Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Falling Man, by Don DeLillo (Scribner)

According to Straw Dogs by professor John Gray, human consciousness processes about 14 million bits of information per second, yet the actual bandwidth, the amount we register, is only 18 bits per second. Much falls by the wayside, or more accurately ends up in the massive buffer of our subconscious. Shifting, never losing relevance, every glimmer of light, every glance from a stranger, angles, textures. I read DeLillo to access my periphery; in the midst of reading his novels my perception is altered, and things and events are given a different intensity. I trust my reality to DeLillo, but this is what should be occurring in the best author-reader interactions since they often transport us to times and places unknown.
This isn't the case with Falling Man. We are all familiar with the time and circumstances.

Essentially a book firmly rooted in the events of 9/11, DeLillo has taken his time in delivering his perspective; as he should, since it's topic--American Empire and its citizens, the repercussions, the cost--is something he is most familiar with. Since the 70s he has carefully watched the shadows cast by America's unstoppable 'progress' and witnessed things writhing the darkness; resentment, envy, hatred. In a sense, he saw it coming, and it spilled onto the page in pieces--in Players, Mao II, The Names, White Noise, Libra, an on.

Falling Man begins with a familiar image, a dazed survivor moving amongst the chaos and rubble, and shifts to his family's reaction to events. Interspersed in the narrative of these people coming to terms with loss, we find shockingly compelling snippets of the life of one of the hijackers; his devotion is total,respectable even.

We can all find something within the ruminations of the various characters that we can relate to; the intimate loss of a loved one on 9/11; the ramped-up fear engines that bombarded us through our TV screens night after night, month after month; the profound sense of being ungrounded, uprooted. This last part fills much of Falling Man. Men, women, children all anchor-less and drifting, as if the events of that day, the hyper-violent impacts sent shock-waves through our psychic lives and not just the buildings. The towers lost, yes. They can be rebuilt. But what of the countless individuals unmoored, feeling their souls drifting away, scrabbling for purchase in strange obsessions, brief sexual and emotional trysts, the growing numbness? "Fear is the mind-killer'," says a character in Frank Herbert's Dune, but sometimes it can tie you more firmly to your mind to the point it becomes a prison, and what of the opposite? When mind and body are detacted, distracted?

Lives change, time nudges us into new patterns, and thus it is with Falling Man, until the final chapter, which circles back, to before the beginning, or the ending of things. Here the meaning of the lives of two men briefly intersect; we witness completion and dissolution, recognize the similarities of their cultures, and understand the unbearable chasm that separates them.

I go to to DeLillo's work not to escape life, but to try to understand it better; his prose is unconventional, distasteful to some, but I click with him when he writes:

The skies she retained in memory were dramas of cloud and sea storm, or the electric sheen before summer thunder in the city, always belonging to the energies of sheer weather, of what was out there, air masses, water vapor, westerlies. This was different, a clear sky that carried human terror in those streaking aircraft, first one, then the other, the force of men's intent. He watched with her. Every helpless desperation set against the sky, human voices crying to God and how awful to imagine this, God's name on the tongues of killers and victims both, first one plane and then the other, the one that was nearly cartoon human, with flashing eyes and teeth, the second plane, the south tower.

I was lying on an air mattress, sleepily wondering at the intensity of blue in the sky, rolling over, that day in Brooklyn, the first day of my first vacation in five years, trying to sleep off a hang-over in the insistent light. Thirty minutes before I witnessed on TV, that very cartoon human projectile carve a scar into the 21st century. I still see the sweep, the curve, the last minute pitch, the surreal way the building swallowed the plane whole. I don't like to think about it, try to avoid it. But I went to DeLillo's book to find a way to walk through those memories, mostly buried years ago.

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