In Falling Man, the real fallout of 9/11 is not political but existential. The planes cut everyone loose from whatever anchors of normality allowed them to relate to each other and the world: “There was a deep fold in the grain of things, the way things pass through the mind, the way time swings in the mind.” The book focuses on Keith Neudecker, an attorney who goes to work with all the usual professional baggage—an estranged family, a temper, a mild poker habit—and emerges covered in blood and ash and burdened by the kind of deep ennui we haven’t seen since the heyday of postwar France: Like the hero of Camus’s Stranger, Keith is so paralyzed by the absurdity of everyday life he’s practically catatonic, his detachment broken only by the occasional impulse toward sex and violence.
DeLillo has always taken a dangerously provocative approach to terrorists. In his 1991 novel Mao II, the semi-autobiographical protagonist Bill Gray basically equates them with novelists: Both, he says, “alter the inner life of the culture”; it’s just a question of medium and scale—where Dickens and Beckett used paper and ink, terrorists use bombs and buildings and the evening news. And by the early nineties, according to Gray, terrorists were already better at it: “In societies reduced to blur and glut,” he says, “terror is the only meaningful act...Only the terrorist stands outside.” (The critic James Wood thought this notion was so ridiculous it might stop all novelists everywhere from ever making proclamations about society again.) In Falling Man, DeLillo treats the subject a little more subtly. At the end of each of the book’s three parts, the narrator abandons Keith and his family to take us inside the mind of one of the 9/11 hijackers, Hammad, a member of the Hamburg cell who struggles with his doubts and secular urges. (“Late one night he had to step over the prone form of a brother in prayer as he made his way to the toilet to jerk off.”) We follow him from a spartan apartment in Germany to the American Gulf Coast to the last moments of the attack itself. In some ways these are the most compelling pages of the book, because they’re infected by what Hammad feels as “the magnetic effect of plot.” DeLillo refuses to villainize the terrorists; instead, he gives us a taste of the power of 9/11 from the other side. Hammad seems to find in the terror plot the same kind of religious purpose and beautiful order that Keith finds in poker—in fact, as Keith sinks deeper into the totalizing system of cards, his life becomes increasingly terroristic—“He folded six more hands, then went all-in. Make them bleed. Make them spill their precious losers’ blood.” It’s a dangerous parallel, one that opens up DeLillo to accusations of moral relativism and insufficient outrage about mass murder.
Anyone who dismisses DeLillo as a glib ironist fundamentally misunderstands the nature of his power. He’s a deeply religious writer, practically a fanatic—the Jerry Falwell of secular transcendence. His novels are full of shamans and rituals, everything lit by the odd holy light that trickles down through the storm clouds of consumer culture. He’s constantly transmuting pop trivia into eternal sacrament. (A character in White Noise chants “Toyota Celica” until it becomes a mystic koan.) Falling Man is saturated with what Keith’s wife calls “the hovering possible presence of God.” After 9/11, everyone is looking for some kind of spiritual discipline: poker (“the funneled essence”), therapeutic wrist exercises (“an odd set of extensions and flexions that resembled prayer in some remote northern province”), and even, as a last resort, church.
Falling Man has all the elements of a best seller: an affair, the strained triangle of a small family, a galvanizing performance artist, the secret life of a terror cell, and of course catastrophic terrorism. But DeLillo resists the easy dramatic lure of all of this, choosing to answer the cataclysmic noise of 9/11 with a more difficult, more realistic human silence. Everything is muted and contemplative, every presence riddled with sad absences. It’s all evocative anomie, blunted affect, elliptical poetics. This is the source of the book’s strength but also its weakness: Characters enter the frame so detached, displaced, and disoriented that it’s hard for the reader to make any kind of emotional investment—and unfortunately the energy of DeLillo’s earlier work isn’t here to compensate for it. His engine is running much quieter now, and—although there’s some beautiful and genuinely moving writing—I found myself missing the old gaudy revving, wondering how the swaggering, hyperverbal crowd of White Noise might have discussed life after the planes.