- Don Delillo’s Falling Man and the Age of Terror
“I think of it as one, not two,” she said. “Even though there are clearly two towers. It’s a single entity, isn’t it?”
“Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think.”
“Yes, you have to look.”—Don DeLillo, Underworld
After the apocalyptic millennial scenarios that went by the name Y2K fizzled, Americans felt secure in their leadership of the New World Order; but when the towers fell, so did confidence in our global preeminence, revealing the twenty-first century as an age of terror and retribution. If one examines Don DeLillo’s writings of the past ten years, there emerges a dialectical critique of the transnational forces of global capitalism and fundamentalist terrorism that have brought us to catastrophe. Cosmopolis, which was very near completion on September 11, 2001, chronicles a single day in April 2000 on which the rapaciousness that supported hypercapitalism, personified by the currency speculator Eric Packer, is confronted by a troop of black flag anarchists at the NASDAQ Center and a lone assassin who resembles an amalgam of Leon Czolgosz (the anarchist who shot President William McKinley in 1901), Lee Harvey Oswald, and John Hinckley, Jr.1 Faced with the enormity of the attack on the World Trade Center in the city of his birth, DeLillo set aside his novel for some two months in order to write an essay, “In the Ruins of the Future: Reflections on Terror and Loss in the Shadow of September,” [End Page 559] published in the December 2001 issue of Harper’s, that not only offers a penetrating reading of the antitheses of globalization and terrorism but also provides personal reflection on the tragedy—his nephew’s family had nearly been killed in their financial-district apartment house as the towers collapsed. Though daunted by the prospect of rendering 9/11 in fiction, DeLillo remarks that he “didn’t want to write a novel in which the attacks occur over the character’s right shoulder and affect a few lives in a distant sort of way. I wanted to be in the towers and in the planes. I never thought of the attacks in terms of fiction at all, for at least three years” (“Intensity”). In Falling Man, his readers recognize DeLillo’s deliberative analysis of transnational politics in the figures of a traumatized survivor, a proximate witness who is a surrogate for all those who viewed this spectacle in horror but in safety, and a jihadist recruit—at times with verbatim iteration of the earlier essay. Most recently, Point Omega trains a sharp lens on a “professor emeritus” (7) recruited to the E ring of the Pentagon, given a security clearance, and tasked with conceptualizing the invasion of Iraq in a fashion that would enable the United States to “retake the future” (30) that was obliterated on 9/11. These three novels and the attendant essay critically enframe the profound redirection of American polity in September 2001 on the same order as December 1941 and November 1963.
To be sure, DeLillo has returned throughout his career to treat the corrosively totalizing force of global capital from his first novel, Americana (1971), to the concluding movement of his masterwork, Underworld. As a corollary to this indictment, he casts a cold eye on the dystopian promises of mass media and technocracy in White Noise (1985). Numerous critics have observed the prominence in such novels as Players, The Names (1982), and Mao II of irruptive acts of terrorism in resistance to the cultural and political hegemony of the west. Terrorists, DeLillo conjectures, have the capacity to alter the consciousness of the age in the fashion that novelists such as Kafka, Beckett, or Mailer may once have had but no longer do. In my reading of Falling Man, however, DeLillo does not reiterate but engages in a dialectical reassessment of the relation of global corporatism and terrorism. After 9/11 the towers, which had been treated as a figure of oppressive supremacy in earlier novels, must also be regarded in “all that howling space” (“In the Ruins” 39) as the epitome of mourning...