Thursday, October 07, 2010

the third-last book I read

Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

Here's the dilemma of the contemporary novelist in the aftermath of 9/11 - on the one hand, how can you avoid the subject of the attacks as source material? When this is all anyone is thinking about, how can you write about anything else? On the other hand, how do you depict events which pretty much everyone in the world has watched in unprecedented detail on 24-hour rolling news coverage without resorting to crassness and cliché? What are you going to say? Flying commercial jet aircraft into buildings is bad? Do we need to read a novel to tell us that?

Probably the only approach you can sensibly take is something a bit more tangential, skipping most of the widescreen detail that people already know about and focussing on something a bit more specific and personal. So it's no accident that the book starts (a bit like Slow Man) just a few moments after the main action has been concluded - Keith Neudecker has escaped down the stairwell of the North Tower of the World Trade Centre and emerged at street level just after the collapse of the South Tower. Dazed, covered in dust and debris, nursing a broken wrist and carrying a stranger's briefcase, he turns up at the door of his estranged wife Lianne, who lives nearby.

Gradually drifting back into resuming something of his former relationship with Lianne, Keith locates the former owner of the briefcase, a woman named Florence, and enters into a vague sort of affair with her. Meanwhile a performance artist called David Janiak has taken to suspending himself on a makeshift safety harness off various parts of the city in the pose of the infamous Falling Man photograph in a sort of mute tribute to the events of 9/11, or possibly just an elaborate attempt to annoy everyone.

Interspersed through all this stuff are a few brief interludes depicting the preparations of the terrorists for the hijackings, seen mainly through the eyes of a low-ranking operative called Hammad but also featuring occasional appearances from real-life hijacker Mohamed Atta. Gradually these converge on the final chapter where the events of 9/11 are finally addressed head-on, including Keith's escape trom the North Tower after the impact of Flight 11.

Of course the drawback of the excessively oblique approach to a subject is that the connection between what you're describing and the real subject won't be obvious; for instance what the significance of the lengthy section describing Keith's sojourn playing poker in Las Vegas is isn't totally clear. Presumably it's just to illustrate his retreat from "normal" human relations into an impersonal world of emotionless staring at other people across a table, and in a more general sense his disconnection from human interaction altogether. This post-traumatic numbness culminating in a cathartic reliving of the key events right at the end (plus the obvious aeroplane connection) reminded me strongly of the underrated Jeff Bridges film Fearless.

The scenes describing the events immediately preceding the crashing of the planes are powerful, indeed it would be hard for them not to be, depicting as they do loosely fictionalised versions of real-life events in which we know everyone is going to die. The rest of it, while beautifully written, seemed to be striving for a significance that it couldn't really muster, paradoxically because of its determination to avoid obvious real-time newsreel-style narrative of the day itself. Maybe it really is just impossible to write anything about 9/11 that isn't either clichéd, banal or incomprehensible.

Maybe the passage of time is what's needed - ironically the only other DeLillo novel I've read, Libra, addresses another seminal event in history, the JFK assassination. This couldn't be more different from Falling Man in that it's a big thick book, densely written and plotted and hard to follow in parts, while Falling Man is relatively short and very starkly written (and there isn't much of a plot to speak of). Ironically, though, excellent as Libra is, if you want a fictionalised account of the events leading up to the JFK assassination then the book you really want is James Ellroy's American Tabloid. You could always read both, of course.

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