A Google search for “9-11 novel” comes back with 142,000 listings. Indeed, two of the five nominees for the most recent National Book Award in fiction relied on 9-11 as a point of departure. And Americans are far from the only folks drawn to the power of this emerging theme, as demonstrated by French author Frédéric Beigbeder’s Windows on the World and English novelist Ian McEwan’s Saturday. In short, the Post-9-11 novel may be as important to the current crop of literati as cowboy and horror stories were for readers of my father’s generation.
No American novelist is better suited to tackle this subject than Don DeLillo, who makes an outstanding contribution to the genre with his latest effort, Falling Man. A year ago, three of DeLillo’s works were highlighted in a list of the best novels of the last 25 years compiled by The New York Times, and each of them focused on themes of disaster, tragedy or looming crisis. DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise dealt with an “airborne toxic event” which beleaguers protagonist Jack Gladney, a professor who specialized in the emerging academic specialty of Hitler Studies. Three years later, DeLillo published Libra, which explored the life and times of Lee Harvey Oswald. DeLillo’s 1997 magnum opus Underworld highlighted the world of toxic garbage, and drew its name from the author's imagined linkages between Pluto, the Roman deity of the underworld, with plutonium waste buried far beneath the ground.
Despite his recurring interest in disaster scenarios, DeLillo is well known for the light touch with which he tackles even the heaviest topics. When he introduces an “airborne toxic event” or a visit to the nation’s largest garbage dump, readers can expect incisive satire. I suspect that DeLillo is attracted to these themes because of the ease with which they offer themselves up to his ironical frame of mind. Yet it is to DeLillo’s credit that he steps back from this satirical tone in Falling Man, and takes a tougher stance in telling the story of Keith Neudecker, a lawyer working in the north tower of the World Trade Center on the day of the collapse.
In the aftermath of the event, Neudecker seeks out his estranged wife Lianne and their son Justin. But in the following days he finds himself obsessively returning to the apartment of Florence Givens, a middle-aged black woman who also survived the disaster. In typical DeLillo fashion, the novelist interposes several sub-plots against this major narrative – surprising interludes dealing with poker tournaments, writing classes for Alzheimer patients, a performance artist known as the Falling Man, and the machinations of the Al-Qaeda hijackers.
DeLillo builds these various stories by piling up dozens of small set pieces of three or four pages duration. DeLillo has used this technique elsewhere – most ambitiously in Underworld – and it is one of the trademarks of his style. His plots accumulate through these vignettes, and he constantly shifts the scene in the manner of a film director, never letting any storyline dominate for more than a few pages at a time.
The other DeLillo trademark, equally evident in Falling Man, is his sputtering dialogue. His characters converse at cross purposes, achieving many things – self-justification, rationalization, stream-of-consciousness musing – but rarely communication. Some critics have questioned the realism of these strange conversations, but they miss the point – such dialogue, much like the bantering in a Tarantino or Altman film, achieves a stylized heightening of effect that goes beyond mere verisimilitude. As I see it, no novelist of our time writes better dialogue than DeLillo. Even so, I am disturbed by DeLillo’s terrorists, who talk more soberly and straight-forwardly than any of the other characters in Falling Man. It almost seems as if Mohamed Atta has wandered into these pages from another novel.
These fragmented narratives circle each other, resisting easy resolution. And DeLillo plays daring games with chronology, returning in the final pages to the moments that take place immediately before the opening of his novel, when the planes hit the towers. The narrative here demands high drama and intensity, and DeLillo rises to the occasion. We will no doubt encounter these same zero hour tragedies in other novels, given this booming field of 9-11 fiction, but for the time being DeLillo has set the standard.