Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo

The lives of a small family living in Manhattan after Sept 11, 2001. More particularly, the life of Keith, who stumbled out of the first tower clutching someone else's briefcase. Who then stumbles into another version of his life.

We first meet him as he tries to figure out where and what he is and where he is going. His thinking is confused and he finds himself at the door of his estranged wife, Lianne. She lets him in, and she's grateful for the chance. She needs him then.

Little by little, the couple and their son Justin face the changes in their lives since the attack on the twin towers. They go about their daily activities, but differently. Keith and Lianne tend to sway back and forth toward and away from each other, yet always with kindness. Justin asserts his personhood with odd speech patterns, perhaps as much as anything to grab some attention.

As they go from place to place we are treated to a wash of feelings and thoughts, at times seeming disjointed, apart from the person. We also meet "Falling man", a performance artist who shows up unannounced, dropping from high places, wearing just a simple harness. Always he assumes the same "falling" pose, apparently copying how one or more of the persons who jumped from the towers looked on their way down. He is always in a business suit, as were the others. This odd character turns up throughout the book, reminding us of what was perhaps the most horrifying image from the attack.

We also get to meet one of the hijackers, but only in a couple of short passages. These passages repeat some of the commonly-held versions of the hijackers. A man obsessed with his martyr's death and what it will hold for him and his family. Some glimpses at others who are not as devout as he, who are taking advantage of their time in this country to behave less religiously. I felt these sketches were better left out as they did nothing to illuminate the event and much to promulgate the usual simplistic version of Islam.

For me, the book missed somewhere. I do not know if it is because I did not read it carefully enough or for some other reason. I tried to figure out some things DeLillo does - like referring to Justin as "the kid" and not even giving us Keith's last name until nearly the end of the book - and I came up with the idea that it may not be about these three people but instead about all of us. Yet I know that not to be true.

The flights of visions and thought and confusion were, for me, often just as confusing as they might have been for the subjects, because I couldn't always identify who was thinking at the time. It reminded me of some books translated from Spanish, where I could not distinguish among pronouns to figure out who was speaking. And ultimately I didn't have anything to take from it except my own sense that I missed something.

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