Return to 9/11

Not long ago, cultural reporter and art historian Lawrence Weschler interviewed photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who had just completed a series of magnificent shots of the un-building of the World Trade Center after September 11. Weschler compared the photos—which have an eerie, almost holy grandeur—to 19th-century art.

“I was recognizing that I was in a new definition of the sublime,” Meyerowitz said. “The awesome, horrific transformation of this place—although it wasn’t nature itself—it was man acting as nature and bringing these buildings down.”

Novelists have written of the trauma and emotional upheaval, but have yet to explore the religious sense of awe—the transformative power—wrought by September 11, until now.

In Falling Man, Don Delillo tells the story of a family stretched apart and thrown together by the attacks. It is a tale of great power, told mostly through its minute, benumbed attention to surfaces. No piece of fiction has come closer to recreating the atmosphere of that day and the days shortly thereafter.

Delillo begins with confusion—the falling ash, the sense of the world turned upside down and reordered. “It was not a street anymore but a world,” he writes, as Keith Neudecker, a lawyer, staggers out of the collapsed buildings.

The enormity, as has been remarked, hollowed the survivors out, made them walking zombies. Delillo recreates this by taking all the iron out of his prose. Many sentences are passive constructions. The action jump-cuts in and out of scenes, but just as momentum builds, Delillo always slows down, fixating on a falling piece of debris, a smell in the air.

Keith stumbles through this void as if in a dream, walking home out of habit, even though he and his wife are separated. He takes a briefcase from the pile because that’s what he does when he leaves work. It turns out it belongs to a woman—he hunts her down and returns it.

People deal with the attacks differently. Keith’s estranged wife, Lianne, develops a kind of barbed vigilance. She picks a fight with their neighbor, who listens to foreign music. She thinks about leaving New York. Their child, Justin, heads to the roof every day with the family spyglass, to keep watch for planes.

Delillo has written several plays, and Falling Man often feels like a closer sibling to them than to his prize-winning novels White Noise, Libra or Underworld, all of which vibrate with a palpable paranoia—an undisguised belief that American life has become toxically unmanageable due to the systems that kept it running.

Falling Man, perhaps because it deals with an attack aimed at the very heart of those systems, returns the give-and-take of human interaction, the texture of domestic life.

Large questions, typically ignored, about faith and one’s place in the universe suddenly rise up and confront Delillo’s characters.

Falling Man beautifully conveys the axial tilt of three characters as they reorient to what has been allowed and to the fact—underscored by the hundreds of passive sentences—that they are not actors in this equation.

This sounds like a recipe for bad writing. But Delillo never overdoes it. He spends more of his energies describing the process of observing, rather than what is observed:

“There were rare moments between hands when he sat and listened to the sounds around him,” he writes of Keith. “It surprised him every time to find what an effort it takes to hear what is always there.”

Gradually, as we know, the noise returned. The intense present-tenseness of that day bled away, and all the old issues it suspended came looming back. Falling Man reminds us what it felt like before that happened, when our senses were piqued, our losses too fresh to even feel.