Reflecting upon the atrocity of 9/11 in his 2001 essay ‘In the Ruins of the Future’, Don DeLillo writes:
Terror’s response is a narrative that has been developing over years, only now becoming inescapable. It is our lives and minds that are occupied now. This catastrophic event changes the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come, and steely years. Our world, parts of our world, have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage (33).
Later on in the essay, he assesses that ‘the event [9/11] has changed the grain of the most routine moment’ (39). DeLillo palpably traces these changes facing the ‘routine moment’ in his 2007 novel, Falling Man, to depict the place of ‘danger and rage’ which we occupy in the age of terror. DeLillo’s novel is in many ways the embodiment of Richard Gray’s statement: ‘crisis is, in every sense of the word, domesticated’ (134). In the novel, Keith Neudecker, survivor of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, notes how ordinariness is ‘so normally unnoticeable’ (51), but now ‘things were ordinary as well’ (my emphasis, 67). Thus I wish to offer some insights as to what ‘as well’ might mean: analysing how we have changed the way we think and act and how the ‘routine moment’ has changed, according to DeLillo.
Lianne Neudecker, wife of Keith, ‘lived in the spirit of what is ever impending’ (212). She is firmly situated in the ‘place of danger and rage’ and her actions act as manifestations of its affective atmosphere. In the following example, Lianne engages in the same type of thought processes which in a political context, lead to pre-emptive measures so essential to characterising and justifying American foreign policy after 9/11. She imagines the negative outcome of what might happen but significantly, does so in an entirely domestic and almost trivial situation. In this way, DeLillo addresses how the political atmosphere of fear produced by 9/11 now begins to violently infiltrate the domestic, changing the ‘routine moment’: ‘She wondered what the kid would make of the mango chutney she’d bought, or maybe he’d had it already, had it and hated it, at the Siblings’ because Katie talked about it once, or someone did’ (22). In this example, DeLillo’s carefully chosen language incorporating modality (‘would make’), (‘maybe’), and unspecificity (‘someone did’), suggests that what lies behind this ‘danger and rage’ is crippling uncertainty.
Such doubt does not only instil fear. It also inspires our impulsive need in the twenty-first century, in the face of crisis, to analyse and criticise everything:
Everything seemed to mean something. Their lives were in transition and she looked for signs. Even when she was barely aware of an incident it came to mind later, with meaning attached, in sleepless episodes that lasted minutes or hours, she wasn’t sure (67).
In the era of terror, it becomes difficult to remain on autopilot whilst performing everyday mundane tasks. To exemplify, Lianne attaches meaning even when she flushes the toilet: ‘She didn’t flush the toilet to make others think she’d left the living room for a compelling reason. The flushing toilet wasn’t audible in the living room. This was for her own pointless benefit, flushing’ (48). This obsessive analysis is another characteristic of the changed ‘routine moment’ but is not ‘pointless’. To elaborate, Keith desperately attempts to cling onto the idea of routine by religiously maintaining his physical regime, finding it ‘restorative’, and is comforted by repeating the phrase ‘gentle fist’ used on his instruction sheet (40). Keith’s comfort exists in this scenario because these exercises are precise and clinically proven, non-interpretative, and in the wake of the unbelievable, there is a desperate need for validation and coherence. As Keith and Lianne watch one of the endless repeats televising the unimaginable moment in which the first tower hit the World Trade Centre, they conclude that ‘it has to be’ (135) an accident. The need for validation and coherence is so desperate precisely because as Baudrillard observes we can ‘try retrospectively to impose some kind of meaning on it, to find some kind of interpretation. But there is none’ (30).
DeLillo’s most compelling illustration of the changed ‘routine moment’ is revealed in the episode involving Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings. In his influential text Looking at the Overlooked (1990), Norman Bryson writes that ‘no-one can escape the conditions of creaturality, of eating and drinking and domestic life, with which still life is concerned’ (13). When Martin and Lianne see the towers in what are seemingly vases, DeLillo integrates terror into domestic life, into the ordinary which still life is supposed to depict. Terrorism is now, like the ‘routine moment’, inescapable, and thus the two must disturbingly co-exist. However in addition, this moment is connective for Martin and Lianne. Therefore, whilst DeLillo exposes and addresses the implications of the changes occurring to the ‘routine moment’, he simultaneously suggests that art is helpful to work through trauma, or further, redemptive. Our newfound inquisitiveness (previously identified as a characteristic of the changed ‘routine moment’) draws us to art. Lianne, having dismissed the second line of a haiku, later recalls its importance. Investigating those minute details present in art or literature, and decoding what they signify as a whole, be it within a still life painting or DeLillo’s Falling Man itself, provides comfort and purpose. DeLillo responds to that which others will not, or simply cannot – but crucially, throughout the text, he enforces the fact that he does not exclusively own his work. When Lianne suggests increasing the number of sessions for the Alzheimer’s patients, Dr. Apter warns ‘It’s theirs’, ‘Don’t make it yours’ (60). Instead, echoing pragmatist John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934), DeLillo invites us to attach our own meaning to his work: ‘Turn it into living tissue, who you are’ (210). Falling Man is thus DeLillo’s offering – something to claim in all that has been lost.
By Guest Blogger, Sarah McCreedy.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2002.
Bryson, Norman. Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. London: Reaktion Books, 1990.
DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. London: Picador, 2007.
—. “In the Ruins of the Future.” Harpers Magazine. Dec. 2001: 33-39.
Dewey, John. “Art as Experience.” Art and its Significance: An Anthology of Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Stephen David Ross. New York: State University of New York Press: 1994. 204-220.
Gray, Richard. After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Giorgio Morandi, ‘Natura Morta (Still Life)’, 1956 (oil on canvas) via www.artyfactory.com