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
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.