Thanks to all who chose my novel as the summer's Read This title, and thanks for giving me this chance to guest blog on a topic of my choice. As for yesterday's sausage thoughts by Richard Nash: that's part of what's great about working with him and Soft Skull.
I'll attempt to do here what I've seen Litblog Co-op members do so remarkably well, which is to write a brief informal essay on a recently published novel about which I have strong positive feelings, namely, Falling Man by Don DeLillo-an author no longer struggling to be noticed but whose books routinely used to sell fewer than 5,000 copies. This won't be a review but a sketch of a few ways I see that novel accomplishing its task of signification.
One of the qualities of DeLillo's prose I've admired since I began reading him more than a dozen years ago is its analytic rigor, the way he can use a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph to bore into the texture and meaning of contemporary life. And one of the grammatical constructions he uses repeatedly as the vehicle for his insights is apposition, which is when two nouns or noun phrases, usually adjacent to each other in a sentence, have the same referent and stand in the same syntactical relation to the rest of the sentence, as in, “George W. Bush, the worst president in U.S. history, is on vacation.” Apposition allows a writer two or more passes in a row at coming up with a verbal equivalent for a given phenomenon, wherein each pass amplifies the others. The result can be a kind of verbal Cubism, a grammatical form of hopefulness in which each periphrastic utterance brings you closer to the truth of the subject under discussion.
In a scene that takes place early in Falling Man, shortly after September 11, 2001, Keith, who escaped from his office on the upper floors of the north tower and is recuperating from minor injuries, is portrayed as follows: “He began to think into the day, into the minute. It was being here, alone in time, that made this happen, being away from routine stimulus, all the streaming forms of office discourse.” There are several felicitous turns of phrase and modifications here-DeLillo is one of my favorite wielders of a comma among contemporary writers-but I will limit myself to suggesting that not only is the first appositive phrase, “routine stimulus,” given specific embodiment in the second, “all the streaming forms of office discourse,” but the repetitions of vowels and consonants that constitute the sentence's melody serve as acoustical underscore to the semantic doubling of the apposition. In other words, part of what makes DeLillo good is that his sentences sound good, and that the sound reinforces the meaning by giving it a physical dimension, as in music or poetry.
Or there's a passage about midway through the book where DeLillo describes lunchtime walks Keith takes with his best friend and officemate, Rumsey-before the terrorist attack-in which he tells us that Keith, being taller than his friend, “saw male pattern baldness develop in Rumsey, seemingly week by week.” And then: “Baldness in Rumsey, as it progressed, was a gentle melancholy, the pensive regret of a failed boy.” The mood of the first appositive phrase, “gentle melancholy,” gets its own mini-biography in the second, “the pensive regret of a failed boy.” The more striking equivalence in this sentence, though, is not the apposition but the way the concrete subject (baldness) and the abstract objects (gentle melancholy, pensive regret) are melded together by the verb was, becoming each other.
So DeLillo the rigorous analyst of the texture of contemporary life is also a guy who regularly makes stuff be other stuff that it shouldn't logically be.
A truly wacky apposition, the kind that so frustrates DeLillo's grassroots base of ardent detractors, and is exactly the sort of thing about his work that excites me, comes at the end of a paragraph about the erotic charge between Keith and his wife, Lianne, at the beginning of their acquaintance: “The rented beach house was sex, entering at night after the long stiff drive, her body feeling welded at the joints, and she'd hear the soft heave of the surf on the other side of the dunes, the thud and run, and this was the line of separation, the sound out there that marked an earthly pulse in the blood.” Well, “entering” is a dangling participle, among other grammatical infelicities, and while “thud and run” and “the sound out there” are clearly two phrases describing the same thing, how is either of them a “line of separation”? But DeLillo throughout his work has lavished attention on uses of language that aren't correct or don't quite make sense. His people make a hash of grammar-“Which, by the way, did you get my postcard?”-while he investigates everyday vernacular's routine betrayals of its own presumed sense-making efficacy-“Light-skinned black woman,” for example, or, in reference to the physical therapy Keith does for his injury from the tower, “He used the uninvolved hand to apply pressure to the involved hand.” DeLillo's people struggle valiantly with or against language as a way to get a foothold in their own chaotic lives, their insurmountable mortality, the terrifying world that is often the subject of his novels-as in this conjugation-gone-mad, the heartbreaking final written remark of an Alzheimer's patient with whom Lianne has been conducting weekly writing sessions: “Do we say goodbye, yes, going, am going, will be going, the last time go, will go.”
Moments of verbal nonsense and misapprehension are DeLillo's way of representing the mind's-even the intact mind's-logic-transcending representation of the world. An apposition that violates the strict rules of grammar and sense replaces them with intuition's urge to find equivalence in disparate things. A mid-century Italian still life of some bottles in Lianne's mother's apartment reminds Lianne of the fallen towers, and, later, of her now-deceased mother. And the novel itself uses verbal quirks to unite disparate characters in resemblance: Lianne, to stave off Alzheimer's, counts backward from one hundred by sevens; her boy, Justin, refuses to speak except in monosyllables; Hammad, a 9/11 terrorist, recites repetitive prayers; Keith and his poker buddies take deep satisfaction in saying the words “five-card stud” at the beginning of each game, though this is the only version of poker they play.
The correspondences and equivalencies in Falling Man are myriad. Of course, creating resonances among diverse characters, events, ideas, and objects is one of the tried and true ways novels make sense, but the job of any novel is to bend the verbal and thematic patterning to the shape of the events it seeks to make known-to shape form to content, if we may pretend for a moment that these are separable entities. And indeed, the interconnectedness of people and events does have a singular quiddity in this novel written by a man who used to be called “the chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction” (though no one seems to want to call him that anymore, maybe because what might once have looked like paranoia is now seeming-to paraphrase another 20th-century shaman, William Burroughs-more like a realistic assessment of the facts). This is a book about, among other things, how a single large-scale violent act altered the world by forcing things together: East and West, Islam and Christianity, fundamentalism and atheism, rage and contentment, worship and card game, husband and wife (ironically) and, of course, airplane and tower.
DeLillo describes this last awful convergence at the end of Falling Man in one of the most powerful passages anywhere in his work. He marks the moment itself with a jarring and disorienting violation of grammar in the kind of sentence that makes Falling Man equal to the daunting task of limning that terrible day.