Falling Man

Don DeLillo - Falling Man

Betyg: 4

Och nu har jag haft flera inlägg på svenska så det är väl dags att vara lat igen och bara klippa å klistra utan att översätta. Håhåjaja.

One of the most fascinating comments on 9/11 that I've come across is Laurie Anderson’s album Live In New York. It’s recorded in September 2001, just over a week after the event, and she’s on stage performing a set of songs – written years or even decades earlier – dealing with paranoia, dogmatism, survival. And of course the centrepiece is an unusually emotional and cathartic version of her 1981 single "O Superman":

This is the hand, the hand that takes.
Here come the planes.
They're American planes. Made in America.
Smoking or non-smoking?
And the voice said: Neither snow nor rain nor gloom of night shall stay these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.
'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice.
And when justice is gone, there's always force.

9/11 is obviously a huge trauma which needs to be addressed in fiction, but so far just about every one of my favourite authors who has tried to tackle it has ended up writing around it; Auster’s Brooklyn Follies, Rushdie’s Shalimar The Clown, Gibson’s Spook Country, McEwan’s Saturday, Pynchon’s Against The Day... surely it can’t be too big a subject? Surely the absence of two towers can’t only be tackled by leaving them out of the story? While some writers have done great work in a post-9/11 world, I think the only completely successful and meaningful novel I’ve read about the event itself and its fallout has been youngster Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud And Incredibly Close.

DeLillo should be the ideal writer to deal with it. As someone put it, he’s been writing 9/11 novels for decades; Mao II, Underworld, White Noise... if anyone can take a huge event and the underlying tendencies in society surrounding it and turn it into a novel, it should be him. Yet I’m not completely sure he manages as well as I had hoped - and all of this review should be read with the knowledge that I consider Underworld and White Noise to be absolute masterpieces and I expect nothing less.

Falling Man gets off to a great start, a dazed, shell-shocked account of the minutes and days immediately following the attack itself, focused on estranged spouses Keith and Lianne as they both try to piece their life back together (and their life together back together). The disjointed scenes, the out-of-focus dialogue, the sketchy and quickly-abandoned scenes from ground zero all serve to highlight the way the attack not only destroyed lives and buildings, but shocked people to their very core – nicely tied in to Lianne’s work with Alzheimer’s patients trying to hold on to a Self that’s being eroded away.

But at some point, it feels like the shell shock wears out its welcome and we’re going to have to get to know the characters – and to me, at least, that’s where the novel stumbles. There are bits that have me fearing that someone’s going to try to film this with Sandra Bullock and Matt Dillon as Lianne and Keith. He, especially, largely remains a mystery, and not even a very interesting one. While his development later in the novel makes sense from a symbolic perspective (the illusion of being in control of your fate; “Call or raise, call or fold, the little binary pulse located behind the eyes, the choice that reminds you who you are. It belonged to him, this yes or no, not to a horse running in the mud somewhere in New Jersey”) I don't think it does from a narrative point of view. The rather abrupt skip forward in time, the plot lines that show up here and there but never really have time to develop... it feels a bit like a fragment of a longer novel rather than a complete work in its own right, and as chillingly poignant as he can be at times, the novel remains curiously (for DeLillo) locked inside itself, if you catch my drift; it rarely makes those huge vertical leaps (sorry, sorry) through the layers of society, from religion to politics to popular music etc, that he usually does so well. (Remember the Elvis=Hitler discussion in White Noise?) The details are often great, there’s tons of great observations – the aforementioned paranoia that has people Lianne hitting a woman for playing Arabic music and little kids looking for this Bill Lawton character, for instance – but I’m not sure it quite ties together into a whole. It’s as if the terrorist’s quote
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 tightly than ever. Plot closed the world to the slenderest line of sight, where everything converges to a point. There was the claim of fate, that they were born to do this.
is somehow a theme for the whole novel; everyone is tied together in a plot, but we don’t need to see the whole plot in linear fashion, we don’t get a fixed script telling us how to live and die - in a world of wars and dogmatism, thinking we've seen through it all and that we’re the heroes of the whole piece is the last thing we need. And while that’s an admirable point, using it as a literary technique doesn't work entirely in this case.

Which sort of brings us to the (slightly underused) falling man himself, the performance artist turning up here and there to hang in the air like a never answered question mark, always arrested but never explaining his motivations, just suspended somewhere between take-off and landing, available for whatever interpretations you want to hang on him... like a gravity’s angel, if you will. (Yes, I’m all about the obscure Laurie Anderson references today.) Lianne refers to him as a fallen angel – here’s a bit of religious symbolism turned upside-down, methinks: it’s all very easy to shoot the messenger, blame the fallen angel/Satan/The Great Satan, yet the world is made of people and we’re the ones actually doing anything. Again; Falling Man is great at symbolism, great at metaphor, perhaps not so great at actually drawing characters and telling their story. As if DeLillo got just a little too caught up in Saying Something about his big subject (which can also lead to rather hokey lines such as the one about children not needing white crayons since they have white paper).

The ending is stunning, though, even more so than the beginning. He takes the B plot that’s been popping up here and there and fuses it with the main one in one of the most incredible scene shifts I’ve read – I went back and read the last few pages at least three times. Let X = X. He almost – almost – brings it all together, the symbolism of the attack and the reality of the people affected by it, and for that he deserves 4/5 , if not by a huge margin.
'Cause when love is gone, there's always justice.
And when justice is gone, there's always force.
And when force is gone, there’s always... Mom. Hi, Mom!



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