Wednesday, June 10, 2009

book review - The Falling Man - Don De Lillo

If one of the roles of fiction is to relate to the times and provide a reaction to events that causes you to pause and think then taking on the tragic and terrible events of the Twin Towers is a tall order for any writer.

In the main part Don De Lillo pulls it off because he manages to convey all of the emotions you would expect with anger, confusion, regret and ongoing grief all on display here. Where things get interesting is the way that those emotions are not necessarily shown by the characters you would expect. So for instance you get the wife who had to wait for her husband to walk out of the towers alive showing more ongoing anger than he does and you get some of the very minor players in the story having some of the most profound reactions walking out on executive positions to start poker careers as an example.

The main trio of characters is Keith a survivor of the attacks, Lianne his estranged wife and their sun Justin. Taking the son first he struggles to come to terms with the attacks watching from his friend’s window for planes that are going to make a repeat performance. They have an almost childlike secrecy around their fears but they voice the thoughts of many adults.

Lianne becomes pivotal to opening up the themes of how the individual and the collective react and remember terrorist violence. She deals with Alzheimer patients struggling to recall even the most basic details of their lives and wonders herself what she thinks of everything that has happened. She loses her temper and becomes fixated on a performance from a physical artist known as the falling man.

Readers will know that the falling man is of course a reference to those that fell from the burning towers to their deaths but even here it is as if De Lillo is challenging you to establish boundaries. What is your reaction to the falling man act that drops from buildings to remain suspended just feet above the ground? What are your thoughts about those who had to make the decision to jump to certain death?

Meanwhile Keith, one of the few characters in the book directly set in the towers during the attack, seems to drift back into family life then out again touring the world playing poker. He has lost his certainty and his life remains impacted by terrorism years after the event.

But De Lillo is also challenging the reader on the debate about terrorism itself with a character that has links in the past to terrorism in Germany. The sketched figure of Martin, Lianne’s mother’s boyfriend, raises the question around acceptable forms of terrorism. If he was fighting a corrupt state and an oppressive regime in the 1960s then doesn’t that same sense of being right exist for those fighting what they see as a corrupt regime now?

The only minor criticism is the way that the characters often feel sketched and it is not until you read more De Lillo you start to appreciate this is his style. In a way the people you meet on the page are metaphors for larger debates.

Still in terms of pulling together a story that encapsulates the feelings that terrorism can provoke this is a heavyweight work and one that shows the power of fiction to tackle and describe the almost unspeakable pain and terror of the Twin Tower attacks.

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