Don DeLillo’s novel Falling Man was not well-received by many critics upon its 2007 release. No small part of that negative reaction to the then-latest work of a gifted novelist (he’s since had another novel published, in 2010) was due to DeLillo’s characterizations. For a novel, even one as cynical as Falling Man, to present the tragedy of 9/11 through the eyes of largely unsympathetic and poorly-conceived people as populate this story is to suggest an underlying cynicism regarding the country that may be deserved (depending upon one’s perceptions) but does not necessarily make for good reading. Falling Man reflects the author’s apparent dismay at the commercialization of American news and the superficial way many Americans relate religion to life and how religion is practiced in the daily lives of many people. In one of his more noteworthy passages, DeLillo has one of his main characters, Lianne, reflect upon the age-old questions of the existence and nature of God and the relationship of religion to the myriad tragedies that define human history:
“There was religion, then there was God. Lianne wanted to disbelieve. Disbelief was the line of travel that led to clarity of thought and purpose. . .She wanted to trust in for forces and processes of the natural world, this only, perceptible reality and scientific endeavor, men and women alone on earth. She knew there was no conflict between science and God. Take one with the other. But she didn’t want to.”
And so it goes. DeLillo, through the person of the estranged wife who is suffering a form of trauma stemming from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and who is struggling with a question of which many a borderline atheist can relate, is undergoing a crisis of confidence – the same crisis of confidence that has fueled many discussions relating to the existence and nature of a Supreme Being who or that can tolerate or countenance the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge, Joseph Stalin, etc.
In Chapter Six of Falling Man, DeLillo sets up two of his main characters for the kind of ruminative dialogue that rarely occurs off the pages of pseudo-intellectual novels or in the script for films that aim for small, independent theaters. Keith and Florence are contemplating life. Keith is discussing his early ambitions for life, including a career in acting. Like most of humanity, whose early childhood ambitions crashed on the rocks of reality, Keith let himself down by choosing to attend law schools instead of sticking with his dreams:
“Didn’t work out. Things don’t work out,” she said. “What did you do?”
“Went to law school.”
She whispered, “Why?”
“What else? Where else?”
With this bit of dialogue, the full measure of DeLillo’s cynicism regarding the lives of others is further revealed. Time and again, the author returns to the theme of God in a time of despair. As Keith and Florence’s dialogue continues, the subject of God arises. References the terrorist attacks that took down the World Trade Center, killing thousands of people, Florence rhetorically asks the questions many ponder:
“Those men who did this thing. They’re anti everything we stand for. But they believe in God,” she said.
“Whose God? Which God? I don’t even know what it means to believe in God. I never think about it.”
If Falling Man was intended as a protracted discourse on the meaning of God, then it succeeds admirably. If it was intended as an indictment of America’s consumer culture, including the extent to which millions of Americans have succumbed to the sensationalization of the news, then it also succeeds admirably, as in the author’s following observation:
“Hysteria at high speeds, day to day, minute to minute. People in free societies don’t have to fear the pathology of the state. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions, driven by thinking machines that we have no final authority over. The frenzy is barely noticeable most of the time. It’s simply how we live.” She finished with a laugh…
The reason, I suspect, DeLillo’s characters are so hard to relate to in Falling Man is that the author was more interested in putting on paper his internal deliberations regarding the nature of man and God than on creating realistic characters. Too much of his dialogue and too many of his characters’ reflections on life read too much like a Woody Allen screenplay when the filmmaker is channeling his inner Ingmar Bergman, and that, history has shown, is not particularly entertaining.