John Leonard, noted critic and former literary editor of The Nation, died Wednesay at 69. This was one of his last pieces published in the magazine.
Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative. –Don DeLillo, Mao II
It wasn’t a question of whether Don DeLillo would write a 9/11 novel, or even when. He has been writing it all along, from Americana to Cosmopolis, dreaming out loud in signs, ciphers, portents and premonitions. The superstructure and the manifest content may have been about money and media, or baseball and rock and roll, or language and religion, or prophets and pilgrims, or paranoia and pornography, or atomic bombs and dead Kennedys, but some kind of 9/11 was always implicit. DeLillo, the conspiracy theorist of corporate power and state secrecy, the poster child of postmodern pastiche and “crisis sociology,” the Rob Roy and Pancho Villa of blood cults and bricolage, the dreadlocked Medusa of “topless pinball” and “neon creepies,” is afraid of the dark. “BREATHE! GLEAM! VERBALIZE! DIE!” he instructed us in Ratner’s Star. The Names actually accused the ancient Minoans, with their lilies, dolphins, antelope and bull, of human sacrifice.
“But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it?” says Martin, a know-it-all in Falling Man. “Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction? You build a thing like that so you can see it come down. The provocation is obvious. What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice? It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice? You are saying, Here it is, bring it down.”
There are five important characters in Falling Man–Keith, a Wall Street lawyer who walks down the stairs of the North Tower and “out of an ash storm, all blood and slag, reeking of burnt matter, with pinpoint glints of slivered glass in his face”; Lianne, Keith’s estranged wife, a freelance book editor and “storyline” facilitator at an East Harlem therapy group for early-onset Alzheimer’s patients; their young son, Justin, who restricts himself to monosyllables and spends a lot of time at his bedroom window looking through binoculars for the monster named Bill Lawton; Hammad, one of the hijackers in the service of Mohamed Atta and maybe the least interesting terrorist we’ve ever met in a DeLillo novel; and Janiak, a performance artist who in the days after 9/11 is seen throwing himself in a suit, tie and safety harness off of window sills, viaducts and elevated subway tracks, “the single falling figure that trails a collective dread”–and Martin’s not among them. He is, instead, one of those percussion instruments in every DeLillo, a drum, a tambourine or a triangle to be struck with a stick whenever the writer needs to sound a foreboding or to counterpoint or caricature an argument. This particular Martin is a Eurotrashy art dealer who used to be a Marxist revolutionary back in the jolly bygone days of the Red Brigades. He is intended to remind us that once upon a time the terrorists were white, Western and left-wing secular.