Don DeLillo’s book, White Noise, has been on the bottom bookshelf, collecting dust bunnies for ages. I’d pick it up, dust it off, and put it down. DeLillo re-entered my life as this past month’s book group selection: Falling Man. It’s a book that focuses on a family that is significantly dysfunctional before September 11 in NYC and massively sad and broken post 9/11. It was not a fun read and several times I thought about putting it back on the shelf with the dust bunnies.
Falling Man hit three of my emotionally fragile hot spots: 9/11, Alzheimer’s, and suicide. One of these would have been almost more than I could have handled, but all three of them really pushed buttons. The primary characters were separated and emotionally disconnected before the planes hit the World Trade Towers. Afterwards, they spent time together, but it was painful as a reader to see them be so inadequate, loveless, and alienated to themselves, each other and their son, who is called “the kid” most of the novel. Empty and hurting and it doesn’t stop—that’s the pace of the novel.
The wife’s compassion is revealed only with her work at a local Alzheimer’s day care center, but it is likewise measured and hopeless. It is her effort to stave off the inevitable loss. The patients lose their memories, their love of life and gradually slip away. In contrast to this slow death, we see the shock of the traumatizing 9/11 deaths and her father’s suicide when he discovers he has Alzheimer’s and doesn’t want to live long enough to forget who his daughter is. It’s an alternative plan that seems selfish and selfless at the same time. His disease is, likewise, a random event… and he chooses to jump.
Amidst all of this gloom and doom is a performance artist, called “Falling Man” who dresses in street clothes and then rigs himself so that it looks like he is falling out of a window or off of a bridge. It’s a creepy reminder of tower victims who jumped from windows to their death in order to escape a fiery death. He performs by taunting death and raising fears—but does so for entertainment and art—much like DeLillio. Ironically, this is one character that I want to know more about. What makes him tick? Who is he? What’s his story? All we learn is that he dies young, and it is because of natural causes. He does toy with chaos and randomness instead of succumbing to it. It’s a scary game.
There is no relief from grief, guilt, lovelessness, and alienation in this book. The husband ends up playing poker professionally, sometimes cheats, and is living a shell of a life. He’s fighting randomness on the poker table. Everyone else is broken and doesn’t heal, and the droning beat goes on.
Why write this story? What’s the purpose? It can’t be just to make me sad. Perhaps this is the miserable underbelly of living through struggles. It shows what it’s like to survive short term and long term disappointments and failures. “Survive” is the canonical verb, not thrive. These are the folks that find a way to put one foot in front of the other when their lives suck. They survive their despondency and cope the best they can. Each does so by entering into one’s own cocoon, where the character has the opportunity to control what little can be controlled. It’s not optimal, but it’s safe, and they found a way to go on.