Thursday, May 10, 2007

Falling Man Review, Take Two

Here is a much more positive review of the latest Don DeLillo novel than what the New York Times critic had to say the other day. That review left a bad taste in my mouth. Nobody disses Don on my fucking watch, pal...

I knew something was fishy from the get-go, because all these highfalutin book review sections, or a lot of them, seem to be fueled by an extracurricular agenda that is often either politically or ego-driven.

So read the review by Laura Miller on, which throws around words like "powerful" to describe the novel's contents. Then read the one from the Times I posted the other day, which called the book "a disappointment." Then decide if you want to shell out the close to 30-dollar jacket price for the book. Myself, I don't read a lot of fiction these days, only history, whereas there was a time I read only fiction, when I wore a younger man's shoes. Rockports, I believe.

Now that the truth is so much stranger than mere fiction, what's the use. The two have become commingled and often stand in for each other on short notice, that's how well the truth and fiction get along these days. When one wants to take a sick day, for instance, either truth or fiction will call in to the other's place of employment and make up a quite credible and plausible excuse that will raise no suspicions. It turns out you can make this stuff up after all... Go figure. No really, you should go figure. When you get the chance. No hurry.

Anyway, if I do decide to read Falling Man, you can be sure I'm not paying for the privilege. Sorry about the royalties, Don, but this has library written all over it. I can't imagine that Don DeLillo writing about 9/11 wouldn't be worth the effort, especially since it's only a 246-page book.

Now, in her review, which praises Falling Man as his best work in years, Miller touches on a recurring central issue in the DeLillo canon: the fact that his dialogue is often obtrusively unbelievable and overwrought. But DeLillo is not after realism per se, rather like many Big Idea writers he seeks to channel his own sensibilities and philosophy through the mouths of his characters. The risk is that every character ends up speaking in the same rhythm and cadence, and even with the same outlook. According to Miller,

The weaknesses of "Falling Man" are DeLillo's long-standing ones. Most of them spring from the fact that he is an essayist at heart, who presumably chose the novel because it is the most exalted and revered literary form of our time -- and DeLillo is not the sort of writer willing to risk being insufficiently exalted and revered. The characters in "Falling Man" are typically sketchy and the dialogue improbable; everyone speaks in exactly the same stagy, portentous manner as the mouthpiece characters in an experimental play. (What woman, being deserted by a lover, would say, "Do I know how to make one thing out of another, without pretending? Can I stay who I am, or do I have to become all those other people who watch someone walk out the door? We're not other people, are we?")

But that description, of authors using their characters as mouthpieces to impart their wisdom and observations, would likewise apply to an awful lot of "revered" writers down the years. I guess it's a matter of degree and context. If you look at DeLillo's work as applying Theater of the Absurd devices to the modern novel, where the characters populating his novels are put into various stages of existential helplessness, then it doesn't seem to be a hindrance but an innovation. I mean, would a critic feel the need to accuse Samuel Beckett of writing "improbable" words for his characters to recite in a play like Waiting For Godot? Just asking...
P.S. Ironically, or at least coincidentally, after finishing off this trenchant post I stumbled on another review of Falling Man, this one by John Leonard on the Website, which makes the case that DeLillo has been writing about "9/11" all along! It's a bit of a stretch. I read Mao II years and years ago, but I remember that one of the premises of that novel is that the future will belong to crowds, to the mob, to mass movements that will all but eclipse the individual. I also recall DeLillo postulating in that same intriguing book that the novel as an art form is now dead, that writers will never again recapture their place in the pantheon of the universal zeitgeist, and how terrorists are the new novelists because they're the only ones left who can shock us out of our ingrained complacency. What I found so amazing is that the Leonard piece begins with a quote about Samuel Beckett from Mao II -- a direct connection between DeLillo and Beckett that seems to confirm the playwright's influence on the novelist. And here I thought comparing DeLillo to Beckett was wholly original on my part. But this is even better, because it confirms that my literary instincts are honed to a fine fare-thee-well. Man, I should be charging people for these undeniably incisive comments. Anyway, here's the Mao II quote, which, keep in mind, is from a book published in 1991, 10 years before the ominous events of September 11:

Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.

Wow. There's also a pretty good Wikipedia entry for Don DeLillo and one for Mao II.
Freedomland (1999) by Richard Price
In which Price's almost by this point fetishistic obsession with cops and law enforcement (see Clockers, Sea of Love, Night and the City, etc., ad nauseum) continues. The book is just plain too long at 736 pages, with far too many purple passages that DO NOT MOVE THE PLOT ALONG. I can't help but feel that Price in some way is showing off, using a bigger word instead of the immediate one at hand. Nevertheless, the characterizations are usually right on, as is the dialogue. I have read all six of Price's books, and this is not his best; it's his least satisfying except for maybe The Breaks. Clockers covers the same territory much more effectively. Elements of Freedomland are too often standard police procedural boilerplate and therefore too predictable. But the attempt to open up a window into the life of an inner city housing project is noble and often stunning in its scope.

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