No matter where you stood in the city, the air was thick after the towers fell: literally thick with the soot and stench of incinerated flesh that turned terror into a condition as inescapable as the weather. All bets were off. New Yorkers who always know where they’re going didn’t know where to go. Cab drivers named Muhammad were now feared as the enemy within; strangers on the street were improbably embraced like family under a canopy of fliers for the missing. Such, for a while anyway, was the “new normal,” though the old normal began to reassert itself almost as soon as that facile catchphrase was coined. Today 9/11 carries so many burdens — of interpretation, of sentimentality, of politics, of war — that sometimes it’s hard to find the rubble of the actual event beneath the layers of edifice we’ve built on top of it. (Or built on top of all of it except ground zero.)
In his new novel, Don DeLillo shoves us back into the day itself in his first sentence: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” He resurrects that world as it was, bottling the mortal dread, high anxiety and mass confusion that seem so distant now. Though the sensibility and prose are echt DeLillo, “Falling Man” is not necessarily the 9/11 novel you’d expect from the author of panoramic novels that probe the atomic age (“Underworld”) and the Kennedy assassination (“Libra”) on the broadest imaginable canvas, intermingling historical characters with fictional creations. With the exception of Mohamed Atta, who slips into the crevices of “Falling Man” as an almost spectral presence, DeLillo mentions none of the other boldface names of 9/11, not even the mayor. Instead of unfurling an epic, DeLillo usually keeps the focus on an extended family of middle-class Manhattanites. If “Underworld” took its cues from the kinetic cinema of Eisenstein, “Falling Man,” up until its remarkable final sequence, is all oblique silences and enigmatic close-ups reminiscent of the domestic anomie of the New Wave. In DeLillo’s hands, this is not at all limiting or prosaic. There’s a method to the Resnais-like fogginess. The cumulative effect is devastating, as DeLillo in exquisite increments lowers the reader into an inexorable rendezvous with raw terror.