Dominating the cover photograph of Don DeLillo's monumental 1997 novel Underworld are the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, their upper floors obscured by fog or smoke. That picture eerily prefigures the subject matter of this latest work, marking a welcome return to form for an American master. In Falling Man, DeLillo creates a cast of fully human characters groping for some understanding of the act of madness that was 9/11.
Keith Neudecker is a survivor of the attack on the World Trade Center, struggling through dust and ash as the novel opens, toward the midtown apartment where his wife Lianne, from whom he's separated, and his seven-year old son, Justin, live. He carries the briefcase of a stranger with whom he'll later connect as he attempts to deal with the random chance that allowed him to escape the doomed building while friends and co-workers died. Lianne is a freelance book editor who volunteers to lead a group of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease through writing exercises designed to help them hold on to the shreds of memory slowly drifting away. She's haunted by the suicide of her father, himself a victim of the terrible disease, and fears his death foreshadows her fate.
Without overtly acknowledging their shared need, Lianne and Keith negotiate an uneasy reconciliation that's more a matter of circumstance than rekindled passion. Justin and two of his friends search the skies, looking for planes flown by the man they call "Bill Lawton." They and the other characters, like Lianne's mother Nina; her companion Martin, an art dealer with vague ties to German leftists; and Florence Givens, the owner of the briefcase, wander across a New York landscape that feels scrubbed of most of its familiar landmarks and haunted by the memory of that grim day. DeLillo brings even more impressive imaginative powers to bear as he depicts the terror cell preparing to launch the attacks.
The "Falling Man" of the title is a performance artist who appears randomly throughout the city, using a harness to recreate what appears to some to be the iconic photograph of a man plunging to his death from one of the towers. We're forced to ask ourselves whether this enigmatic character is a symbol of healing or merely an exploiter of the city's grief.
As in all his novels, DeLillo grapples with profound questions—the existence of God, the power of memory, the struggle we confront to find our place in the universe. His prose is poetic and meditative, shifting effortlessly from jittery, almost jazzlike rhythms to the placid quality of a hymn. One example, from his description of the towers' collapse that bookends the novel: "The only light was vestigial now, the light of what comes after, carried in the residue of smashed matter, in the ash ruins of what was various and human, hovering in the air above."
The subject of 9/11 and its impact on the American psyche offer themes that will resurface in literature for generations. Those books will have the luxury of time and emotional distance to permit their authors to wrestle with questions that will linger throughout history. Still, it's doubtful that many of them will do so with the grace and undeniable power of this exquisite work.
Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Copyright 2007 BookPage Reviews.
Kirkus Reviews 2007 April #1
The contemporary master's 14th novel is a pulsating exploration of our recent history akin and comparable to such predecessors as White Noise (1985), Libra (1988) and Mao II (1991).It's a subtle deployment of intersecting narratives which begins on September 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers are falling. Keith Neudecker, a New York City office worker who survives the disaster, returns, not to the apartment where he has lived since separating from his wife Lianne, but to her and their young son Justin: a gaunt, wraith-like figure covered in ashes, broken glass and blood, carrying a stranger's briefcase. In brief, cryptic segments that move backward and forward in time, we learn of the couple's past difficulties and nominal "reconciliation," in relation to Lianne's troubled closeness to her elegant mother Nina and memories of her father, her volunteer work with a neighborhood Alzheimer's patients' support group, the poker playing cronies with whom Keith has led a separate life and the owner of the briefcase he carried out of the Tower (to whom he impulsively returns it, with whom he forges a mutually consolatory intimacy). DeLillo subtly connects these and numerous other episodes and motifs, introducing the figures of an Iraqi true believer preparing himself for martyrdom, a jaded European (Nina's lover) who confidently predicts America's impending downfall and the eponymous "performance artist" whose seemingly suicidal plunges increasingly clearly adumbrate and embody the experience of "free fall" toward which all this ruthlessly compact novel's characters are leaning. Exquisitely written sentence by sentence, perfectly constructed and infused with a harrowing momentum that never relaxes its grip on the reader's nerves, this is arguably the crowning work of DeLillo's estimable career: a compassionate and despairing dramatization of current events that shows how inextricably the political and the personal worlds are fatefully entwined. You'll scarcely be able to draw a breath throughout its lucid, overpowering climactic pages.Beauty from ashes. Copyright Kirkus 2007 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 February #2
A man emerging from the Twin Towers blaze heads uptown to reconnect with his ex-wife and son. If any novelist can do justice to 9/11, it's DeLillo. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal Reviews 2007 May #2
On 9/11, a man working in the towers, Keith, survives and returns to his estranged wife, Lianne, and young son Justin. Keith self-medicates with poker, flying between casinos and home; Lianne becomes obsessed with Alzheimer's and the support group she leads for sufferers. This novel is divided into three sections, each named for a character who is unidentified until the end of the section and serves primarily as a thematic element: "Bill Lawton" is Justin's distorted version of Bin Laden, for whom he searches the sky with binoculars; "Ernst Hechinger" is the real name of Lianne's mother's lover (now known as Martin), a former violent demonstrator against the German Democratic Republic, the extent of his crimes unknown; and "David Janiak" is the Falling Man, a controversial performance artist who falls from heights in a suit and a harness. Each section ends with a short chapter on the terrorists; strangely brief, they serve well to humanize the perpetrators without delving into the territory of judgment, sympathy, or demonization. Acclaimed novelist DeLillo (Underworld; White Noise ) offers the definitive creative text on the 9/11 world in a time when most novels are addressing the post-9/11 world. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 2/15/07.]--Anna Katterjohn, Library Journal[Page 79]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.
When DeLillo's novel Players was published in 1977, one of the main characters, Pammy, worked in the newly built World Trade Center. She felt that "the towers didn't seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their bulk than some routine distortion of light." DeLillo's new novel begins 24 years later, with Keith Neudecker standing in a New York City street covered with dust, glass shards and blood, holding somebody else's briefcase, while that intimation of the building's mortality is realized in a sickening roar behind him.
On that day, Keith, one half of a classic DeLillo well-educated married couple, returns to Lianne, from whom he'd separated, and to their young son, Justin. Keith and Lianne know it is Keith's Lazarus moment, although DeLillo reserves the bravura sequence that describes Keith's escape from the first tower--as well as the last moments of one of the hijackers, Hammad--until the end of the novel. Reconciliation for Keith and Lianne occurs in a sort of stunned unconsciousness; the two hardly engage in the teasing, ludic interchanges common to couples in other DeLillo novels. Lianne goes through a paranoid period of rage against everything Mideastern; Keith is drawn to another survivor. Lianne's mother, Nina, roils her 20-year affair with Martin, a German leftist; Keith unhooks from his law practice to become a professional poker player. Justin participates in a child's game involving binoculars, plane spotting and waiting for a man named "Bill Lawton."
DeLillo's last novel, Cosmopolis , was a disappointment, all attitude (DeLillo is always a brilliant stager of attitude) and no heart. This novel is a return to DeLillo's best work. No other writer could encompass 9/11 quite like DeLillo does here, down to the interludes following Hammad as he listens to a man who "was very genius"--Mohammed Atta. The writing has the intricacy and purpose of a wiring diagram. The mores of the after-the-event are represented with no cuteness--save, perhaps, the falling man performance artist. It is as if Players , The Names , Libra , White Noise , Underworld --with their toxic events, secret histories, moral panics--converge, in that day's narrative of systematic vulnerability, scatter and tentative regrouping. (June)[Page 66]. Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information.