No more normal life after September 11
September 9, 2007
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks changed forever what we would consider normal life.The opening sentence of Don DeLillos spare, stunning novel, Falling Man, yanks his reader back to the horror raining on Manhattan from a clear blue sky six years ago: It was not a street anymore but a world, time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads.The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now.Walking out of the burning north tower of the World Trade Center, Keith Neudecker, the protagonist, appears at his estranged wifes door, carrying a briefcase and all blood and slag, reeking of burnt matter, with pinpoints of slivered glass in his face.This global disaster narrows to a familys story, how a few people go on, stumble and fall, try to remember and to forget, and try to get on with lives that can never be ordinary again.There is Lianne, living apart from Keith and now giving him sanctuary. She is obsessed with memories and fearful, as her father had killed himself rather than face dementia. Volunteering with early Alzheimer patients, Lianne gives them journal assignments to preserve their memories in words. Does survival depend on remembering or forgetting?Justin, their 14-year-old son, spends time with two friends at their high-rise window, scanning the skies with binoculars for the terrorist Bill Lawton, who could send more murderous pilots. The children begin to speak in monosyllables, perhaps to better intercept messages from Bill Lawton.Nina, Liannes mother and a retired professor, and Martin, Ninas lover and an art dealer, bring more ideas to the book in their conversation. Nina says, Its not the history of Western interference that pulls down these societies. Its their own history, their mentality. They live in a closed world of choice, of necessity. They havent advanced because they havent wanted to. Replies Martin: They use the language of religion, okay, but this is not what drives them.Panic, this is what drives them, Nina concludes. The book title, of course, recalls the horrifying Associated Press photo of a mans free fall, one knee bent, from the north tower. DeLillo presents another Falling Man, a performance artist who makes sudden appearances around the city after 9/11, dressed in a business suit, and dropping headfirst from a bridge, a balcony or a trestle, his fall broken by a safety harness.But Keith has no safety harness or net as he tries to keep his balance. He begins a relationship with Florence, the owner of the briefcase that was passed from hand to hand in the tower stairwell and ended up in Keiths grasp. The affair is more about the consolation of intimacy with someone who was there than it is about sex. He commutes between New York and Las Vegas, making money on the poker circuit, keeping a connection to a card-playing buddy who died in the tower.Between chapters are slivers of the terrorists tale, ending with the reader accompanying the hijackers, as Flight 11 pierces the tower, and Keith, as he absorbs the impact and slowly descends thousands of steps with thousands of people into a world that is changed forever.