Don DeLillo's 9-11 Novel

No American novelist is better suited to tackle this subject than Don DeLillo, who
makes an outstanding contribution to the genre with his latest effort,
. A year ago, three of DeLillo’s works were highlighted in a list of the best
novels of the last 25 years compiled by
The New York Times, and each of them
focused on themes of disaster, tragedy or looming crisis. DeLillo’s 1985 novel
White Noise dealt with an “airborne toxic event” which beleaguers protagonist
Jack Gladney, a professor who specialized in the emerging academic specialty of
Hitler Studies. Three years later, DeLillo published
Libra, which explored the life
and times of Lee Harvey Oswald. DeLillo’s 1997 magnum opus
highlighted the world of toxic garbage, and drew its name from the author's
imagined linkages between Pluto, the Roman deity of the underworld, with
plutonium waste buried far beneath the ground.

Despite his recurring interest in disaster scenarios, DeLillo is well known for the
light touch with which he tackles even the heaviest topics. When he introduces
an “airborne toxic event” or a visit to the nation’s largest garbage dump,
readers can expect incisive satire. I suspect that DeLillo is attracted to these
themes because of the ease with which they offer themselves up to his ironical
frame of mind. Yet it is to DeLillo’s credit that he steps back from this satirical
tone in Falling Man, and takes a tougher stance in telling the story of Keith
Neudecker, a lawyer working in the north tower of the World Trade Center on
the day of the collapse.

In the aftermath of the event, Neudecker seeks out his estranged wife Lianne
and their son Justin. But in the following days he finds himself obsessively
returning to the apartment of Florence Givens, a middle-aged black woman who
also survived the disaster. In typical DeLillo fashion, the novelist interposes
several sub-plots against this major narrative – surprising interludes dealing
with poker tournaments, writing classes for Alzheimer patients, a performance
artist known as the Falling Man, and the machinations of the Al-Qaeda hijackers.

DeLillo builds these various stories by piling up dozens of small set pieces of
three or four pages duration. DeLillo has used this technique elsewhere -- most
ambitiously in
Underworld -- and it is one of the trademarks of his style. His plots
accumulate through these vignettes, and he constantly shifts the scene in the
manner of a film director, never letting any storyline dominate for more than a
few pages at a time.

The other DeLillo trademark, equally evident in
Falling Man, is his sputtering
dialogue. His characters converse at cross purposes, achieving many things --
self-justification, rationalization, stream-of-consciousness musing -- but rarely
communication. Some critics have questioned the realism of these strange
conversations, but they miss the point – such dialogue, much like the bantering
in a Tarantino or Altman film, achieves a stylized heightening of effect that goes
beyond mere verisimilitude. As I see it, no novelist of our time writes better
dialogue than DeLillo. Even so, I am disturbed by DeLillo’s terrorists, who talk
more soberly and straight-forwardly than any of the other characters in Falling
Man. It almost seems as if Mohamed Atta has wandered into these pages from
another novel.

These fragmented narratives circle each other, resisting easy resolution. And
DeLillo plays daring games with chronology, returning in the final pages to the
moments that take place immediately before the opening of his novel, when the
planes hit the towers. The narrative here demands high drama and intensity,
and DeLillo rises to the occasion. We will no doubt encounter these same zero
hour tragedies in other novels, given this booming field of 9-11 fiction, but for
the time being DeLillo has set the standard.

This review originally appeared in

by Ted Gioia

A Google search for “9-11 novel” comes back with
142,000 listings. Indeed, two of the five nominees
for the most recent National Book Award in fiction
relied on 9-11 as a point of departure. And
Americans are far from the only folks drawn to the
power of this emerging theme, as demonstrated
by French author Frédéric Beigbeder’s
Windows on
the World
and English novelist Ian McEwan’s
Saturday. In short, the Post-9-11 novel may be as
important to the current crop of literati as cowboy
and horror stories were for readers of my father’s