Compare the front cover of Don DeLillo's 1997 magnum opus, Underworld, with the back cover of his latest novel, Falling Man, and you'll get some sense of what to expect from the postmodernist's long-awaited Sept. 11 novel. In the former, the Twin Towers take center stage, rising up into the fog-shrouded sky like otherworldly monoliths; in the latter, you see a near-microscopic image of their upper stories emerging from a frothy sea of clouds. If Underworld was an epic exploration of the political and cultural machinations of an entire era in American history, then Falling Man is a subtle snippet of said history, subversive in how it undermines exactly what we crave and expect from this popular chronicler of our country's highs and lows.
Though the actual terrorist attacks on New York bracket the book-in harrowing episodes full of eerie details like the flash of falling bodies seen through an office window-it is their effects on the nuclear American family that are important here. The nuclear family, in a DeLillo novel, is a curious animal: tempestuous, bizarre, and possessed with preternatural skills in self-analysis. The husband, wife, and adolescent son in these pages are no exception. Keith, an employee at the World Trade Center, escapes the attacks and returns, for no apparent reason, to his ex-wife Lianne's house, where she and son Justin slowly reintegrate him into the life he left behind.
Each character has his or her own unique way of dealing with the trauma: Keith performs physical-therapy exercises for his wounded wrist and starts an affair with a victim's wife; Lianne deconstructs her recently rejuvenated relationship and teaches creating writing classes to Alzheimer's patients; Justin and his young buddies watch the skies with binoculars and wait for the next attack from the al-Qaida leader they refer to as "Bill Lawton." Throw in Lianne's mother and her art dealer lover and you have your standard DeLillo narrative, complete with the near-robotic speech patterns that must sound natural only in the author's head.
On a purely technical level, Falling Man is traditional DeLillo, which means that you'll either be completely captivated by the writing or scratching your head as to who exactly, aside from stuffy intellectuals and critics, reads prose like this. Thematically, however, there is a depth to this work unexpected in such a slender novel. This is not a book about the geopolitical aftershocks of Sept. 11, Michael Moore conspiracy theories, or another attempt to answer the question "Why do they hate us?" Falling Man is about trauma-about the ways in which the human body and mind deal with a catastrophic overload of sensory information. For once, the author's minimalist and monotone writing style feels less like an awkward stylistic choice and more like the perfect human response to an event that left us all-whether for days, weeks, or years-uncomfortably numb.