Remember those writing assignments where a teacher challenged you to depict boredom without being boring? Well, acclaimed author Don DeLillo, in his eagerly anticipated novel about Sept. 11, has not only captured the fraught numbness that followed the World Trade Center attacks – he has written a book that is itself numbing.
The most surprising thing about Falling Man is its directness. Rather than approach the attacks obliquely, DeLillo's novel about a lawyer who escapes from the towers and returns to his estranged wife confronts them head on. His fidelity to his source material brings us back to those awful days, but adds little new perspective.
In occasionally stunning but frequently affected prose, DeLillo evokes images that are still fresh in our minds. His portrait of Keith Neudecker and his wife, Lianne, is consistent with the case studies in Gail Sheehy's "Middletown," which chronicled the post-traumatic stress suffered by New Jersey's hardest hit community.
After the planes struck in 2001, we knew it was only a matter of time before writers would tackle this defining moment in our history. Recently, it has figured, with varying degrees of success, in novels by Jonathan Safran Foer, Claire Messud, and Jay McInerney, among others.
Expectations were high for DeLillo's take on this disaster, which even as it was happening seemed like a scene from one of his novels. In his best books, including "Libra," a blend of fact and fictional speculation about John F. Kennedy's assassination, and "White Noise," about a toxic chemical cloud that captures the menace of modern life, DeLillo demonstrated an often prophetic apocalyptic vision.
"Falling Man" opens with the visceral, exquisitely wrought image of dazed 39-year-old Keith Neudecker walking north, pierced by glass shards and coated in ash, out of the rubble. "It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night," DeLillo writes. "The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now."
Unthinkingly, as if on auto-pilot, Keith heads uptown to the apartment where his estranged wife lives with their 7-year-old son. They've been separated for a year, their marriage eroded by his infidelities.
Convinced that her husband perished in the towers, Lianne is as traumatized as Keith. We learn in the weaker, latter section of the novel that three years later, she still can't bring herself to ride the subway. There's some solace in their tentative reunion, though they're like patients recovering from major surgery, physically and emotionally fragile, with uncertain prognoses.
Keith emerges from the wreckage with a stranger's briefcase. When he finds its owner, a black divorcée, they connect tenuously over their shared trauma and fall into a brief affair.
But mainly, "Falling Man" is about disconnections.
Lianne, a manuscript editor, leads Alzheimer's patients in a writing group in East Harlem. She grieves as their minds gradually "slide away from the adhesive friction that makes an individual possible."
She also copes with her failing mother, a retired university professor, whose shady German lover rants about America's arrogance and consequent irrelevance.
Keith, despite "what he'd lately taken to be the truth in his life, that it was meant to be lived seriously and responsibly, not snatched in clumsy fistfuls," anesthetizes himself with full-time poker-playing, mostly on the road. Their son restricts his speech to monosyllables and scans the skies anxiously for "Bill Lawton" – bin Laden.
DeLillo's characters are so emotionally remote, it's hard to engage with them. They often see themselves as if they're in a movie – even when kissing in a taxi.
Dialogue is ludicrously disjointed and clipped. A key conversation in which Lianne discusses their future:
"There are things I understand."
"I understand there are some men who are only half here. Let's not say men. Let's say people. People who are more or less obscure at times."
"You understand this."
Interspersed with the Neudeckers' story are a few incongruous chapters about one of the terrorists in the planes.
"Falling Man" takes its title from a fictional performance artist who, in the weeks after 9/11, grotesquely evokes the famous photograph of a man jumping from the burning towers. Falling Man plunges head-first from various edifices, caught by a harness hidden in his business suit.
More than towers fall in DeLillo's novel. But the social harnesses that keep his characters from hitting the pavement – marriage, family, church, poker – don't arresttheir descents altogether. One wishes DeLillo had written a book that made us want to reach out and catch them ourselves.
• Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.