By co-incidence I was leaving New York for Oakland the day DeLillo’s 9-11 novel, Falling Man was released. I picked up a new copy at St. Mark’s before heading to the airport and read it cover to cover in transit, finishing the final pages on BART. He takes the image of an unknown man falling from the North Tower as his central motif though his main character is a survivor, one of those soot coated businessmen that escaped eerily unscathed. It has been said that the image itself, of the waiter from the Windows on the World plunging in a dive, has been curiously omitted from the public imagination of that day and, knowing DeLillo, I can see his interest in returning that bit of repressed collective memory to the raw center of the event where it belongs.
The Falling Man of his fictional world is a mysterious performance artist who sets up in various locales around New York and recreates the image, but to me, the real Falling Man of DeLillo’s novel is the survivor, the one who escaped unscathed. Surviving seems to place the individual in a strange category, yet many more survived that day than died. Discussing the book, a coworker related the story of his friend who was inside one of the towers and was even soaked in jet fuel from one of the planes as it crashed through the building- and he survived. Surviving, for DeLillo’s protagonist, is less satisfying than the tidiness of death and the satisfaction of the instinct towards death (DeLillo once said, “All plots move deathwards”). He remains suspended mid-fall, mid-flight. Similarly, I think our national response to the historical moment is trapped in the amber of the mediation of September 11th.
By now, a variety of novels and films have addressed themselves to the events of six years ago. In a few years, it went from verboten to obligatorily, still, the responses are all, even when affecting a grotesque sentimentality, curiously restrained. To see what I mean, consider the harshness of the image of the falling man. I’ll admit the sight of it makes me squirm. Even DeLillo’s novel suffers partly from this curious constraint, despite its greater willingness to evoke rather than sentimentalize.
The only appropriate art is pious art. Piety should be performed with moral seriousness but without sentimentality otherwise it veers into kitsch. Consider the images of eagles crying or conversely the defiantly absurd, ‘America is open for shopping’ signs; the Janus-face of kitsch in the days after the events. The art world and intelligentsia have been no less immune to tacky responses. Three words: Jonathan Safran-Foer.
(For a right on evisceration of Foer, read the review, “EXTREMELY CLOYING & INCREDIBLY FALSE,” by Harry Siegel for New York Press.
By far the most fascinating photo from six years ago is not the Falling Man, nothing from the WTC, but a powerful amateur photo snapped from the porch of a semi-rural Pennsylvania home with a digital camera. Yesterday, the NYT had an article about this photo, the only one taken of the crash of United 93 in Pennsylvania.
The photos is arresting because, rather than in spite, of its kitschy, sentimental qualities; its supersaturated coloration and American “heartland” pastoral tropes are rendered unreal next to the black plume of smoke from the crash. No wonder so many see the photo as a staged fake. It feels too real to be real. Interesting too, was the story of the woman who took it. She has been relentlessly harassed by 9-11 conspiracists in print, on the internet, and at her home.
Whuz Really Real?
The impact of the picture comes from the appeal of the “story” of that day viewed from the vantage it suggests, not the hoary spectacle of the newscycle, not the insider’s story from New York, not the conspiracy theorists abstractions. It offers access to a singularly naïve window denied to us, or perhaps quickly forgotten in the subsequent overexposure as it passed from current event into modern myth. This is the responsibility of art in such a heavily mediated environment that has largely been shirked but somehow is distilled spontaneously in this picture: to return the spectator to the moment of wondering confusion and fear that is our lot in the face of the raw welter of events.
Though DeLillo’s performance artist seems to have this as his goal, I think if I saw him in life I would feel the same way about him that I do the Lego Twin Towers. Where some have found fault, I would argue this is DeLillo’s intention.In the final scenes of the novel, as those minutes in the Towers wrap around to join the opening scenes in the street below, we see a reality swift, brutal, and humbling in its destructive force. Reality is revealed for what it is, unstable and chaotic. The artist by contrast is static. Any art that seeks to confront tragedy on a mass scale must pierce the veil of mass fabrication and arrive at something personal.