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April 15, 2024

Review in Haiku: Falling Man

By Katrina Stonoff

Unnamed man escapes
Twin Towers as they fall, but
finds his life destroyed.

Falling Man by Don DeLillo came onto my nightstand with a serious handicap to overcome. Unfortunately, it failed to do so.

As I've mentioned before, stories about 9-11 really put me off. Or maybe I just haven't read the right one yet. But I find the scope of the real tragedy so great that fiction about it just doesn't move me.

Falling Man follows a survivor of the Twin Tower collapse as he moves numbly through the wreckage (both literal wreckage of the Towers and figurative wreckage of his former life), trying to remember what mattered to him, trying to make it matter again.

I picked Falling Man off the shelf at my local bookstore, caught by the cover. The flyleaf announced the topic in the first sentence ("There is September 11 and then there are the days after, and finally the years"), and I almost put the book down right there. But I decided to give it a chance, so I turned to the first page and began to read.

I was captivated. The first chapter follows an unnamed man through the aftermath, and it's gritty with realistic details. The writing is spare and understated, which somehow makes the gruesome descriptions more poignant and painful. And even the technique of calling the POV character "he" (though emotionally distancing) works in the aftershock of the crash and resulting collapse, especially since "he" becomes Any Man who was there that horrible day.

Of course I bought the book. But when I brought it home, I struggled through it. The momentum of the first chapter carried me through the next several, and the final chapter is gut-punching in the same way the first one is. But most of the chapters in the middle are flat.

I would guess DeLillo was trying to capture the numbness of post-traumatic stress disorder. The problem is, it's difficult to read, especially without strong plot elements to drive the reader through the narrative. And when characters feel and express little emotion, it's hard for a reader to develop any connection to them, much less empathy for them.

To make matters worse, DeLillo continues his tactic of calling characters "he" or "she," rather than using a name, which not only makes the reader feel even more distant from the characters, it's also downright confusing. One can only identify point-of-view characters by matching their experiences with hints given by other characters. So it was halfway through the book before I was sure who "he" was, and "he" was the main character!

Of course, elements of the book are breath-taking. The title image, for instance, is based on a performance artist who (like a serial sniper) plays the role of businessmen jumping from the Towers by jumping anonymously from overpasses and bridges, jumping to shock the passersby but surviving to jump again at another unexpected place another day.

DeLillo's writing is lyrical and stunning in its understated power. He clearly has the skills to own and control a reader (as proven in the first and last chapters).

I suspect he just spent too much time considering the structure of this novel and not enough time simply telling the story.

Falling Man may be great literature (only time will tell), but it's not a great read. Save your money. Borrow it from the library, or just read the first and last chapters in the bookstore.

Article © Katrina Stonoff. All rights reserved.
Published on 2008-11-03
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