Falling Man

By Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo I hear is one of America’s foremost contemporary writers – a National Book Award winner and runner-up in a NY Times survey of the best American fiction in the last 25 years. Falling Man I am hoping is not one of his better works – it was disappointing to say the least.

First of all, it is about the twin towers and 9/11. I would think it couldn’t be the easiest place to start a work of fiction – it is too close in time, there are far too many images in your head from TV, real-life stories have been played and re-played far too often. Even with these disadvantages, I found the book shallow, whiney and insubstantial.

Keith is the man in the building when the planes strike. In zombie-like fashion, he gets out carrying some one else’s briefcase and comes straight to his estranged wife Lianne’s house. In trying to make some sense of his life after those dark hours (where he has lost a poker-playing buddy), he attempts re-enacting the family man with his wife and son, gets into a relationship with the briefcase owner who has suffered through the incident herself, gets out of it and finally ends up in the casinos playing serious poker.

Lianne in the meantime is going through her own crises, just worsened by the trauma of the attack. She has never got over her father’s suicide when he discovers he is losing control over his senses. It leads her to co-ordinate a support group for people suffering from the slow loss of memory. Within years her mother too is affected and it leaves Lianne paranoid about a possible loss of her own memories.

Keith’s and Lianne’s son Justin is left scanning the skies with his friends for more planes and a man named Bill Lawton (Bin Laden in traumatized child-speak). There are a couple of more characters – Lianne’s mother Nina and her lover Martin. Nina is an intellectual and her arguments with Martin, a European art dealer who might or might not have been a left-wing radical in the ‘70s form a strange backdrop to the attacks. Martin’s anti-American views are just a vague mumble though and never articulated enough to make any sort of point. Then there is also Hammad, one of the men with Atta who flew the planes into the towers. DeLillo takes us into his mind – a poor insubstantial journey that does little to explain the enormity of his actions.

The falling man refers to a performance artist who simulates the falling off the tower in various parts of the city, at various times. No one knows why he does it, there is little information about his background and he remains a mystery even when dead. If there was something profound that DeLillo meant to convey through him, it was lost on me.

Overall the work is so superficial that you wonder what the point of the exercise was. Keith draws little sympathy and neither does Lianne. There is a self-absorption to all the characters that grates. Conversations are stilted and so is the writing I thought. The only parts that moved me were those of the Alzheimer’s-diseased people in Lianne’s workshop – real and scary.

DeLillo has failed to impress me. I will read Underworld and White Noise, his best works I am told. But I will go in with little expectations.


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