Saturday, June 09, 2007

DeLillo's Methods, Falling Man

Some interesting bits about DeLillo in a recent Publishers Weekly article, "What Ever Happened to Old-Fashioned Editing?":
Novelist Don DeLillo composes sentences in a 48-point font—the size of a front-page New York Times headline—so he can really see the words. They don't scroll by in a speedy blur. Only then does he decide if the sentence is a keeper.
I know the thrill Victor Hugo felt when his editor handed back a cleanly pruned manuscript. From a mess to Les Mis. Hugo bowed gratefully to his editor. “You have filleted a genie out of my smoke,” he said.
I'm still sort of scratching my head over his latest, the philosophical Falling Man. A "September 11th" book, yes, but not what I used to fear from 9/11 stories, the emotional exploitation, being dragged through events I don't want to relive. This book is actually quite subtle. Far from making you want to cry, it will only make you think, calmly. And I say "used to fear" because whereas last year I was studiously avoiding 9/11 stories (esp. at the cinema), I now feel strangely somehow cured or innoculated by the quiet reflection of this book. I'm over 9/11. Maybe I was a long time ago, but I didn't know it until now. I'm ready to face down the exploitive stories and films, the muckraking, whatever.

So much of the action of Falling Man is in the prose, DeLillo's artful way with sentences that are spare and possibly too understated--that comment about his working methods is revealing. It does feel he's trying to get the most out of the very least. DeLillo concerns himself with the effects of 9/11 on a group of New Yorkers, and the results are impossible to sum up. I feel like it's the kind of novel you'd have to summarize by quoting the entire thing. One interesting cultural connection he makes: the huge popularity of poker (playing or just watching others play) in the years following 9/11 and a kind of inner deadness or numbness experienced at the prospect of our own doom, a need to flee the material world and concern ourselves with the symbolic (money, chips, cards). With another character he explores (among other things) "still life" paintings ("still life" being a term that also evokes this novel's contemplative mood)--the characters begin to see the towers in what was previously just something beautiful to hang on the wall.

As he plays with the charge between sentences, so too does he play with the relationships between characters. Between a man who walks out of the towers as they are coming down and his ex-wife, the man and a fellow survivor, the man and his young son, the man and his former coworkers. Between a woman and her aging mother, her mother's European lover, her long-dead father, the group of patients she works with who are in the early stages of Alzheimer's. That theme of identity and memory with the Alzheimer's patients makes me realize that the themes her are organic and can't be easily reduced to simple ideas. For such a spare, elegant novel it's so sophisticated and complex. I wouldn't say I loved the novel, but I loved parts of it, and I respect it a great deal.

Reviews: Frank Rich in NY Times, Birkerts in the LA Times, the Voice, EW, Guardian, and on Fresh Air.



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