In the Shadow of the Towers: The World Trade Center Haunted Don DeLillo's Writing for Three Decades. Now He Draws a Stunned, Allusive Novel from Its Destruction

By Poole, Steven | New Statesman (1996), May 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

In the Shadow of the Towers: The World Trade Center Haunted Don DeLillo's Writing for Three Decades. Now He Draws a Stunned, Allusive Novel from Its Destruction


Poole, Steven, New Statesman (1996)


You could say there have been foreshadowings. From Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997), the great American novel of the second half of the 20th century: "My son used to believe that he could look at a plane in flight and make it explode in midair by simply thinking it ... he'd sense an element of catastrophe tacit in the very fact of a flying object filled with people." Elsewhere in that novel, in 1974, two characters watch the World Trade Center being constructed: "Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think." DeLillo's fifth novel, Players (1977), features a woman who works in a grief management firm high up in the newly finished World Trade Center: "the towers didn't seem permanent", she thinks, but then, "Where else would you stack all that grief?" The same novel also depicts a cabal of terrorists who want to blow up the Stock Exchange.

In Mao II (1991), "Out the south windows the Trade towers stood cut against the night, intensely massed and near. This is the word 'loomed' in all its prolonged and impending force." Mao II's novelist protagonist argues that terrorists are winning a "zero-sum game" against novelists: "Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative." White Noise (1984) is, among other things, a comedy of disaster response, as victims of an "airborne toxic event" are chided for not acting as they would in a drill. The jacket image of Underworld, in its US and UK first editions, is a photograph of the twin towers, their upper stories shrouded in mist, with a bird flying towards them.

There is already a blackly satirical, weirdly prescient 9/11 novel scattered in arcane fragments through DeLillo's existing work. But the real event, it seems, demands an explicit response. Very terrible thing but you have to look at it. Falling Man's title alludes to the famous, horrific photograph of an unidentified man falling headfirst from one of the towers after the attack. In one of those DeLilloan cultural inventions that seem more dense with meaning than actual cultural events, New York in this novel is haunted after the attacks by a performance artist known as the Falling Man, who hangs himself upside-down from balconies and bridges across the city in wordless imitation of the unknown victim.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The story focuses on a small group of characters in the aftermath: Keith, an office worker in one of the towers who managed to get out, and Lianne, the wife to whom he returns, plus her mother and her mother's boyfriend, a cynically provocative European art dealer; and Keith and Lianne's nine-year-old son, who scans the skies with binoculars for the return of a man called "Bill Lawton", figment of misheard news. This being a DeLillo novel, it is not a confection of sentimental adultery and cheap hope, as was Jay McInerney's post-9/11 effort, The Good Life. Indeed, the novel explicitly warns the reader what not to expect, as Keith returns to his old apartment: "In the movie version, someone would be in the building, an emotionally damaged woman or a homeless old man, and there would be dialogue and close-ups." Difficult to imagine a movie version of this novel, patterned as a sequence of charged tableaux and moods, shot through with streaks of obsidian comedy. Picking out slivers of glass from Keith's face, a doctor describes to him the phenomenon of "organic shrapnel", whereby bits of a suicide bomber's blown-up body can lodge in the skin of bystanders. After much revolting detail, the doctor finishes with casual reassurance: "This is something I don't think you have." Throughout the book, bombs of laconic irony explode when least expected, such as when Keith "walked north toward the barricades, thinking it might be hard to find a taxi at a time when every cab driver in New York was named Muhammad".

In such a context, DeLillo's idiosyncratic method of dialogue acquires even more allusive and slyly destabilising force. …

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