Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Falling for Falling Man

It shouldn't surprise anyone that Don DeLillo's Falling Man is a bit of a downer. It is, after all, a novel about the effects of the 9/11 attacks, and DeLillo's fiction has never been known for optimism or hearty good cheer. He is known for bitter satire, however, which this new book lacks almost entirely, and he has been known to create believable children (especially in White Noise), but the children in Falling Man are ciphers.

What this novel does well is evoke the horrors of that day and its effects on a family in luminous and lyrical prose. The opening and closing sections plunge readers into the experience of a man who escapes the towers alive but certainly not unscathed. Mute and zombie-like, he puts one foot in front of another until he finds his way to a home, however unhomelike. DeLillo is less successful at connecting the 9/11 attacks with a universal sense of fallenness and loss, a sense of compassion for all of suffering humanity. People are falling all over the novel, but the book's suggestion that all suffering is essentially the same falls a bit flat.

But it's difficult to avoid falling for DeLillo's lovely sentences, such as this one:

But what made her think of this, ethnic shampoo, in the middle of Third Avenue, which was a question probably not answerable in a book on ancient alphabets, meticulous decipherments, inscriptions on baked clay, tree bark, stone, bone, sedge.

Watch how the sentence starts so awkwardly, as if to mimic the action of a startling and incongruous idea that interrupts a train of thought and stumbles around all akimbo before being smoothly incorporated into the stream of meaning. Read the final phrase out loud: the words scan, the sounds tumble past like pebbles on a talus slope.

DeLillo's novel offers precious little hope for a human race trapped in the embrace of brute, indifferent chance. It does, however, offer hope for the future of prose, for it is heartening to see sentences so lovely made out of mourning.

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