Sunday, June 10, 2007

O'Hagan on DeLillo, Falling Man, and thoughts on the culture of the post-9/11 era

"The writer and the terrorist have something in common," writes Andrew O'Hagan in a brilliant review of Don DeLillo, Falling Man (Scribner) in the New York Review of Books. "And so it feels like something of a consummation when a person called Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir el-Sayed Atta appears on page 80 of DeLillo's new novel Falling Man. The novelist seems to recognize Atta's impulses as if they were old friends."

If news reporters write the first cut of history, somewhere between the reporters and the historians stand the novelists and the poets. (This is, of course, a false ordering. And we might think of the news, literature and histories of the future to be something of a mash-up.) But it is because literature plays a role in the way we conceptualize and remember the past, that historians will be interested in literary accounts of what is seen as a defining moment in recent history: September 11.

Andrew O'Hagan places the novel Falling Man in the trajectory of Don DeLillo's writing, suggesting that it is the novelist's "interest in the conjunction of visual technology and terrorism that really sets DeLillo's mentality apart— a setting apart which also put him on the road to having September 11 as his subject long before the events of that day happened." DeLillo has written elsewhere: "Some stories never end."

Even in our time, in the sightlines of living history, in the retrieved instancy of film and videotape, there are stories waiting to be finished, open to the thrust of reasoned analysis and haunted speculation. These stories, some of them, also undergo a kind of condensation, seeping into the texture of everyday life, barely separable from the ten thousand little excitations that define a routine day of visual and aural static processed by the case-hardened consumer brain.

For O'Hagan, "a key flavor of DeLillo's earlier work, that we were all waiting for something terrible to happen, something that might blow us apart but which might also bring us together."

A chilling feature of this review is that O'Hagan tracks not only DeLillo's literary development, but also Mohammed Atta's development as a terrorist, so that by the time the novelist published The Body Artist in 2001,

As DeLillo pressed the keys (and returned the carriage) to create the following passage, Atta was on American soil and in daily contact with his fellow conspirators while training on flight simulators at a rented house in Florida:

"His future is not under construction. It is already there, susceptible to entry.

She had it on tape.

She did not want to believe this was the case. It was her future too. It is her future too.

She played the tape a dozen times.

It means your life and death are set in place, just waiting for you to keep the appointments."

O'Hagan continues,

All these passages, written over the course of a career, could be understood to evoke something very like a terrorist's trajectory toward an encounter with the twin towers, but they also describe the journey made by a singular American novelist toward the day of days for his preoccupations as an artist and his brio as a stylist. If the twin towers could be said to have stood in wait for the Mohamed Attas of the world, then the Mohamed Attas of the world were standing in wait for Don DeLillo. To have something exist as your subject before it happens is not unprecedented in the world of literature—consider Kafka and the Nazis, Scott Fitzgerald and the Jazz Age— but the meeting of September 11 and Don DeLillo is not so very much a conjunction as a point of arrival, and a connection so powerful in imaginative terms that it instantly blows DeLillo's lamps out.
As have many reviewers, O'Hagan finds Falling Man to be an imperfect novel, as have been other literary attempts to come to terms with September 11.

Reading Falling Man, one feels that September 11 is an event that is suddenly far ahead of him, far beyond what he knows, and so an air of tentative rehearsal sounds in an empty hall. What is a prophet once his fiery word becomes deed? What does he have to say? What is left of the paranoid style when all its suspicions come true?

Yet in the way he frames his critique, perhaps O'Hagan makes the case that both this review and the novel, in the context of the DeLillo's life's work, are essential reading if we hope to make sense of the post-9/11 world, and what it has wrought. Perhaps O'Hagan has asked, and answered, the question, "What is a prophet once his fiery word becomes deed?"

For O'Hagan's full review (recommended) click here.