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.”
From DeLillo, cryptic and reclusive, we have come to expect these bulletins from zones of dread–about memory, mystery, movies, myth and apparition. About private armies, intelligence networks, back channels and terrorist sects. About violence, conspiracy, coincidence, chaos and the loneliness of long-distance lunatics. About soot-faced pushers of shopping carts, sleepers in tents and subway tunnels, missing children on milk cartons and women who live in garbage bags “like some Bombay cartoon.” About wave fronts, labyrinths, spycams, video streams, digital mosaics and magnetic flash. About sacred formulas, circular systems, cycloid forms, rogue programs, sequence grids, dark matter and boomerangs. About, alas, stun guns, rubber bullets, polygraphs, caliber readings and death squads. But also about speaking in tongues, playing with snakes, animist spores, Buddhist swastikas, Kabbalistic sperm demons, hermaphroditic Hindu doll gods, Roman Catholic rosary beads, the ninety-nine names for Allah in the Koran, goat bells, wild poppies and avant-garde mathematics. Endor told us in Ratner’s Star: “Einstein and Kafka! They knew each other! They stood in the same room and talked! Einstein and Kafka!”
In fact, some Endor or Fenig or Owen or Martin is always hitting us between the eyes with something DeLillo thinks we need to know. We will be informed: “If it’s Nazis, it’s automatically erotic. The violence, the rituals, the leather, the jackboots. The whole thing for uniforms and paraphernalia.” Or: “I don’t trust anybody’s nostalgia but my own. Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It’s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country.” Or, and this may really be profound: “Before pop art, there was such a thing as bad taste. Now there’s kitsch, schlock, camp and porn.”
And the way the men and women talk to each other–omniscient, ironic and ominous–you’d think Beckett or Pinter had written their scripts. Whole marriages are hung out to dry, like knickers or negatives on a line. This can be funny, as it was in The Names when the filmmaker Volterra said of his girlfriend: “Look at her. Those oversized glasses. With her thin face and that short hair…. She looks like a science-fiction insect.” To which she cleverly replied: “Suck a rock, Jojo.” But more often it’s right on an almost invisible line between tickling and exploratory surgery, or surgery and torture. In Falling Man, Keith and Lianne know each other so well that they have to keep reminding themselves of what must not be said so as to get them safely through the day, as if they, too, dangled from some viaduct. He will fail to inform her of the weird affair he’s having across town with Florence, the young black woman whose briefcase he mysteriously removed from the burning World Trade tower. Once he’s at home again, “alone in time,” strange to himself, what Keith does mostly is watch. Lianne, whose father shot himself rather than face senile dementia, won’t tell her husband how scared she gets in the therapy group at “the first signs of halting response, the losses and failings, the grim prefigurings that issued now and then from a mind beginning to slide away from the adhesive fiction that makes an individual possible.” Instead, she gets into a fight with the downstairs neighbor who, over and over again, plays the same CD of “music located in Islamic tradition”–“Middle Eastern, North African, Bedouin songs perhaps or Sufi dances.” He watches poker on television, from a casino in a desert, and wonders whether “he was born to be old, meant to be old and alone…. Everything now is measured by after.” She thinks his exercises for his wounded wrist “resembled prayer in some remote northern province, among a repressed people, with periodic applications of ice.” Once, together, they watch what happened on television:
The second plane coming out of that ice blue sky, this was the footage that entered the body, that seemed to run beneath her skin, the fleeting sprint that carried lives and histories, theirs and hers, everyone’s, into some other distance, out beyond the towers.
He agrees that even the camera seemed surprised by the first plane. But by the time of the second, “We’re all a little older and wiser.” And God’s name must have been on the tongues of killers and victims both.
Obviously, we can read DeLillo backward, as if his detective novels, science fictions, road shows, espionage thrillers, academic hanky-pankies and hockey porn were warming up for Falling Man–a novel that reminds us of how we really felt before we were bushwhacked; of our fugue state on that election day, in the endless nightmare feedback loop of jet plane, firebomb, towers falling, another in a long line of cheesy Hollywood films in which the crystal palace of Manhattan is destroyed by comets, plagues, apes, aliens, insects, androids, hydrogen bombs, tidal waves or toxic waste. Yet on the strange parenthetical streets outside, silent but for sirens Tuesday night and Wednesday, in the compulsive cluster of people on the streets walking to air the mind, there was behind the eyes a kind of inner Beirut, the rubble left behind by the kamikazes of Kingdom Come. If the contemptuous purpose of terrorism is to dominate and humiliate, to turn citizens into lab rats and cities into mazes, then Al Qaeda did not succeed. But we certainly couldn’t say that the bombs had scattered seeds of anything savory or uplifting. We really needed time to think. Unfortunately, the event was hijacked immediately by putschniks.
DeLillo returns us to that parenthesis. In this, among the 9/11 novels I have read, by Ian McEwan, Reynolds Price, Jay McInerney and Jonathan Safran Foer, it most resembles the best of them, Lynn Sharon Schwartz’s The Writing on the Wall, in which, after the divebombing of the World Trade Center, a linguist named Renata at the New York Public Library is asked to add Arabic to her other exotic languages (Bliondan, Etinoi), even as she tries to cope with a crazy mother, an importunate lover, a teenage mute, a dead twin and the child she thinks she lost on a merry-go-round. In both books, the melding of the psychological and geopolitical dreamworlds feels inevitable rather than willed, as starkly elegant and illuminated as the calligraphy of medieval monks. DeLillo, predictably, goes further. He has practiced overkill in Underworld, that treatise on the cold war and other repressions. He has practiced performance yoga in The Body Artist, that pure blue note of Zen. Secrets are the normal respiration of his intelligence, and so is fearfulness, and so, too, is a cry for pity and saving grace. That history and intimacy should collide with and collapse upon each other, like charged particles in the cloud chamber of a cyclotron, has been fundamental to his method and his metaphysics.
So Hammad will have second thoughts, a bit late, and rather less persuasively than John Updike’s New Jersey teen in Terrorist. At least Updike, who takes sacred texts as seriously as he does medicine, has written already on Gilgamesh, the Mahabharata and the Analects, and exerted himself to think about Abraham and Isaac in the inflections of Dante and Kierkegaard, will mount the Prophet’s winged horse Buraq and ride with the robed warriors and the elephants into the Koran’s crushing fire. So Justin, three years after his father didn’t die, will march with his mother in an antiwar parade on Charlie Parker’s birthday. So Keith, who “could not find himself in the things he saw and heard,” “in the ash ruins of what was various and human,” will run away from “the dream of paralysis,” “the dream of asphyxiation,” “the dream of helplessness” and any breath of God as well–into the limbic wastes of professional poker, where he gets to choose yes or no with the turn of every card, call or fold. (We have been here before with DeLillo, haven’t we, in Players, where the Stock Exchange is a Temple Mount, and money moves in green numbers and deathless waves across the floor; and in Cosmopolis, where the mathematical properties of sunflower seeds and deep-space pulsars describe currency fluctuations, and the cycles of grasshopper breeding and the almighty market are interchangeable?) Whereas Lianne has tried hard to fight off the God of her fathers and mothers, “because once you believe such a thing…then how can you escape, how survive the power of it, is and was and ever shall be.” She finds herself nevertheless “breathing the dead in candlewax and incense,” dreaming toward something “at the limits of matter and energy, a force responsible in some way for the very nature, the vibrancy of our lives from the mind out, the mind in little pigeon blinks that extend the plane of being, out beyond logic and intuition.” Besides, “isn’t it the world itself that brings you to God? Beauty, grief, terror, the empty desert, the Bach cantatas.”
From dense light and mauled stones, DeLillo, a closet holy roller, writes a radiant sermon. Meanwhile America, having lapsed into a “protein stupor” like one of the East Harlem Alzheimer’s patients, has forgotten where she came from and who she was supposed to be.
But you are wondering about Janiak, the performance artist, the falling man, the Humpty Dumpty. Let me suggest, if not Adam, then possibly Icarus.