Falling Man by Don DeLillo
"It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him." So starts the novel Falling Man by Don DeLillo. No one can help but remember these images from the morning of September 11, 2001.
"Every time she saw a videotape of the planes she moved a finger toward the power button on the remote. Then she kept on watching." The actions of Lianne Neudecker.
"It still looks like an accident, the first one. Even from this distance, way outside the thing, how many days later, I'm standing here thinking it was an accident."…"The second plane, by the time the second plane appears," he said, "we're all a little older and wiser."
These words, spoken by Keith Neudecker days after surviving the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. That day he made his way – without conscious thought – to the apartment of his estranged wife, Lianne, and their son, Justin. His need to be with them at this time – the safe place to go. And of course she cannot turn him away in these circumstances.
Keith returns to his own apartment several days later – close to the towers – to discover his cats are gone and there is very little there that he feels any need to retrieve. It was the place "of the man who used to live here".
This is a very New York City novel, and I expect is one of many that will now be released that examine the events of 9/11, almost six years after the event. I remember a mother telling me that it was six years after the death of her son that she felt she was finally crawling out of a black hole – to begin to feel that she could find pleasure in life again – and I believe that this time is coming for those who lived through 9/11 in New York City. There will remain a profound sadness, but perhaps no longer the raw pain. It is time to write about it, and American authors are beginning to do so, as they try to understand an event that has affected us all.
The characters in this novel are New Yorkers, residents of Manhattan, as Lianne acknowledges to herself "Even in New York - I long for New York." There is something about the place.
"These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after."
Anyone who has survived a tragedy knows this, as we all know the world before and after 9/11. Lianne is a freelance writer and works with a group of people in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. She encourages them to remember, to write about their lives, to hold on to the memories at a time when their days are filled with the unreality of recent events.
As Keith walks through Central Park he realizes that he will soon be 40 years old – his father's age. This book also has a sense for the reader of unreality – what is real? We know the facts of the destruction of the twin towers and the death of so many, but the events that followed are less clear.
There is a man "the falling man" who jumps from tall buildings in public places with a hidden strap to prevent his death. He seems so real. I looked on the Internet to try to discover if such a man had existed – and could not find that he did.
SeeSurely it would never have been allowed – this man falling, and falling and falling, as so many did from the towers. What an affront to the already fragile composure of New Yorkers.
Each of the characters in this novel behaves in different ways to enable them to cope with the same grief. Some look for safety in the world and some do not. Keith still, after three years, has dreams of a trapped man, asphyxiation, a dream of helplessness. And Lianne is still not able to go underground and take the subway. She some days finds herself seeking the sanctuary of a church, just sitting there "she was stuck with her doubts but liked sitting in church. It was a comfort, feeling their presence, the dead she'd loved and all the faceless others who'd filled a thousand churches."
After 9/11, DeLillo wrote an essay for Harper’s magazine, “In the Ruins of the Future.” He wrote about how the novelist might respond to terror now that it had hit home. DeLillo wrote, “People running for their lives are part of the story that is left to us”. ” Primal terror – “the cell phones, the lost shoes, the handkerchiefs mashed in the faces of running men and women” – has to take precedence over politics, history and religion. “There is something empty in the sky,” he wrote. “The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space."
The novel Falling Man begins and ends with the description of Keith walking out of the destruction of the twin towers - "Then he saw a shirt come down out of the sky. He walked and saw it fall, arms waving like nothing in this life."