Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Reading group: Falling Man by Don DeLillo

This book was chosen more or less by default: Jo, whose turn it had been to suggest our next reading, failed to turn up, and, off the top of his head, Doug tentatively suggested this because he'd just bought it. Having read Panjak Mishra's Guardian article on 9/11 literature I said I thought it was a book we should perhaps read, and since we'd very much admired DeLillo's prophetic White Noise, we agreed on it.

We were very disappointed, and I found that the book bore out the criticisms in Mishra's article. One of Mishra's main complaints is that, as a study of the psychic effects on a bourgeois couple after the husband Keith survives the twin towers, the book is a retreat into the domestic, and thus away from the wider issues. I'm not sure that such a focus, in theory, would necessarily carry inbuilt failure in exploring the important issues, but we certainly found that it failed here: we found the couple almost entirely unsympathetic (with the exception that John thought the wife Lianne a fairly sympathetic character), and the conversations between Lianne and her mother Nina and Nina's lover almost shocking in their seemingly inappropriate urbane novel-of-manners style - convoluted, arcane and indeed very difficult to follow - and making it hard at times feel the urgency or import of the twin-tower context even when they are discussing the politics. We could see that there might be a political authorial point here, that DeLillo is showing the inability of Americans to absorb the reality of the situation, and indeed Keith's journey through the novel seems to be one away from reality (into a life of gambling), but the effect on us as readers was fatally ennervating. (As Jo said to me in the cafe the week before the meeting, she didn't care a hoot about the characters, and she wouldn't have gone on reading if she hadn't been doing it for the group.) As a result we found similarly ennervating the fragmented non-linear structure and the glancing, cumulative prose which I felt should in theory have been powerful as a depiction of the breakdown of bourgeois American certainty.

For a long time in our discussion we failed even to mention the fact that each of the three sections of the book is concluded with a piece which takes the viewpoint of Hammad, one of the 9/11 hijackers, and the three together chart his progress from his initial conversion to Islamism to the moment of impact. The fact that we omitted them so long from our discussion is an interesting comment, I think, on the ultimately bourgeois focus of the book, and once they were mentioned, people didn't really know what to make of them. Mishra's comment, in line with some other critics, is that the depiction here is founded in unsubtle stereotype. Our group wasn't quite sure what to think, but did find the depiction unconvincing (and someone questioned the factual/historical accuracy of Hammad's geographical origins). It's perhaps again an interesting comment on the failure and pallor of the rest of the book that, even so, some said they found these sections the most engaging and vivid.

If I understand him correctly, Mishra charges DeLillo with subscribing, via this sterotyping and the 'Western'-centric focus of the rest of the book, to a profile of Muslims as regarding 'Westerners' as 'other', while indeed colluding in a view of Muslims as 'other'. I believe that DeLillo is striving hard to avoid this: there are various tropes in the book which seek to break down such concepts of otherness. Most obvious is the fact that Nina's German lover has himself been a terrorist/freedom fighter (and argues the case for Islamist dissatisfaction with the West). Then there is the moment at the end of the book when the concept of 'organic shrapel' (in which pellets of the skin of suicide bombers become embedded in the flesh of survivors) is taken to a striking level when the body and consciousness of Hammad morph in the moment of impact into those of Keith in the tower. Such self-conscious tropes, however, are at odds with the psychic centre of the novel, which is indeed 'Western', forcing the 'eastern' into otherness, and in consequence, it seemed to me, the sections concerning Hammad's story felt more like colonization than the empathy which DeLillo may have intended. As Mishra notes, most Muslims already live with a complex sense of their own Westernization, rather than the polarization on which DeLillo feels compelled to mastermind such a striking conversion in this final scene.

Meanwhile, on the less conscious level, it seems, an undercurrent of polarization runs through the novel: Clare and I in particular felt shocked by an episode in which Lianne hits the woman in the downstairs flat purely for her insensitivity in playing eastern music in the aftermath of 9/11. While there was some sense that her behaviour was a kind of madness that had overcome Lianne (and Keith suffers a similar 'madness' when he hits a man in a department store for a perceived personal slight), there seemed too little authorial indication that the true madness is that her sense of injury and insult could only emerge from a sense of the music as 'other', and it was this that felt shocking.

And the street performance artwork mimicking the famous image of the man falling from one of the towers seemed - apart from highly unlikely: people thought that in reality the artist would have been lynched by New Yorkers - yet another dislocation into artifice of this urgent real-life issue.

Trevor was very late for this meeting, having double-booked, and we had finished the discussion when he arrived. Since he so often likes books others don't, we expected him to put up a defence for it, but when we asked what he thought he lifted his hand and stuck his thumb down, not exactly perpendicular but almost. And Hans had the last word when he said that he had looked on the internet for a film of 9/11, and the very short one he had found had left him a hundred times more profoundly affected than had this novel.

Our archived discussions can be found here, and a list of all the books we have discussed here.


Sam T said...

As with every Delillo novel I found every sentence gripping, a cubist reconstruction of private lives in the aftermath of the very public attacks. I read it three times and will read it again, because the writing is precise and beautiful and shocking, the characters are acutely observed and novel soars above the banal landscape of the majority of contemporary literary fiction (like the irredeemably bland Netherworld).

Elizabeth Baines said...

Thanks for your contribution Sam, and very interesting that you had such a different reaction. I must agree with you though that the prose was brilliant, and I should have said so in my report.