It’s easy, after nearly four decades of practice, to point out the faults of a Don DeLillo novel: Poke at one of his characters very softly and he tips over sideways; the plots all collapse under the weight of jokes and set pieces and non sequiturs and dystopic razzle-dazzle; everyone speaks, regardless of social class, like French and German theorists leading seminars on the phenomenology of the epistemology of the metaphysics of the philosophy of science; every subject, from math to rock music to college football, gets crowbarred into the narrow scope of his pet obsessions—conspiratorial plots, the intoxicating nature of crowds, modern art, the schism between image and reality. In fact the faults in DeLillo’s work are so obvious and central that they’re actually not faults at all: They’re the whole point. In the same way that Lindbergh loaded The Spirit of St. Louis with extra fuel at the expense of safety and reliable steering, DeLillo has deliberately handicapped his books to allow them to cover territory that traditional realism could never possibly approach. For DeLillo, it would be redundant, even immoral, to produce highly structured plots in a culture that generates endless plots on its own and then folds us into them without our consent (cf. the War on Terror)—so instead he writes plotless novels about plots, in which secret narratives (terror, assassination, the illegal distribution of psychotropic drugs) run with frightening momentum behind a foreground in which everyone tries, plotlessly, to digest or thwart or avoid or ignore or deal with the consequences. As the narrator of White Noise proclaims, grandly, “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots.” DeLillo’s work is thus feast or famine. If you like what he’s doing, it’s hard to imagine anyone doing it better—in his best work (White Noise, Libra, the feverish opening of Underworld), he writes to an almost inhumanly high standard. If you don’t like it, however, chances are you will very deeply not like it. As Jonathan Lethem once put it, “He’s either as great as I thought he was when I thought he made all other writing look silly or he’s a total disaster.”
Given all of this, September 11 seems like both the worst and the best possible subject for a DeLillo novel. On the plus side, all of his signature obsessions clearly intersect in the chaos of that morning—a secret plot leading to a spectacular mass disaster that’s immediately absorbed into the permanent impermanence of the 24-hour news cycle. It’s like the JFK assassination (the subject of Libra) magnified exponentially and, just as a bonus, imported to the city he grew up in and writes best about. But while the subject would certainly benefit from DeLillo’s artistic strengths, it might not tolerate his weaknesses. Even six years later, I’m not sure the nation is ready to submit its largest collective emotional wound to the wry metaphysician of supermarkets and advertising jingles. After all, it was precisely DeLillo’s brand of postmodern irony—chilly, intellectual, superior, detached—that was supposed to have died that morning, or at least to have learned to keep its proper distance.
In his new novel, Falling Man, DeLillo parries such objections in advance, and in a typically clever way. The “falling man” of Falling Man turns out to be Falling Man, a performance artist who appears around the city in the weeks after 9/11 leaping from high places—only to be caught by a safety harness and suspended, midair, dressed like a businessman, in the posture of someone falling from the World Trade Center. Bystanders are understandably shocked, offended, and confused. The New School hosts a panel called “Falling Man as Heartless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror”; the Guggenheim invites him to leap from its top floors “at scheduled intervals over a three-week period.” DeLillo, then, has built his novel around a neat symbol of the problem of the very existence of 9/11 art. (To some critics, this cleverness probably just confirms the original objection.) Falling Man, in other words, raises all the relevant questions about Falling Man: Too soon? Too painful? Suitably reverent? Overly reverent? Exploitative? Healing or wounding? Which should we prefer? And what can art possibly add to an event we’ve already experienced and reexperienced so often?
It turns out that numbness (to tragedy, the world, each other) is DeLillo’s essential theme. He painstakingly avoids the ready-made lexicon of 9/11—Twin Towers, ground zero, 9/11, heroes, Giuliani, The Pet Goat—in favor of simple, unsacred nouns like “the planes.” Everything happens “after the planes.” When the buzzwords do show up, they hit with surprising force: Even September feels obscene and holy.