Just finished reading Falling Man, by Don DeLillo. A decade or so ago, I got hooked on the work of one David Foster Wallace, and in one of his essays, he mentions DeLillo as an influence. He’s also corresponded with DeLillo, who is sometimes listed as one of DFW’s literary forebears. When I learned about all this, I naturally went out and read a few books by DeLillo. First was White Noise, which was great (the kind of book you push on your friends). Then I read a couple of his other shorter books and was less than impressed. They felt sort of soap-opera-y and just didn’t interest me much. I later picked up Underworld and was captivated at once by the opening scene from a baseball game, which felt really authentic and exhilarating. Maybe halfway through that tome, I lost interest and put it down, and I sold the book when we were downsizing our library in anticipation of a move last year. I’ve since read some comments that make me want to pick it back up; maybe I didn’t give it a fair shake. Anyway, when I learned a couple of months ago that DeLillo had a new one coming out, I was interested in giving him another go, so I got Amazon to send it my way.
After the gripping first three-and-a-half page chapter, the book is mostly boring for the rest of the remaining 242 pages. It lapses into the blah melodrama (meloblahma?) of some of DeLillo’s other short work, and I have a hard time caring about the main characters’ emotional ties to one another and to others around them. With the exception of the parts of the book that dramatize events from September 11 and scenes of a performance artist who flings himself from high places and assumes the position of a person caught on film falling from one of the towers, Falling Man feels like the same old stuff of his I read and disliked years ago, aloof descriptions of people behaving in ways they maybe shouldn’t. Why should I read about this kind of stuff when I can just watch Days of Our Lives and check my email at the same time on top of it?
DeLillo does take some breaks from being dull to consider some fairly interesting things. He writes of Alzheimer’s and exercises performed by some of that disease’s afflicted of trying to write down their memories, for example, and the desire of these sufferers to clutch their memories tightly contrasts nicely with the inability of the rest of us to divest ourselves of the memories and images (e.g. that of the falling man that inspires the book and its performance artist) of an event like the collapse of the Twin Towers.
There’s also much in the book of ritual and its meanings and motiviations and their relationship to particular actions. Considered in the context of destructive religious fervor, this is fairly compelling.
I found myself wishing DeLillo had found ways to flesh out these themes in more subtle and broadly engaging ways rather than doing partial character studies of people whose uninterestingness is painful and whose interactions are classic (to me, at least) bad DeLillo.
I had hoped the book would break my heart.
I’m not sorry I read Falling Man, but it wasn’t a hard enough book (it didn’t require much of a cerebral investment at all, and this from somebody who wrinkles his brow aplenty) or a baseline beautiful enough book for me to forgive its imperfections, and it puts me in some doubt as to whether I should bother re-buying Underworld. It surely makes me look forward to diving into Pynchon’s Against the Day (I read the opening section the other day and it was marvelous), which, love it or hate it or (more likely) not understand the hundredth part of it, will be one helluva ride and anything but boring.