In a darker place

Sven Birkerts' latest book is "Reading Life: Books for the Ages." He edits the journal AGNI at Boston University.

EVERY great disaster, even at a distance, intensifies our sense of mortality, filling our nostrils with what W.H. Auden called "the unmentionable odor of death." Stunned as we were by the horrific events of Sept. 11, 2001, we were also returned to a primal awareness: Old bets were canceled, new bets placed. Small surprise that so many novelists took up the challenge of representing the reconfigured present. In the short time since the disaster, John Updike, Claire Messud, Ian McEwan and several others have mobilized fictional premises around it.

Provocative and engaging as some of these narratives have been, most have used the calamity as a plot element -- an unquestionably powerful way to affect the characters and their situations. More than a few readers, I suspect, have been waiting to see what deeper, more metaphysical interpretations might be coming. Waiting, in that sense, to hear from someone like Don DeLillo. Or from the man himself.

DeLillo is our great barometer, fascinated, from his earliest novels on, by the ominous present impinging on the future, by conspiracy, by collective angst. He brewed up an "airborne toxic event" in "White Noise"; in "Libra," he reframed and redramatized the prelude to the Kennedy assassination. And, of course, he wrote "Underworld" (1997), his most ambitious synopsis of the big picture, a harrowing evocation of how our local world became global. Last year, a New York Times Book Review poll of writers and critics voted "Underworld" a runner-up, just behind Toni Morrison's "Beloved," as the best novel of the past 25 years.

I have "Underworld" on my desk, and the cover gives me a shiver every time I glance at it. It features the Andre Kertesz photograph of the two World Trade Center towers rearing up and disappearing into a cloud. In the foreground, starkly embossed on their flat gray mass, is a church steeple, with its strong, simple cross. To the right, just beneath the cloud, is a bird with extended wings, looking unnervingly like an airplane on approach.

The cover of "Falling Man," DeLillo's new novel, is a deliberate echo. It is the strangest visual antiphon you could imagine: nothing but lettering for the title and author, over a thick, fluffy cloud cover, shot from above. This skyscape wraps around to the back, where, protruding like wire prongs to some huge cosmic monitor, are the tops of the two towers.

Then and now. The beauty, the hubris, the terrible loss: What more is there to say? Obviously, much more. We have hardly begun assessing the consequences of Sept. 11. Indeed, given the long-burning fuse of major trauma, we may be only now ready to hear from DeLillo, who in this, his 14th novel, strikes against expectation in the most unsettling ways.

The expectation, of course, is that he will give free rein to his conspiratorial imagination, creating a big-canvas swirl of sects, secrets, technological choreographies. Instead, "Falling Man" is a gripping, haunting ensemble piece, much less about the public, historical event than about its psychological radiation through the lives of a single New York City family. It is DeLillo at his most bare-bones, asking, "How do we now live?"

The "we" in the immediate foreground consists of Keith Neudecker; his estranged wife, Lianne; and their young son, Justin. Smaller parts are taken by Nina, Lianne's mother, and the mother's lover, Martin; Keith's poker colleagues; and a woman named Florence, with whom he's briefly involved. There are also the performance artist who gives the book its title and, in several unintegrated but thematically essential interludes, a fundamentalist terrorist named Hammad.

The narrative is mainly linear, tracking events in the lives of these characters in the days, weeks and months following the disaster. At the book's end, however, DeLillo bends his narrative line into a circle in an assertion of authorial fiat. Having opened in the midst of the chaos ("It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night"), he moves to a close in the same place.

"All plots tend to move deathward," wrote DeLillo in "White Noise." Maybe that helps explain his spare, insistently unplotted schema, for the massive tragedy has already taken place. What we get is almost all "afterward," a novel full of the sensation of terrifying forces thrust inward and capped.

Start in medias res, "in the midst of things," Aristotle advised. Just so. Keith, who worked at the World Trade Center and has been away from his marriage, suddenly comes back home. "When he appeared at the door," writes DeLillo, "it was not possible, a man come out of an ash storm, all blood and slag, reeking of burnt matter, with pinpoint glints of slivered glass in his face." The world has changed. Lianne, without question, takes her husband in. Stunned and mystified, they try to resume their marriage -- such as it is. We watch them move around and past each other and their son with an agonizing tentativeness. After some time, Lianne asks Keith, "Why are you still here?" Then: "Is it possible you and I are done with conflict?" To this Keith replies, "We're ready to sink into our little lives." The Cumaean Sibyl could not have been any more elliptical.

DeLillo has always worked with themed characters, often obsessive types who take in the world from an oblique angle, whose actions are a way of putting into play their deepest preoccupations. Here, in lieu of narrative developments, we go from vignette to vignette, character to character, tuning in to what feels like a tone-row exploration of the psyche in extremis.

Keith, after wandering into and out of a relationship with Florence, a fellow tower survivor, gets more and more caught up in playing poker. Not poker for money or camaraderie, but poker as metaphysics: "The cards fell randomly, no assignable cause, but he remained the agent of free choice. Luck, chance, no one knew what these things were." Lianne, who has turned in the other direction, continues to conduct her workshops with early-stage Alzheimer's cases and broods intently on the question of the existence of God.

The eponymous Falling Man shows up here and there as existential punctuation, a human exclamation point. He stages appearances, rigging himself to hang upside down in various urban sites. "There was something awful about the stylized pose, body and limbs, his signature stroke," Lianne thinks when she sees him. "But the worst of it was the stillness itself...."

Scenes are laid out like cards face up in some mysterious game of solitaire, except that each card, each sequence, seems to carry some larger import. It's not clear even at the novel's end what its finishing up might mean. On one narrative level, the game is already over -- the characters are living in an unknown afterworld. But on another level -- DeLillo inserts several time-jumps into the pre-Sept. 11 past -- we see his terrorist preparing himself. "Hammad sat crouched, eating and listening. The talk was fire and light, the emotion contagious." Though the setup feels stylized, it is also riveting: This is the cause assembling itself to create the effect that has, in the novel, already transpired.

It's a big structural gamble, but DeLillo, trading on the density of his obsessive metaphysics and on his characters' interiority, somehow manages to pull it off. He creates a Mobius strip, a joining together of the before and after (that "time and space of falling ash and near night"), emphasizing, once again, that we no longer live in the simple order of things. Though we hesitate logically in our reading, we follow through with the gut. In the novel's final moments, Hammad is in one of the planes, and Keith and thousands of others are in their offices. DeLillo risks the terrible transfer: The delirium of collective assault opens onto the story of a man, a family and, by implication, the whole surrounding web. "Falling Man" proposes no answers; it holds us, anxious, in the unresolved, the unresolvable -- in what might, in fact, be the new world order.

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