Excerpt from Salah el Moncef’s Literature as Antidote
Don DeLillo’s Falling Man begins with a ruthlessly detailed description of the 9/11 tragedy: a sudden descent into a terrifying scene of chaos that is meant both to shock and unsettle us as we become immersed in a world so confusing in its disarray that we find ourselves witnessing it as an opaque thing in itself—an incomprehensible singularity that overtakes the senses, overwhelms the mind, and haunts the imagination. For the reader who finds herself plunged into the opening pages of Falling Man, the shocking power of this initial odyssey into the hell of the 9/11 attack is derived almost exclusively from the sheer brutality of the catastrophe (its unmediated violence), making of DeLillo’s novel a dramatic instance of what Maurice Blanchot famously termed the “writing of disaster”—a form of literary exploration premised on the reader’s descent into an alienating world of “infinite menace,” of violence that “has gone beyond all boundaries,” encompassing the totality of public space, the totality of the quotidian and its ordinary markers of familiarity, the totality of subjective consciousness. This is the world of radical boundary transgression and estrangement into which Keith Neudecker finds himself almost literally ejected—a world where “all that is solid melts into air,” a phrase echoed almost word for word by DeLillo’s narrator. The postmodern urban setting into which we find ourselves so violently projected with the victim is very much akin to a building subjected to extreme impact propagation and heat: it is a deeply shocked and shaken setting in which “what is solid” indeed “melt[s],” leaving us bereft of the reliable reality that we have always taken for granted. As we revisit the horror of 9/11 from the victim’s point of view, we begin to contemplate this setting as a distorted urban theater subjected by DeLillo to an esthetic of estrangement, a mode of representation through which the familiar becomes uncanny in its sudden otherness, both known and alien in its abrupt disfigurement by terrorist destruction—the defacement of the once-taken-for-granted commonality of public space with its markers of collective identity. Seen through Keith’s alienated, traumatized eyes, the “world now” has become an unmarked, indefinite, primal “it”—engulfed in chaotic ash and smoke, corporeally lived rather than cognitively apprehended, experienced as a pure unmediated thing in itself—as if DeLillo’s emblematic man has suddenly found himself thrown into an eerie spatiotemporal dimension, a setting of primitive violence and senseless destruction, like a raging volcano or a howling sandstorm.
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This essay proposes an interpretation of Don DeLillo’s Falling Man based on a combination of textual analysis and contemporary theoretical approaches to the specific questions of trauma, grief, and posttraumatic healing as well as the more general question of the status of the subject in a postmodern context marked by increasing globalization and transnational interactions. This multidimensional interpretive approach makes it possible to theorize one of the central metanarrative questions posed by DeLillo’s novel: the potential function of the postmodern novel as an antidote against various expressions of contemporary angst, such as the dread of terrorist violence or the fear of aging and age-related maladies. In exploring the significance of a double esthetic articulation in DeLillo’s novel (an esthetic of estrangement and an “esthetic of disappearance”), the essay analyzes the author’s representation of his characters’ varying reactions to terror-related trauma and the role of the imagination in such reactions. While Falling Man represents subjective experiences of trauma and loss in painful and at times shocking ways, its dissection of the imaginary dimension of trauma also presents its readers with the possibility of incorporating various effects of traumatic experience into cohesive and constructive strategies of self-reassessment, grief management, and healing.
9/11 terrorist attacks, Alzheimer’s, terrorism, trauma, grief, PTSD, posttraumatic recovery, Don DeLillo, Salah el Moncef.