FALLING MAN by Don DeLillo (Scribner), 246 pages, $32 cloth. Rating: NNN Rating: NNNNN
Set during the months leading up to and following September 11, 2001, Don DeLillo's 14th novel is tremendous in scale despite its modest page count.
Restraint keeps this story on track when a less sage writer would have succumbed to the temptation to try to say everything.
Falling Man, the title character, is a New York City performance artist costumed in suit and tie who, in the weeks and months after 9/11, fixes himself to a safety harness and jumps from buildings all over Manhattan.
Witness to these events is Lianne, whose intelligence and flat affect are vintage DeLillo. She sees in Falling Man's antics a world turned on its head, in which horror and spectacle are intermingled and language is less meaningful than action.
Words and logic, the novel suggests, must fail to explain grief or dull it. So it's not surprising that Lianne's two jobs, editing a book on ancient alphabets and heading a writing group for Alzheimer patients, can't help her cope with her emptiness and misdirected rage. She takes long walks thinking about her cancer-ridden mother and assaults a woman in her building for playing Middle Eastern music.
Lianne's relationship with her husband, Keith, who has survived the collapse of the Twin Towers, is far less interesting than the one he begins with a fellow survivor, Florence, with whom he shares the contours of his loss, the smoke-choked stairwell memories. Of all the connections in the book, this is the one most fully imagined. Their sex scenes are less about sex than they are about finding new ways of speaking when nothing more can be said.
I only wish DeLillo had shown less restraint and focused more on Hammad, the Muslim cell member/pilot trainee whose conversion by demagoguery and adolescent-type longing makes him a fascinating character despite his wispy edges.