This iconic photo by Richard Drew of the Associated Press captured an unidentified man falling from the North Tower of the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11. It is estimated that at least 200 people followed suit that day. Even for those who did not witness the event, the image is seared in the mind. That morning as I was walking away from the WTC area on Water Street, there was a woman in near hysterics. She had actually saw these falling people. The terror in her eyes remained with me when I saw the this photo published in the New York Times. The image raises so many questions.
“Falling Man” by Don DeLillo, is part aftermath, part performance art. The latter is a man who unexpectedly turns up in New York City in a reenactment of a man falling from heights as onlookers watch believing he will die. Unseen until the act is done, he is tethered inelastically. He incurs bodily damage by doing so, but he is not in search of notoriety. His personal history is unknown.
The principal is Keith, an employee who worked in the WTC and survived. He goes to his estranged wife Lianne and his son Keith immediately after leaving the scene.
“When he appeared at the door it was not possible, a man come out of an ash storm, all blood and slag, reeking of burnt matter, with pinpoint glints of slivered glass in his face. He looked immense, in the doorway, with a gaze that had no focus on it…. She turned off the TV set, not sure why, protecting him from the news he’d just walked out of, that’s why, protecting him from the news he’d just walked out of, that’s why, and then went into the kitchen.”
Life, mortality and God are looked at from different viewpoints. Keith is not resurrected. He revels in his isolation, becoming a semi-professional itinerant poker player. Lianne half-heartedly believes in maintaining the family even in an atomic state. Her mother, Nina, a moral hypocrite, never believed in Keith and warns against him. Justin, still in elementary school, with his peers detach from adults and search the skies. The perspectives of the terrorists are also considered.
“But the system doesn’t justify this. Islam renounces this,” he said.
“If you call it God, then it’s God. God is whatever God allows.”
Lianne looks at pictures of old passports framed on Nina’s wall. Her married boyfriend, an art dealer, gave them to her.
“There was something in the premeditation of these photographs, the bureaucratic intent, the straightforward poses that brought her paradoxically into the lives of the subjects. Maybe what she saw was human ordeal set against the rigor of the state. She saw people fleeing, there to here, with darkest hardship pressing the edges of the frame.”
Lianne, first flails against her arab neighbor. Subsequently she seeks out a mosque.
“She ran early mornings and came home and stripped and showered. God would consume her. God would de-create her and she was too small and tame to resist. That’s why she was resisting now. Because think about it. Because once you believe such a thing, God is, then how can you escape, how survive the power of it, and was and ever shall be.”
Don DeLillo is one of America’s best authors, but this is the first novel by him that I have read. A new novel by him will be released this May.
He is an interesting writer and this is an a good book that realistically describes 9/11 and the period thereafter.