When the planes hit the World Trade Center, Don DeLillo was at home in suburban New York, just another man caught up in the event. But like so many other Americans, he had a personal connection to the madness of that day. "When the second tower went down, I punched the wall. My nephew and his wife and two kids were in an apartment building very near the towers," DeLillo told NEWSWEEK in an interview. "They were trapped, and they eventually were rescued. Somehow, before that, we managed to make phone contact with them. But I didn't remember any of the phone conversation afterward. I do remember that smoke was beginning to seep through the fire doors of their building."
And because DeLillo is an author ("Underworld," "White Noise"), he had another personal reaction to that day—he wrote a novel, called "Falling Man." Writers as disparate as Jay McInerney, Claire Messud and Jonathan Safran Foer have worked the World Trade Center into their fiction, all with mixed results. But "Falling Man" feels like the first genuine work of art. Literature, Ezra Pound said, is news that stays news, and reading "Falling Man" is like looking into a mirror and seeing the familiar face there as if for the first time. The novel never pretends to wisdom it doesn't own. It doesn't try to tell "the whole truth" about the event and its aftermath. "It began with a visual image of a man in a suit and tie and carrying a briefcase walking through an enormous storm of smoke and ash," says DeLillo, 70. "And that's all there was." The man is Keith Neudecker, a lawyer who walks down out of the North Tower, and returns to his estranged wife, Lianne, and son, Justin. There are only a handful of other characters—Lianne's mother and her lover, Keith's poker buddies, the woman whose briefcase Keith brought out of the tower, the Alzheimer's patients Lianne works with in a writing workshop. What captivates us in all this is DeLillo's chronicle of the small events in lives that have been turned upside down by a time when nothing ordinary seemed ordinary, when the floor seemed ready to give way from one second to the next and when the "stricken community pours forth voices and the solitary night mind is shaped by the outcry." There is no before. There is only after.
Not even the simplest act is exempt. Keith works hard at the ritual of physical therapy for his bum wrist—wrecked when he came out of the tower—"but it wasn't the torn cartilage that was the subject of this effort. It was the chaos, the levitation of ceilings and floors, the voices choking in smoke." Keith and Lianne argue with their little boy, who insists that the towers have not fallen. At one point Lianne half remembers a haiku by Basho that begins "Even in Kyoto" and ends "I long for Kyoto." She can't recall the middle line, but it's not important. The misremembered poem, with New York substituted for Kyoto, crystallizes her feelings. It's a perfectly rendered epiphany, one of those scraps of sadness that just kept accumulating.
Think of "Falling Man" as the antithesis of all those newscasts that had their logos ready, their theme music cued and their sound bites explaining everything and nothing only an hour after the towers came down. Any reader who lived through that day—any reader who even now can never look at a cloudless blue sky without getting a shiver—will look up from the pages of "Falling Man" again and again, saying, yes, that's how awful it was, and how strange. DeLillo finds the perfect symbol for that feeling in the Falling Man himself—a performance artist who, several weeks after the attacks, is found hanging from bridges, overpasses and buildings. (DeLillo writes about the now famous photograph called "Falling Man" in his novel but says his performance artist was not inspired by the picture and that he did not even know its title when he wrote his novel.) The dangling man—Lianne likens him to a tarot character—recurs throughout this narrative, standing in for every disturbing thing that couldn't be explained with easy analysis or salved over with pat nostrums.
DeLillo has never been shy about tackling big ideas. He explored JFK's assassination in "Libra." "White Noise" took on pollution both real and metaphorical, and the sprawling "Underworld"—damn near as big as "War and Peace," damn near as imposing—was a historical novel that etched the paranoia of the last half-century of life in this country. In the hands of a lesser novelist, these themes could easily produce pompous, windy fiction. DeLillo escapes this fate with quietly eloquent prose—he has an uncanny knack for creating sentences that replicate the feel and rhythm of American life—and a devastating sense of humor that surfaces in the most surprising places: at one point Keith runs down a list of responses his wife might have to the news that he's had an affair, starting with "this is not an unforgivable offense" and through "she would get a steak knife and kill him."
DeLillo's books have evolved over the years—the surreally rambunctious take on contemporary life that characterized the novels up through "White Noise" has been replaced by tales that seem to exist in an atmosphere as eerily specific and transparent as a dream. But the ambition to go after big themes was there from the start: his first novel (in 1971) was titled "Americana." "My parents were immigrants," he says, "and they came to this country to establish a better, broader kind of life. And in a strange way, as a writer, I began to understand that I was repeating their experience. I was not content to write about my own narrow upbringing in the Bronx. I embraced a much larger idea of culture. I felt I belonged to this broader culture and that I could write about it."
To his credit, DeLillo never confuses importance with self-importance. He refuses to place himself in any kind of authorial tradition. "I tell myself that my work is about living in dangerous times," he says. "Beyond that, I don't know quite how to summarize it." Although most of "Falling Man" takes place after the towers have fallen, he doesn't shrink from depicting the danger of that day. Three chapters belong to a character named Hammad, one of the 19 terrorists who took over the planes. DeLillo tracks him from Hamburg to Florida to the morning of September 11, when he is aboard one of the planes flying down the Hudson River. These are chilling pages, but they feel like words from a lesser book. Hammad is necessary to the narrative, particularly at the end, but there is something predictable about the writing, and if there's anything DeLillo isn't, it's predictable.
He is one of those authors who write not to make a statement but to find out what they think: "One could develop an argument for the importance of fiction as it evolves from a particular act in history. This is what fiction can do. It can examine a character's interior life day by day, minute by minute, in response to something terrible happening in the world, what she is thinking, what she is feeling, even what she is dreaming. In this sense, it's the initiative of a novelist rather than the historian to examine this interior life. But I had absolutely none of this in my mind as I worked. I never tried to explain to myself where the book was going or what it should mean, and I still haven't done that."
Not surprisingly, "Falling Man" was not fun to write. "I'm not over it," he says. As for being satisfied with the results, "I never know quite how to feel. I'll know in five years or so, maybe a lot longer than that. For me a novel is ultimately always a mystery, and there are always unanswerable questions." From the perspective of a reader, it doesn't seem so mysterious. "Falling Man" may not be the last word on 9/11, but it is the clearest vision yet of what it felt like to live through that day and what life became in the shadow of the buildings that were no longer there. So this is what Aristotle meant by catharsis. Decades after plowing through Sophocles, it finally all makes sense.