Don DeLillo, Falling Man
BIOGRAPHY & LITERARY CAREER
Don DeLillo was born on November 20, 1936. He grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood in the Bronx. Both of his parents were working class. At a young age, DeLillo began reading Joyce, Hemingway, and Faulkner. He attended Fordham University and began a professional career as a copyrighter for an ad agency before writing first novel, Americana, in 1971.
DeLillo’s experience working for the ad agency has strongly influenced his fiction. His novels reflect an ongoing interested in consumer capitalism and the de-individualization that he attributes to American capitalist society. DeLillo’s Catholic upbringing also strongly informs his literary thinking. He was an alter server around the time of Vatican II. Amy Hungerford has compellingly analyzed DeLillo’s Catholic roots and the religious sensibilities of his fiction. According to Hungerford, DeLillo recuperates the Latin Mass in a literary context. DeLillo, she argues, dodges Catholic doctrine while maintaining a Catholic understanding of imminent transcendence. Catholic doctrine maintains Christ’s full presence in the Eucharist; DeLillo, similarly, maintains that language embodies some Absolute or transcendent truth. DeLillo understands language, like the Latin at Mass (which is meant to be mumbled, rather than audibly heard, to inspire a meditative state), as having a powerful imaginative force.
DeLillo’s fiction is known to be somewhat enigmatic, and the author resists publicity. He gives few interviews, because he believes it diminishes his art to stand next to it and clarify it. DeLillo refuses to connect all the dots for readers. Art should ask questions, not provide answers.
DeLillo has been described as the author “that has been writing 9/11 novels for thirty years” (Interview with Mark Binelli). His fiction is eerily prophetic of 9/11. His 1977 Players, for instance, depicts a husband and wife living in New York. The husband becomes involved with a terrorist group that is plotting to blow up the New York Stock Exchange, where he works. His wife works in the World Trade Center. At one point, during a rooftop dinner party in which his wife gazes at the towers, a neighbor casually notes, “That plane looks like it’s going to hit” (84). Mao II (1991) first introduces the artist/terrorist analogy that DeLillo revisits in Falling Man. Character Bill Gray (a novelist) contemplates the connection between artists and terrorist, suggesting that both share a desire to penetrate the public psyche:
There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists ...Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated. (41)
In an interview given the same year that Mao II was published, DeLillo echoes his character’s remarks, observing, “True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts, and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to” (Interview with Vince Passaro). Mao II was written shortly after the Ayatollah issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie. In Falling Man, DeLillo again asks, who is the cultural outsider—the artist or the terrorist? The character Martin deals in art and terror. He also expresses Romantic notions of the towers’ destruction—“Weren’t the towers build as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction” (116)? The character Falling Man is considered both an artist and a terrorist, since his artwork is not sanctioned by the state. Cosmopolis, which was published after 9/11 but mostly written before, has also been described as eerily prophetic. James Gourley argues that the novel is emblematic of DeLillo’s reconceptualization of time after 9/11, so he simply classifies it with DeLillo’s post-9/11 fiction.
FALLING MAN PUBLICATION HISTORY
Falling Man was published in 2007. It is DeLillo’s fourteenth novel. Falling Man builds on DeLillo’s essay, “In the Ruins of the Future,” published in The Guardian in December 2001, just months after the 9/11 attacks. It also develops themes introduced in DeLillo’s short story, “Baader-Meinhof,” published in Harper’s in April 2002. (Both novel and short story analogize art and terror, questioning art’s relevance in an age of terror, but also closely associate terror and the state, positing the artist as the true outsider.)
Falling Man invokes Richard Drew’s famous AP photograph of an anonymous man falling from the WTC towers. The media quickly censored the photograph, as it sparked widespread outrage. By invoking Drew’s notorious photograph, DeLillo stages a forbidden image, just as Falling Man (the character) stages a forbidden image. Thus, DeLillo suggests that art, like terror, is transgressive. He also suggests that the media, aligned with the state, tries to incorporate thought, much the same way that terrorists do. In the novel, DeLillo avoids words that he believes are “incorporated”—WTC, Ground Zero, 9/11, for examples. DeLillo’s novels are often inspired by a haunting image. When he spoke at the Library of Congress in September 2013, accepting the Prize for American Fiction, DeLillo explained that Falling Man began with an image of a man standing with a briefcase amidst rubble and debris. From there, he proceeded “essentially, sentence by sentence, word by word.” DeLillo’s very writing process is connected to this thinking about art and terror—terror homogenizes thought, insisting a final and authoritative answer. Art, by contrast, is never final, but always open to possibilities of meaning.
Mark Binelli interviewed DeLillo about Falling Man in the July 2007 issue of Gournica. Here, DeLillo discusses travelling to Ground Zero a few days after attacks with the vague intentions of writing an essay about the events: “I was thinking as a novelist . . . I needed to see things, to literally smell things. I wanted to start at street level.” Here, DeLillo suggests the imaginative power of material debris, which abounds in the novel. Material debris is the means by which the counter-narrative (the challenge to the “official” narrative, purported by the media on behalf of the state). Such dialectical material fragments recall Walter Benjamin, whose thinking DeLillo’s is said to resemble.
FALLING MAN RECEPTION HISTORY
Frank Rich reviewed the novel for the New York Times. In his review, entitled “The Clear Blue Sky,” Rich describes Falling Man as DeLillo’s attempt to give meaning to the event. Rich’s take is fairly favorable, in contrast to Michiko Kakutani’s NYT review, which asserts that “the novel feels tired and brittle . . . small and unsatisfying and inadequate.” Kakutani writes:
Instead of capturing the impact of 9/11 on the country or New York or a spectrum of survivors or even a couple of interesting individuals, instead of illuminating the zeitgeist in which 9/11 occurred or the shell-shocked world it left in its wake, Mr. DeLillo leaves us with two paltry images: one of a performance artist re-enacting the fall of bodies from the burning World Trade Center, and one of a self-absorbed man, who came through the fire and ash of that day and decided to spend his foreseeable future playing stupid card games in the Nevada desert.
Adam Mars-Jones, reviewing for The Guardian, also complains that the novel fizzles. Mars-Jones laments that the novel is not remotely dramatic or climatic.
The public seems to agree with Kakutani and Mars-Jones. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and GoodReads reviewers give the novel, on average, a mere three out of five stars. Reviewers express frustration with the lack of meaningful plot development as well as with DeLillo’s difficult style. One Amazon reviewer writes, “I felt all too often like chucking the book and saying to Hell with it.” A GoodReads reviewer complains, “Don DeLillo’s Falling Man has more unspecified pronouns than I care to read.”
Academic critics have, on the whole, demonstrated more charity towards DeLillo’s novel. Critics see Falling Man as marking a transformative moment in DeLillo’s literary career. James Gourley, for instance, analyzes in Falling Man the influence of Beckett’s writings on Proust. Gourley references DeLillo’s notes and drafts in the Harry Ransom Center, which indeed corroborate that Beckett (as well as Paul Virilio) were on his mind while writing Falling Man. Gourley argues that DeLillo, following Beckett, associates the accelerated time of modernity with terror, and, thus, the deceleration of modern time with countering terror. Terrorism, Media, and the Ethics of Fiction: Transatlantic Perspectives collects critical readings from American and European scholars. While many American critics praise Falling Man for its reflections on terror, trauma, and time, several European critics challenge DeLillo’s work. Sascha Pöhlmann, for instance, critiques DeLillo’s “orientalist stereotyping” of the terrorist characters. On the whole, however, critics seem to agree that Falling Man simultaneously continues meditations begun early in his career while also reflecting a markedly new style and aesthetic sensibility.
Binelli, Mark. “Intensity of a Plot.” Interview with Don DeLillo. Guernica. 17 July 2007.
DeLillo, Don. “Baader-Meinhof.” The New Yorker 1 April 2008: 78- 82.
DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2007.
DeLillo, Don. “In the Ruins of the Future.” The Guardian 21 December 2001: 33-40.
Gourley, James. Terrorism and Temporality in the Works of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.
Hungerford, Amy. “Don DeLillo’s Latin Mass.” Contemporary Literature 47.3 (2006): 343- 380.
Kakutani, Michiko. “A Man, a Woman and a Day of Terror.” Review of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. New York Times. 9 May 2007. Web. 5 February 2014.
Mars-Jones, Adam. “As his world came tumbling down.” Review of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. The Observer. 12 May 2007. Web. 2 February 2014.
Passaro, Vince. “Dangerous Don DeLillo.” An Interview With Don DeLillo. New York Times. 19 May 1991.
Pöhlmann, Sascha. “Collapsing Identities: The Representation and Imagination of the Terrorist in Falling Man.” Terrorism, Media, and the Ethics of Fiction. Ed. Peter Schneck and Philipp Schweighauser. New York: Continuum, 2010.
Rich, Frank. “The Clear Blue Sky.” Review of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. New York Times. 27 May 2007. Web. 2 February 2014.
Hagen, W. M. 2008. "Review of Falling Man." World Literature Today, 82 (1): 59. Hagen is not all that approving of DeLillo’s novel in this review.
Jackson, Thomas DePietro, ed. 2005. Conversations with Don DeLillo. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press. DePietro has scoured the media for tidbits from this reclusive author. In this collection, readers learn, from the author’s own words, the things that have inspired his writing.
Junod, Tom. 2007. "The Man Who Invented 9/11." Esquire, 147 (6): 38. Like many other critics, Junod believes that DeLillo is well ahead of his time, having all but predicted an event like 9/11. So who better to write a novel about the twin towers?
LeClair, Thomas. 1988. In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. LeClair presents a collection of critical essays on DeLillo’s work.
Leith, Sam. 2007. "After the Fall." The Spectator, May 19, p. 246. Leith praises DeLillo’s writing, particularly the careful way he constructs each sentence. Leith, like many other reviewers, believes that DeLillo has been waiting all his career to write this book.
Lentricchia, Frank, ed. 1991. Introducing Don DeLillo. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. This excellent book is another collection of essays exploring DeLillo’s work.
McAlpin, Heller. 2007. “Falling Man: The Day It All Came Down." Christian Science Monitor, May 29, p. 13. McAlpin finds that DeLillo’s book has the ability to numb his readers with the chilling details of 9/11 that numbed the world.
Ruppersburg, Hugh, and Tim Engles, eds. 2000. Critical Essays on Don DeLillo. Boston: G.K. Hall. This is another excellent collection of literary essays by those who have studied DeLillo.
Seligman, Craig. 2007. "A Muddled Look at Memory, Loss and Pain." Seattle Times, May 27, p. K-7. Seligman provides a mixed review of the novel.
Szalai, Jennifer. 2007. "After the Fall." Harper’s Magazine, 315 (1886): 91–95. Szalai not only reviews DeLillo’s Falling Man, she also traces the history of the twin towers in DeLillo’s previous novels.