By Don DeLillo
Scribner, 256 pages, $26
Don DeLillo already owned the Twin Towers—in 1997, he chose for the cover of Underworld a haunting Kertesz photograph of the World Trade Center looming in the murk, disappearing up into cloud, a soaring pigeon standing in for a hijacked airliner. And he owned terrorism, which he put at the heart of three novels, Players (1977), The Names (1982) and Mao II (1991). And he owned conspiracy, imagining in Libra (1988)—in encyclopedic detail—the plot that led to the assassination of J.F.K. Now, with his new novel, the extraordinary Falling Man, he has exercised his right of ownership and stamped his name on 9/11: He has written a powerful and direct account of the atrocity and its aftermath.
He owns it, of course, only in the sense that he’s taken an event that we thought we knew too well and made it his own with the lean, nervous, relentlessly ambitious writing that is unmistakably DeLillo. Reading the virtuoso first pages of his novel, we see the catastrophe anew—smell it, taste it, hear it, feel it—as if that September morning had dawned again, fresh and bright: “The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down the streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.”
Out of the smoke and ash comes a man in a suit, carrying a briefcase, “glass in his hair and face, marbled bolls of blood and light.” The man’s name is Keith Neudecker, and he was working in his office in the North Tower, far too close to the point of impact. Only dimly aware of his injuries, he accepts a lift uptown to the apartment where his estranged wife Lianne lives with their son, Justin, who’s 7. That’s the core of the novel: a survivor and his wife and child and what comes after (“Everything now is measured by after”).
Justin has little friends who now search the skies for planes; Lianne has a mother; the mother has a lover (who may have been complicit with the Red Brigades in the 1970’s); and all of them (and all of us) register in different ways the impact of what Keith has survived, the shock waves emanating from Ground Zero. There’s also another survivor—the owner of the briefcase Keith was carrying when he walked out of the smoke and ash—who says, “I feel like I’m still on the stairs …. If I live to be a hundred I’ll still be on the stairs.” This woman wants to tell Keith everything about her escape from the tower—“the timeless drift of the long spiral down”—a grim march they both endured. “He listened carefully, noting every detail, trying to find himself in the crowd.”
Mr. DeLillo doubles back in time to meet one of the hijackers, Hammad. Rapid, elliptical sketches give us a hazy outline: his recruitment in Hamburg, his training in Afghanistan, the waiting in Florida, the doubts and recommitment, the “electric” presence of Mohamed Atta. “They felt things together, he and his brothers. They felt the claim of danger and isolation. They felt the magnetic effect of plot. Plot drew them together more closely than ever. Plot closed the world to the slenderest line of sight, where everything converges to a point.”
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.”
How does Keith fare, afterward? He was always a reticent man, we learn. As a survivor, he’s enigmatic, troubled, restless, maybe even dangerous—like the protagonist of almost any DeLillo novel, even the very first, Americana (1971). He moves in with Lianne and Justin, knowing that the only thing he’ll miss from his recent past is the weekly poker game, “the one uncomplicated interval.”
After the planes, “he felt strange to himself, or always had, but it was different now because he was watching.” Of course. Time passes, though, and it seems that it just might be true, what he tells Lianne: “We’re ready to sink into our little lives.”
But no, Keith is not yet ready to “sink”—and his strategic resistance takes him back to the poker table, as a professional now, flying out to Las Vegas to play in tournaments.
“The cards fell randomly, no assignable cause, but he remained the agent of free choice …. [T]he game had structure, guiding principles, sweet and easy interludes of dream logic when the player knows that the card he needs is the card that’s sure to fall. Then, always, in the crucial instant ever repeated hand after hand, the choice of yes or no. Call or raise, call or fold, the little binary pulse located behind the eyes, the choice that reminds you who you are.”
At the poker table, Keith is sustained by an illusion of control. And here (one final passage from this beautifully crafted, endlessly quotable novel) is an image that captures the essence of everything he’s hoping to shut out, an eerie image from the awful, surreal seconds after the fall of the first tower:
“There was something else then, outside all this, not belonging to this, aloft. He watched it coming down. A shirt came down out of the high smoke, a shirt lifted and drifting in the scant light and then falling again, down toward the river.”
Adam Begley is books editor of The Observer.