The Dread Zone
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.
As if readers of DeLillo needed reminding. Long before Al Qaeda, he had introduced us to the "mindless violence" of the Happy Valley Farm Commune in Great Jones Street, the funny money of the Radial Matrix in Running Dog and the serial alphabet killers of Ta Onómata in The Names. It was in the same Names, a quarter of a century ago, that he explained that America, with its bank loans, arms credits, goods and technology, "is the world's living myth":
There's no sense of wrong when you kill an American or blame America for some local disaster. This is our function, to be character types, to embody recurring themes that people can use to comfort themselves, justify themselves and so on. We're here to accommodate. Whatever people need, we provide. A myth is a useful thing. People expect us to absorb the impact of their grievances.
From the beginning, his radar eye and sonar ear have been on red alert for a toppling of towers in "the terror that came blowing through the fog." He told us in his first novel, Americana (1971), that there would be no agonies in the garden when the century turned: "Now that night beckons, the first lamp to be lit will belong to that man who leaps from a cliff and learns how to fly, who soars to the tropics of the sun and uncurls his hand from his breast to spoon out fire." Ratner's Star (1976) then explained that "nothing in this ancient poem of matter falling precludes the notion that matter continues to fall. Matter is now thought to be organized, interactive and guided by well-defined forces and yet nowhere in the scientific canon is there evidence to dispel the poetic impression that matter-now-organized is constantly falling, which is what I said in the previous sentence if you were listening. It's in the nature of objects to fall. The whole universe is falling. This is the meaning of dreams in which we plunge forever." Great Jones Street (1973) had already predicted:
In a millennium or two, a seeming paradox of our civilization will be best understood by those men versed in the methods of counter-archaeology. They will study us not by digging into the earth but by climbing vast dunes of industrial rubble and mutilated steel, seeking to reach the tops of our buildings. Here they'll chip lovingly at our spires, mansards, turrets, parapets, belfries, water tanks, flower pots, pigeon lofts and chimneys.... Back in their universities in the earth, the counter-archaeologists will sort their reasons for our demise, citing as prominent the fact that we stored our beauty in the air, for birds of prey to see, while placing at eye level nothing more edifying than hardware, machinery and the implements of torture.
After which Pammy would wonder in Players (1977): "If the elevators in the World Trade Center were places, as she believed them to be, and if the lobbies were spaces, as she further believed, what then was the World Trade Center itself? Was it a condition, an occurrence, a physical event, an existing circumstance, a presence, a state, a set of invariables?" The Names (1982) maintained that "nothing sticks to us but smoke in our hair and clothes. It is dead time. It never happened until it happens again. Then it never happened." To which White Noise (1985) added: "The power of the dead is that we think they see us all the time. The dead have a presence. Is there a level of energy composed solely of the dead? They are also in the ground, of course, asleep and crumbling. Perhaps we are what they dream." To be sure, as David Ferrie insisted in Libra (1988), "There's more to it. There's always more to it. This is what history consists of. It's the sum total of all the things they aren't telling us." Nevertheless, according to Mao II (1991):
It's such a simple idea. Terrorize the innocent. The more heartless they are, the better we see their rage. And isn't it the novelist, Bill, above all people, above all writers, who understands this rage, who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it's the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark. Where are your sympathies? With the colonial police, the occupier, the rich landlord, the corrupt government, the militaristic state? Or with the terrorist?
One character in Underworld (1997) "loved the way power rises out of self-caressing secrecy to become a roar in the sky." Another, stalking a billionaire on the streets of Manhattan in Cosmopolis (2003), sought our advice: "I'm ambivalent about killing him. Does this make me less interesting to you, or more?" A third, in the play The Day Room, had bragged all the way back in 1986 that "I live in a great steel tower that reflects the blazing sun. People catch fire just walking by. The more bodies that pile up around you, the greater your equity, the stronger your power, the longer you live. This is the point of living in a high rise. To see the bodies pile up at sunset, the nostalgic hour, the hour of summing up, stirring the cocktails, feeling the great tower sway in the hot winds."