Mas­ter­class in art of dis­ori­en­ta­tion

Don DeLillo’s latest is not so much a novel about trauma as a trau­ma­tised novel, writes Barry Oak­ley Fall­ing Man By Don DeLillo Pi­cador, 246pp, $ 32.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

DON DeLillo is the lit­er­ary equiv­a­lent of the man with the sand­wich board warn­ing that the end of the world is at hand. He started wan­der­ing the streets of fiction as far back as 1972 with End Zone , in which a col­lege stu­dent be­comes fas­ci­nated by the prospect of nu­clear an­ni­hi­la­tion.

But it wasn’t un­til White Noise , in 1984, that DeLillo moved from hav­ing a small cir­cle of ad­mir­ers to na­tional at­ten­tion. In those 12 years the apoc­a­lypse had come closer. An in­dus­trial ac­ci­dent re­leases a black cloud of deadly tox­ins. A chem­i­cal King Kong has bro­ken loose.

In Mao II , seven years later, it’s still com­ing. It’s now the time of ter­ror­ism and hostages, and the pro­tag­o­nist, a fa­mous nov­el­ist called Bill Gray, sees the dan­ger: al­ter­ing the in­ner life of a cul­ture, what writ­ers once strove to do, is now per­formed by bomb- mak­ers and gun­men.

In Un­der­world , the mas­sive novel that pre­ceded his latest, ter­ror goes un­der­ground. A civil­i­sa­tion can be de­stroyed by what it throws away. What re­ally counts at the end of the mil­len­nium is what we have dis­carded in the form of nu­clear waste: ra­dioac­tiv­ity is buried down there, fis­sile and fright­en­ing.

With Fall­ing Man, the ele­phant is now in the room. With the col­lapse of the World Trade Cen­tre twin tow­ers, fac­tu­al­ity has over­taken imag­i­na­tion. The ‘‘ lethal be­liever’’ of Mao II has struck home and lodged him­self deep in the psy­che of the West­ern world. So DeLillo has posed the chal­lenge that this novel must come to terms with: in the face of catas­tro­phe, what can fiction do? A re­al­ity so over­pow­er­ing seems to make a mock­ery of mere imag­i­na­tion.

It was a point first made by Philip Roth as far

back as 1961 in his es­say Writ­ing Amer­i­can Fiction , and it has cer­tainly en­gaged DeLillo. Fall­ing Man is not so much a novel about trauma as a trau­ma­tised novel.

Shock seems to have blown the story- lines apart. In­stead of or­ganic struc­ture there’s col­lage, cross- cut­ting back and forth in space and time. It be­gins with the im­me­di­ate af­ter­math of the tow­ers’ col­lapse, when the roar is still in the air. Wan­der­ing dazed and in­jured through the smoke is Keith, a prop­erty ex­ec­u­tive, who man­aged to get down the stairs in time.

He’s sep­a­rated, but ap­pears, cov­ered in ash and blood, on the doorstep of Lianne, his es­tranged wife. Theme isn’t the right word for a novel about dis­ori­en­ta­tion, but in­so­far as there is one it’s about the cou­ple’s failed at­tempts at com­ing to­gether again. Around that there are other sto­ries: the re­la­tion­ship of Nina, Lianne’s waspish mother, with her art dealer lover; Keith’s half- hearted af­fair with Florence, who also es­caped the build­ing; and his in­creas­ing fas­ci­na­tion with poker.

Since ‘‘ all of us are tar­gets now’’, high stakes card games seem a rea­son­able re­sponse. Lianne has her ther­apy too: she runs a writ­ing work­shop for the psy­cho­log­i­cally trou­bled. (‘‘ They wrote about the planes. They wrote about where they were when it hap­pened.’’)

The hith­erto as­sured ur­ban­ites in Fall­ing Man now move about in a be­wil­dered mist. We learn a lot about Keith and Lianne but never get to know them, DeLillo’s point per­haps be­ing that since their sense of pur­pose has been kicked away, they’re not sure of who they are ei­ther.

So char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion and di­a­logue in the con­ven­tional nov­el­is­tic sense don’t ex­ist here. What we get are stunned ex­changes, of the kind a cou­ple might en­gage in af­ter a car crash. Here is Keith talk­ing to Lianne about the neigh­bour who’s been play­ing loud Mid­dle East­ern mu­sic, whom Lianne has con­fronted:

Only one sub­set of char­ac­ters knows who they are and what their pur­pose is, and it’s not un­til page 77 that we meet them: Ham­mad and his band of brothers, who are pre­par­ing them­selves for the at­tack on the tow­ers. ( A lesser nov­el­ist would have put this at the be­gin­ning.) Un­like the in­fi­del Amer­i­cans, ‘‘ His life had struc­ture. Things were clearly de­fined.’’

In a few spare para­graphs DeLillo plants them in the nar­ra­tive, then leaves them there, re­morse­lessly tick­ing. It’s an­other 100 pages be­fore they resur­face. They’re do­ing their flight train­ing, clean- shaven, in T- shirts and jeans so as not to be no­ticed, aliens in the midst of un­be­lief.

Then they sink back into the story un­til the last chap­ter, when Ham­mad and his brothers are about to crash. (‘‘ Ev­ery sin of your past life is for­given in the sec­onds to come. There is noth­ing be­tween you and eter­nal life in the sec­onds to come.’’) The plane hits, Keith is knocked out of his of­fice chair: we end with the be­gin­ning. Chronol­ogy, or­der, have be­come mean­ing­less.

Sus­pended above the displacements of this dis­ori­ent­ing novel hangs one un­for­get­table im­age. Not the at­tack, not the col­lapse, mem­o­rably ren­dered as they are, but some­thing from the nov­el­ist’s imag­i­na­tion: fall­ing man.

Fall­ing man is a per­for­mance artist who’s de­vel­oped his act af­ter 9/ 11. Dressed in the of­fice uni­form of suit and tie, he jumps from build­ings, only to be caught, up­side down, in his leather har­ness, in which he hangs mo­tion­less, pro­vok­ing abuse from the cit­i­zens be­low him. De­spite the shock and awe that con­vulse this novel, it’s the silent power of this im­age that lingers long­est. Art and ter­ror may well be at war, but in Fall­ing Man art, how­ever briefly, wins. Barry Oak­ley is a nov­el­ist, play­wright and an­thol­o­gist and for­mer lit­er­ary ed­i­tor of The Aus­tralian.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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