Friday, Mar 23, 2018
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A master tries to fill the emptiness of 9/11

Silver crossing blue.

That s how Don DeLillo describes the planes on that bright, legendary September morning in 2001. Is there a more graceful truncation of those hours? Could there be? Is there a writer better suited for the job? The opening pages of Falling Man ostensibly, DeLillo s 9/11 novel take a similarly straight ahead, clear-eyed vantage, repainting a picture that may sound overly familiar but, as seen through DeLillo s spare, elegiac virtuosity, comes off startling, new: A man in the North Tower stumbled away and up the street; covered in blood and ash, he accepts a lift from a passing motorist, who drives him to the door of his estranged wife, who welcomes him in and, without discussion or comment, they go back to their marriage.

Like a sculptor faced with a memorial, and decisions of what to leave in and what to leave out, that cataclysm is chiseled down not to nations and ideologies but a couple of people. The trouble with these people, however, is the trouble with many of DeLillo s characters: They never entirely breathe air. They don t strike you as human and messy but frictionless of course they never discuss why he is there. In the oblique DeLillo world, there s no need to. But if they re typically hard to buy, also typical is the exquisite writing which squeezes sketchy souls until they look better as ideas. If DeLillo is never more comfortable than when he s riffing on familiar, widely witnessed history the World Series game that opens Underworld, for example the first and last chapters of Falling Man feature some of his most reductive, confident work.

It was not a street anymore but a world, DeLillo writes in the opening line. We proceed to taste, smell, hear, and feel what he means. To call the writing gorgeous may brush aside the pain, but the visceral shock of the attack itself shares space with a tone so hushed and haunted, it resonates with hints of every fresh hell that would come later, years later: The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down street and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.

Later, three more words:

Bright day gone.

At last count there were exactly two kinds of 9/11 novels: those that are about that day and the rabbit hole it opened, and those that are not about 9/11, and never refer directly to it, but most definitely are about 9/11. For the first couple of months after Sept. 11, 2001, DeLillo s name was thrown around a lot when the topic turned to how the arts should respond. The moment itself itchy with paranoia, steeped in far-apart events that drew together strangers behaved as much like a DeLillo novel as it reminded others of the fireball action scenarios of a Jerry Bruckheimer summer flick.

Superficially, DeLillo has been to Ground Zero before, literally many years before, in fact. Though this is his 14th novel, early in his career, his 1977 novel, Players, dealt with terrorism and had a character who worked as a grief counselor who was based out of the World Trade Center, no less. In Mao II (1991), international terror approaches the West; in Libra (1988), the twitchy anxiety of today is reflected through DeLillo s (encyclopedic) dissection of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And randomly, as if DeLillo were a character in his own novels, fated to his work, there is the inexplicable coincidence that Underworld (1997), his unquestionable masterpiece, featured on its cover a picture of the towers, their squared-off tops poking through the clouds.

But again, that s largely superficial. Why DeLillo seemed destined to write the definitive 9/11 novel and Falling Man comes tantalizingly close was that he understands the weight of history, he grasps where the surreal feels real, he can string together a narrative lattice work of intricacy that might, just yet, grasp the meaning of that day better than the billions of words and images already spilled in its name. If he fails at delivering that definitive work, if we feel disappointment, it s because brilliance shines through, certifiable genius here is a writer who captured 50 years of American Cold War history in a single book (Underworld). You could say his elliptical style isn t suited to the job, but the novel swings elegantly from abstraction to concise, generous observation surrounded by valleys of white space which is what s needed.

His survivor has an affair with another survivor and settles into a gambling routine; his wife teaches Alzheimer s patients; their children scan the skies for more planes; while the hijackers of those planes appear in flashbacks, hidden in a quiet Florida community, wondering if they should stop, or sneer at this world of lawns to water and hardware stacked on endless shelves. I m reminded of David Chase, who, faced with summarizing an entire world for the final episode of The Sopranos morally and narratively gave us no relief but more choices. And I recall the essay DeLillo wrote for Harper s a few months after 9/11 that apologized early for what no writer may ever do:

There is something empty in the sky. The writer tries to give memory, tenderness, and meaning to all that howling space.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.comor 419-724-6117.

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