm of short forms. The short story, in effect, announces: ‘Here, make of this installation what you will.’ Its very reticence – its brief four-thousandish-word span – is a lattice on which we can hang our interpretations. The novel, one feels, must do a little more than that – but Falling Man insists on retaining the reticent formality of a much shorter work, so that one feels it has been pumped with rarified air, and is just floating away on its own pretentiousness.”
Wood finds, as I did, a good deal to enjoy here, mostly in the language of the book. But as a novel, it was for me unsatisfying.

No comments: