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Don does 9/11 

DeLillo's detached gaze no longer good enough

If one American novelist would seem capable of diving into the horrors of 9/11 and surfacing with a potent, illuminating story, it's Don DeLillo -- the author who took on ecological and marital toxicity in White Noise, and nailed our image-swamped ways of viewing the world in Mao II. Unfortunately, he's also the writer who bored everyone to death with his last novel, the claustrophobic Cosmopolis. So when people heard DeLillo was writing a novel about 9/11, they wondered which DeLillo would show up. Luckily, the "good" DeLillo wrote Falling Man. The irony, however, is that "good DeLillo" may not be good enough to take on an event with such emotional resonance.

Falling Man begins with attorney Keith Neudecker, a survivor of the WTC attacks, standing in the street, dazed and covered in dust, blood and shiny specks of glass shards. He makes his way to the home of his ex-wife, Lianne, and their young son, Justin, and is allowed to move in, at least temporarily. Not that Keith is any more capable of connecting with his family than before; he's still remote, and now, after his wife has taken him back, he adds to the confusion by starting an affair with a fellow survivor. Finally, feeling that his survival proves luck is on his side, he abandons his legal career and becomes a professional poker player.

Meanwhile, Lianne becomes obsessed with all things Middle Eastern, seeing Islamic threats everywhere, and wondering when the next shoe will drop. Her obsessions eventually switch to a horrified fixation on the Falling Man -- not the businessman who was famously photographed jumping from one of the towers, but a performance artist who, using a harness and bungee cord, leaps headfirst off various public structures while striking a pose similar to the man in the photo. While all this is going on, Keith and Lianne's son Justin takes to scanning the skies with binoculars, looking for a terrorist whose name he thinks is "Bill Lawton."

DeLillo switches gears in the book's middle segment to tell the story of Hammad, one of the hijackers, who is in training to guard the cockpit of one of the planes. Unlike the blurry, translucent Keith, Hammad comes across as a more three-dimensional, albeit twisted, figure -- a man who is busy trying to manage the contradictions posed by his strict religious beliefs and his taste for American hedonism.

Falling Man ends with a chilling, detailed description of the attacks, as experienced in Keith's tower. Through the chaos and smoke, Keith sees colleagues die, some in their office chairs, calling their families. We're with him as he begins his spiraling descent down the stairs, eventually reaching the doors and stumbling out, onto the sidewalk where the novel began.

This is DeLillo's most succinct, organized and tautly written novel since 1991's Mao II. The story moves swiftly on waves of often beautiful writing, while alluding to changes in the national psyche since the attacks. Still, Falling Man is hard to recommend because what the novel isn't is engaging. Normally, "engaging" isn't something one expects from DeLillo -- his loosely sketched characters are often not so much fleshed-out individuals as representations of ideas. But (here comes the phrase) in the post-9/11 era, and in a novel specifically about 9/11, DeLillo's patented detached gaze and studied, ominous dialogue seem inadequate. Granted, it captures the hazy, surrealistic quality that still surrounds the 9/11 attacks for those of us who weren't there. But this book is peopled by characters who were very much there. Readers should be able to believe that the characters could be real, rather than sketchily drawn specters who spout the likes of the following passage:

"People read poems. People I know, they read poetry to ease the shock and pain, give them a kind of space, something beautiful in language," she said, "to bring comfort or composure. I don't read poems. I read newspapers. I put my head in the pages and get angry and crazy."

"There's another approach, which is to study the matter. Stand apart and think about the elements," he said, "Coldly, clearly if you're able to. Do not let it tear you down. See it, measure it."

"Measure it," she said.

"There's the event, there's the individual. Measure it. Let it teach you something. See it. Make yourself equal to it."

Zzzzzzzzzzz. In the end, DeLillo's style and way of looking at life -- the "stand apart and think about the elements" method of understanding the world -- come up short in terms of giving readers something to hang on to emotionally. I know, that's not what DeLillo is about. But in a book about 9/11, it's what's needed from one of our major novelists.

Perhaps, as Laura Miller recently wrote in Salon, quoting a friend of hers, "DeLillo's prophetic moment has passed." I suspect her friend is right. If so, it's an astounding irony that DeLillo's obsolescence would be revealed upon publication of an otherwise well-written book about one of the central events of our time.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Scribner, 256 pages, $26

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