Falling Man by Don DeLillo
"Punctuation’s interesting. I make a point to observe how a writer uses commas." (Mao II)
Falling Man ends where it begins, with 9/11: an experience, like a black hole, from which there can be no escape and which has, or can appear in its horror to have, no communion with other experiences. DeLillo achieves this Möbius effect through the device of intercutting into his post-9/11 narrative a series of cameos of the perpetrators in the period leading up to the act. Thus the description of the falling towers with which the book ends shares phrases, fragments of sentences, with that of its opening scene. Implicit here is the suggestion that a story’s architecture is itself a component of its expression - the expression, in this case, of a sense of cultural paralysis, an inability to move forward beyond the traumatic happening.
The two main characters are a man, who has been working in the World Trade Centre, and his estranged wife. The man, dazed but not too seriously injured, makes his way to his wife’s apartment. Superficially, then, you might say the disaster has ‘brought them back together’; but this serves only to emphasise the progressive deterioration in their ability to relate to each other or indeed to anybody else. Considering the sympathy they might be expected to elicit, it is surprisingly difficult to like either of them. Though taking care of their child, they scarcely ever use his name but refer to him dismissively, almost it seems contemptuously, as ‘the kid’. The man finds some comfort through making contact with a woman who escaped from the tower down the same staircase as himself. He has sex with her - an episode which perhaps owes less to psychological likelihood than to the literary convention whereby any man and woman left in a room together will immediately get down to it - and then abandons her in oddly self-righteous remorse. A measure of the author’s withholding of personality from the two characters - comparable to their denial of individuality to their child - is the surprise we feel at finding the wife, three years after the event, taking part in an anti-war demonstration. Nothing has been said to suggest that she has any such views on the matter. And even here we are told that she can feel no kinship with her fellow-marchers.
There are narrative elements, too, which echo the post-9/11 numbness, the shrinkage of humanity, without being in any sense consequent upon it. The boy, responding to a school exercise, insists for a while on speaking only in words of one syllable. The wife acts as a facilitator in a writing group for Alzheimer’s sufferers, which gradually fizzles out as its members one by one fall below the threshold of verbal coherence. We may even wonder whether it is legitimate to read these as parallels to, or commentary upon, American society at that historical moment; but why else would DeLillo have included them? The structuring principle here is clearly appositional; and so must our interpretation be. As time goes on, the husband spirals down into the half-life - brilliantly rendered - of a professional poker player while his wife takes to visiting churches and musing upon God.
Characters appear more sympathetic the further we move from the centre. The most engaging - though this may just reflect my own Eurocentric prejudice - is the wife’s mother’s boyfriend, a German who, it is hinted, may have been involved with the Baader-Meinhof group. (There is even what may be a half-hearted attempt to tar him with the terrorist brush - though one can hardly imagine the Red Army Faction committing the sort of indiscriminate massacre in which al-Q’aeda delights.) Of the current perception of the US from outside, he says, ‘There’s an empty space where America used to be’ - thus eerily echoing the empty space where the twin towers once stood.
The most striking feature of this book, however, is the way the prose itself seems to partake of the numbed, affect-free quality attributed to the individuals and, by extension, to the society of the era in general. Are we imagining this? Certainly many if not most American writers have in recent years taken to punctuating their work almost exclusively with commas and full stops, as if deliberately and perversely seeking to shrink the range of articulation available to them, a shortfall for which the only remedy lies in attempting to mimic the rhythms of speech and leaving the finer nuances to the reader’s inference. All the same, DeLillo has in the past achieved plenty of variety within his self-imposed limitations. In long stretches of Libra, for example, simple declarative sentences serve, as they did for Hemingway, to confer the urgency of reportage upon the fiction, while at the same time he is elsewhere more than capable of building his phrases, by flamboyant accretion, to baroque metaphysical heights. In Falling Man something quite different is happening:
At traffic lights people crossing the street stopped to watch, two or three, seeming briefly to float above the windows, and sometimes only one. The others crossed, who didn’t give a damn.
Here, as pervasively in this book, commas are used not primarily to subdivide clauses in the interests of clarity but to put a brake upon the thought, to stall it, so that the sentences move forward in lurches like a car in the hands of a novice driver. We are trapped in Alzheimer’s territory. And it is frightening.
The ‘falling man’ of the title is not, or not directly, he of the startling image caught at the time, frame-frozen in tiny silhouette against the rushing verticals of the tower, but rather a performance artist who appears at random locations in New York suspended in imitation of the other’s inverted pose. The original is mentioned only once, or appears to be, in an explanatory aside; but even this, on closer examination, proves sleight of hand: ‘He brought it back, of course, those stark moments in the burning towers when people fell or were forced to jump. [...] something we’d not seen, the single falling figure that trails a collective dread, body come down among us all.’ No actual mention of the photograph. On the book’s second page, during the initial panic, we have, ‘...figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space..;’ but this slips past in the turmoil to be overlain by the image of a solitary shirt drifting down from on high, an image on which the story will finally close. A strategy of avoidance, or of substitution, is clearly at work here.
The iconic image of the Falling Man was - if reports are true - quickly suppressed in the US media. One wonders whether this suppression was a spontaneous choice of the communal mind, a car-crash amnesia writ large; or was it more a question of official censorship? Perhaps, in either case, the photograph’s offence lay in its emphasis upon an individual’s death, thereby positioning 9/11 as the murder of 3000 innocent individuals rather than, as in the bellicose propaganda of the US media, an attack upon ‘American values’. DeLillo’s handling of the performance artist may be read as either a collusion with this censorship or - or and/or - a subtle attempt to circumvent the censor, whether Federal or Freudian, just as the cover design of the book appears at first glance to be, but is not, a reproduction of the contested picture.
One thing is certain: this book is remarkable for the density of its recursiveness: for the degree to which its meaning, an analysis of the state of the American psyche post-9/11, is coded not simply in the actions and words of its characters but at all levels down to the micro-structuring of its prose.