Underworld is Don DeLillo’s best-known and most-highly-acclaimed novel, but I’ve never read it; until Falling Man, in fact, I was a DeLillo virgin. I found Falling Man on the used-books table at Shakespeare & Co.—an English-language bookstore in Paris on the shore of the Seine, in the shadow of Notre Dame—and was intrigued by the prospect of reading not just my first but arguably the first “9/11 novel” (I don’t count Claire Messud’s The Emeperor’s Children simply because the attack doesn’t occur until the final chapters). Truth be told, I was kind of disappointed. Granted, the reviews of this one weren’t great, and I probably should have started with Underworld. But still, while DeLillo is an unequivocally beautiful writer—I found myself almost violently jealous of some of his prose—his characters just weren’t all that compelling. The book focuses on an estranged husband (Keith) and wife (Lianne), reunited after the husband survives the attacks, and the emotional fallout: Keith begins an affair with a fellow survivor, while Lianne tries her best to return to “normal life” and finds it impossible; something in her, something ineffable, has changed for good.
The book should be a lot better than it is, and honestly, I can’t quite pinpoint why it’s not. Part of it may have something to do with the fact that DeLillo seems almost too aware of his writing; he begins chapters with “He” this or “She” that and doesn’t identify who’s doing what with whom until a few pages in, which leaves the reader disoriented and a little frustrated. The “mystery” seems like it’s meant to be artistic (or something), but it just doesn’t work. Actually, the best parts are when DeLillo takes the POV of one of the hijackers; sounds contrived, I know, but it was very well done, and should have taken up more of the book than it did. Ultimately, though, what I think makes the book a failed effort is that I couldn’t help but feel detached—from the characters, yes, but from everything, from all the horrible events of the day and the weeks and months afterward. Odd, since how hard should it be for an American—and a New Yorker—to relate to a 9/11 story? Maybe it’s because I wasn’t there (I was a week into my freshman year at Michigan and learned about the attacks from some kid who rushed breathlessly into Italian 101 at 9:30 AM). I didn’t see the wreckage until I went home for Thanksgiving, and even then it just didn’t seem real; it seemed almost like I was reading a history book, years from that moment, staring at a glossy photo, mesmerized but strangely disconnected. Maybe it all hadn’t sunk in yet, I don’t know. But as Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review from 2007 points out, enough time still hasn’t elapsed for an author, even one as skilled as DeLillo, to write a “9/11 novel.” The historical perspective isn’t there. We still can’t say definitively what that day meant, what effect it really had on the collective American psyche, what it will mean to our children and our children’s children (assuming the human race survives that long). I do remember thinking that the attacks changed New York; the 2003 blackout, for example, and the camaraderie and altruism that prevailed marked a stark contrast from the looting and mayhem of the one in the seventies. It’s like the crumbling towers washed away the stereotypical bravado of New Yorkers and revealed the true, gentle spirits that were always there, ready to be released. I don’t know, that’s probably too corny, and I probably don’t really know what I’m talking about. Still, and though I haven’t really lived in New York (just a few summers here and there) since I was eighteen, the city has changed, unmistakably. I don’t attribute this change wholly to 9/11 (or to Giuliani or William Bratton, either), but it certainly played a role, and I wish DeLillo had drawn it better.