Saturday, June 30, 2007

"The plane had lost power in all three engines, dropped from thirty-four thousand feet to twelve thousand feet. Something like four miles. When the steep glide began, people rose, fell, collided, swam in their seats. Then the serious screaming and moaning began. Almost immediately a voice from the flight deck was heard on the intercom: "We're falling out of the sky! We're going down! We're a silver gleaming death machine!" This outburst struck the passengers as an all but total breakdown of authority, competence and command presence and it brought on a round of fresh and desperate wailing.
Objects were rolling out of the galley, the aisles were full of drinking glasses, utensils, coats and blankets. A stewardess pinned to the bulkhead by the sharp angle of descent was trying to find the relevant passage in a handbook titled "Manual of Disasters." Then there was a second male voice from the cockpit, this one remarkably calm and precise, making the passengers believe there was someone in charge after all, an element of hope: "This is American two-one-three to the cockpit voice recorder. Now we know what it's like. It's worse than we'd ever imagined. They didn't prepare us for this at the death simulator in Denver. Our fear is pure, so totally stripped of distractions and pressures as to be a form of transcendental meditation. In less than three minutes we will touch down, so to speak. They will find our bodies in some smoking field, strewn about in the grisly attitudes of death. I love you, Lance." This time there was a brief pause before the mass wailing recommenced. Lance? What kind of people were in control of this aircraft? The crying took on a bitter and dissillusioned tone."

-Don Delillo, White Noise, 1984.

A bit of black humour that shrinks and expands depending on the context you place it in, pre or post 9-11 America. I find it funny, especially that last sentence, but it's 'meta' style; that winking, amused distancing of itself from it's own subject, is maybe better for a laugh in the context of 1984 than 2004. I don't know.
I haven't attempted Delillo's latest yet (Falling Man, a book that revolves around the events of September 11th) but two reviews I read today on my lunchbreak; one by Andrew O'hagan (New York Review of Books) and the other by Jennifer Szalai (Harpers) both present Delillo as a writer unable to deal (narratively) with the shocking arrival of an event he prophecied so consistently in the disasters, cabals and toxic spills of his earlier novels. Delillo's style: observational, detached, and increasingly devoid of the humour found above, is found wanting (to put it mildly) in the face of it's subject. O'hagan is particularly disappointed by what he considers to be Delillo's (and others) inabilty to present the event as anything other than a string of metaphorical evasions:

"The hallmark of those novelists who have tried to write about the attacks is a sort of austere plangency—or a quivering bathos —that has been in evidence almost from the moment the planes hit. Those authors who published journalistic accounts immediately after the event failed to see how their metaphors fell dead from their mouths before the astonishing live pictures. It did not help us to be told by imaginative writers that the second plane was like someone posting a letter. No, it wasn't. It was like a passenger jet crashing into an office building.
...Metaphor failed to do anything but make one feel that those keen to deploy it had not been watching enough television. After the "nonfiction novel," after the New Journalism, after several decades in which some of America's most vivid writing about real events was seen to be in thrall to the techniques of novelists, September 11 offered a few hours when American novelists could only sit at home while journalism taught them fierce lessons in multivocality, point of view, the structure of plot, interior monologue, the pressure of history, the force of silence, and the uncanny. Actuality showed its own naked art that day."

And that actuality, in Hagan and Szalzi's view, seems to have been so powerful in it's instantaneous confirmation of the author's fictional work, that it "instantly blows Delillo's lamp out."

"DeLillo the novelist prepared us for September 11, but he did not prepare himself for how such an episode might, in the way of denouements, instantly fly beyond the reach of his own powers. In a moment, the reality of the occasion seems to have burst the ripeness of his style, and he truly struggles in this book to say anything that doesn't sound in a small way like a warning that comes too late. Reading Falling Man, one feels that September 11 is an event that is suddenly far ahead of him, far beyond what he knows, and so an air of tentative rehearsal resounds in an empty hall. What is a prophet once his fiery word becomes deed? What does he have to say?"

Not much apparently - but like I said, I haven't read the book yet. At the end of his long and surprisingly moving review, O'hagan concludes:

"DeLillo's novel was inspired by a photograph of a real person—most agree that he is Jonathan Briley, who seemed at a certain point in his descent from the North Tower to plummet straight, upside down, one leg bent, his shirt flying off in the ferocious breeze, his head scorched, "The Falling Man" whose image became a token of horror and a mass-media legend. And the things pertaining to his image are what interest Don DeLillo. Yet the person inside the legend was a man from Mount Vernon who worked in the North Tower restaurant, Windows on the World. He was flesh and blood, not just an idea. He was born on March 5, 1958. He was six feet five. His father was a preacher. He suffered from asthma and had a wife called Hilary. He died sixty-five minutes twenty seconds after Mohamed Atta, and is currently awaiting a writer sufficiently uncoerced by the politics of art to tell his story."