Falling Man by Don Delillo

I’d been interested to read something by Don Delillo for a while but after reading Falling Man, I’m not sure I’d read anything else. I was intrigued to read a novel about 9/11 that faced it head on, rather than skirting the issue like I felt that ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ did, but overall, I found this novel to be just as empty as Foer’s narrative.

Falling Man narrates the lives of a family in New York as their lives change in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks. The father, Keith, actually worked in one of the towers and manages to escape with only minor physical injuries. The novel begins with his walk from the collapsed tower back to his wife’s home, covered in blood and debris – it’s a pretty dramatic opening! Sadly the rest of the novel didn’t retain my interest in the same way.

Even though they were previously separated, Keith continues to live with Lianne and their son, Justin, in the weeks and months after the attacks, the need for a family unit seeming to have been re-established. Despite the obvious emotional turmoil of this scenario, I didn’t feel any of it as a reader. All three members of the family do odd or irrational things and as I was reading it, I was thinking ‘they are supposed to be doing these things because of the effect the attacks has had on their daily lives’, yet I didn’t feel any of the pain, hurt, frustration or fear that should have been conveyed. The actions themselves are human but the decription of it was just too clinical. A review I saw of the book described it as “too cold, too detached and too cerebral” and this is exactly how I would sum it up.

Delillo introduces the reader to Lianne’s mother and her partner, Martin (whose real name may actually be Ernst Hechinger), and the dialogue between these characters were the only sections that I found to be engaging. Martin and Lianne’s mother, Nina, argue about a number of things and their obstinacy and personality bring their characters to life on the page. They also directly discuss the towers and the attacks, with Martin almost being a devil’s advocate for the stereotypical Western-centric viewpoint:

Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction? […] You build a thing like that to see it come down. The provocation is obvious.

Martin, or Ernst, and his ambiguous past also asks you to consider some difficult questions about race and morality and how the term ‘terrorist’ can be used to define certain individuals but not others, even when their actions are practically indistinguishable. In these pages, I did feel my views were challenged and this is what I had expected from this book!

I did also like the bits about the Alzheimer’s support group that Lianne volunteers with and their stories, probably because this part of the story actually had some heart. 

This is one of those books that I may appreciate more after a second reading because I think there is some emotion and intelligence in there somewhere, but you really have to grapple with reading between the lines to get to it, and I’m not sure that it’s worth my time. Instead, for my next read, I think I’ll pick something that doesn’t try so hard to mean something.


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