Dominating the cover photograph of Don DeLillo's monumental 1997 novel Underworld are the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, their upper floors obscured by fog or smoke. That picture eerily prefigures the subject matter of this latest work, marking a welcome return to form for an American master. In Falling Man, DeLillo creates a cast of fully human characters groping for some understanding of the act of madness that was 9/11.
Keith Neudecker is a survivor of the attack on the World Trade Center, struggling through dust and ash as the novel opens, toward the midtown apartment where his wife Lianne, from whom he's separated, and his seven-year old son, Justin, live. He carries the briefcase of a stranger with whom he'll later connect as he attempts to deal with the random chance that allowed him to escape the doomed building while friends and co-workers died. Lianne is a freelance book editor who volunteers to lead a group of people diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease through writing exercises designed to help them hold on to the shreds of memory slowly drifting away. She's haunted by the suicide of her father, himself a victim of the terrible disease, and fears his death foreshadows her fate.
Without overtly acknowledging their shared need, Lianne and Keith negotiate an uneasy reconciliation that's more a matter of circumstance than rekindled passion. Justin and two of his friends search the skies, looking for planes flown by the man they call Bill Lawton. They and the other characters, like Lianne's mother Nina; her companion Martin, an art dealer with vague ties to German leftists; and Florence Givens, the owner of the briefcase, wander across a New York landscape that feels scrubbed of most of its familiar landmarks and haunted by the memory of that grim day. DeLillo brings even more impressive imaginative powers to bear as he depicts the terror cell preparing to launch the attacks.
The Falling Man of the title is a performance artist who appears randomly throughout the city, using a harness to recreate what appears to some to be the iconic photograph of a man plunging to his death from one of the towers. We're forced to ask ourselves whether this enigmatic character is a symbol of healing or merely an exploiter of the city's grief.
As in all his novels, DeLillo grapples with profound questions the existence of God, the power of memory, the struggle we confront to find our place in the universe. His prose is poetic and meditative, shifting effortlessly from jittery, almost jazzlike rhythms to the placid quality of a hymn. One example, from his description of the towers' collapse that bookends the novel: The only light was vestigial now, the light of what comes after, carried in the residue of smashed matter, in the ash ruins of what was various and human, hovering in the air above. The subject of 9/11 and its impact on the American psyche offer themes that will resurface in literature for generations. Those books will have the luxury of time and emotional distance to permit their authors to wrestle with questions that will linger throughout history. Still, it's doubtful that many of them will do so with the grace and undeniable power of this exquisite work. Harvey Freedenberg writes from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.