Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

A novel set around 9/11 by the master author of White Noise and Mao II.

I've become attached lately to the idea of having a central image that echoes throughout a novel. And the Falling Man of the title, a performance artist who bungee jumps off of buildings in front of unsuspecting New Yorkers and then freezes in a falling pose, an echo of those who jumped from the burning World Trade Center towers, is just such an echoing image. And it was the one part of the novel that worked for me. The sadness of the image--a man falling--paired with the cruelty of his art--people think he's really a suicide jumping in front of them--is so complex emotionally and intellectually. It casts a great shadow of meaning and feeling over the book.

But the rest felt pretty uninteresting to me. I know the book pulled quite a few raves off of critics, and I guess I'll reread those reviews to look for what they found, but it felt to me like DeLillo relied too much on 9/11 to supply the complexity to his novel and never developed the characters or the narration enough. In my favorite DeLillo novel Mao II, he uses historical events throughout the text, but it's the narrator's thoughts on these events as well as the characters actions in juxtaposition with them, that make the book feel rich and complicated. With Falling Man, DeLillo seems to assume that since all of his readers experienced the event for themselves (and he seems to assume we all experienced it as New Yorkers did), he need say no more. But the reason to read a DeLillo is that he's smarter than I am, that his reactions to such an event, should help me decipher my own.

Libra, DeLillo's novel of Lee Harvey Oswald, also makes use of a historical event that quite a few of his readers would remember, but by creating Oswald as a character DeLillo gives readers a view (invented, admittedly) that the newspapers didn't give. With Falling Man, the details feel pulled from the news rather than the imagination.

We live in interesting times and quite naturally those times will and should make it in to fiction, but it's worth examing, how do you write historical fiction about history that isn't yet in the past.

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