DeLillo’s 9/11 Resists Gravity

The magnetic effect of plot is a subject Mr. DeLillo knows well. In Libra, he wrote: “There is a tendency of plots to move toward death.” In Falling Man, the terrorist plot accelerates the gravitational pull of death, an implacable force that snares us all willy-nilly. The new novel is about falling—falling through space, through time, through memory, being tugged down or forward or back—and about how some of us try to slow or speed the motion.

Twice in the weeks after 9/11, Lianne encounters a performance artist who goes by the name of Falling Man: Secured by safety harness, he jumps from high places (the Queensboro Bridge, the elevated roadway around Grand Central) and dangles in the pose of the man in the famous 9/11 photograph—“a man set forever in free fall against the looming background of the column panels in the tower.” Toward the end of the novel—several years have passed—Lianne happens to see Falling Man’s obituary. He died at 39 (Keith’s age on Sept. 11, 2001), of natural causes.

Other natural causes: Years ago, Lianne’s father killed himself when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s; now she volunteers with a writing group for patients in the early stages of the disease. “These people were the living breath of the thing that killed her father.” She notes the “slow waning” of one patient: “She was not lost so much as falling, growing fainter.” The group writes about the planes, about the towers, about the victims, but not about the terrorists. One patient explains that even wishing for revenge on the “nineteen men come here to kill us” is impossible—“Because they’re a million miles outside your life. Which, besides, they’re dead.”

This is the wonder of fiction: It raises the dead (defying gravity) and closes the gap between one life and another.

Consider the second encounter between Lianne and Falling Man, who suddenly appears on a maintenance platform on the elevated tracks north of 96th Street. As a train roars by, he jumps:

“Jumps or falls. He keels forward, body rigid, and falls full-length, headfirst ….

“She felt her body go limp. But the fall was not the worst of it. The jolting end of the fall left him upside-down, secured to the harness, twenty feet above the pavement …. There was something awful about the stylized pose, body and limbs, his signature stroke. But the worst of it was the stillness itself and her nearness to the man …. She could have spoken to him but that was another plane of being, beyond reach. He remained motionless, with the train still running in a blur in her mind and the echoing deluge of sound falling about him, blood rushing to his head, away from hers.”

The tail end of that last sentence forges a syntactic union, a blood bond, between the performance artist and a member of his audience—a closeness not achieved by the event itself, in which Falling Man remains on “another plane of being, beyond reach.”

At the end of the novel—looping back to just before the beginning—Mr. DeLillo performs the same trick again, though this time the effect is even more startling, almost unthinkable: He writes a sentence that yokes together terrorist and victim. It begins with Hammad seated in a jump seat aboard the hijacked Flight 11, screaming down the Hudson corridor toward the World Trade Center:

“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, an
d 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.”