Saturday, May 7, 2011

Don DeLillo's _Falling Man_: 9/11 & Alzheimer's

About ten days ago I got a mystery package in the mail. After tearing off the cardboard covering, I found a used copy of Don DeLillo's novel, Falling Man; a few minutes later, I vaguely remembered having ordered it after hearing that it contains an Alzheimer's sub-plot. I'd started reading this novel about 9/11 when news of Bin Laden's death was announced by President Obama on Sunday; last night I finished the book. This morning the television is plastered with images of Bin Laden taken from his house in Abbottabad. Book-ends.

I was teaching a course on prose poetry in Fall, 2001. A day or two after 9/11, when everyone was still in shock from the events of that day, I asked my students to do the "I remember" exercise, based on Joe Brainard's book. Many of them said they didn't want to remember, but they dutifully wrote their sentences. We'd already been told, in no uncertain terms, that the world had changed, so their memories--not that I remember their responses clearly--had a before and after feel to them. Or they were memories of the event itself, memories lithographed into their eyes by the constant stream of televised images. Early on the morning of 9/11, when my husband awakened me with the news that the towers had gone down, I had seen images of people falling from the towers, images that quickly disappeared, as if "forgotten" because "erased" or "removed" from the video stream. A friend who lived in St. Louis later told me he'd refused to watch television; he'd never seen the towers fall. What kind of willful amnesia is that? How odd to be the one man who can't "remember" that day in the sense the rest of us do, as image, as awful sequence?

"Where were you on that day?" There are a few days we are supposed to remember, grounded in the places we were when we heard the news. So my mother remembered hearing about the first Kennedy assassination as she brought a plant--thereafter called "the Kennedy plant--home from the store, and I remembered it as my first public memory, when she met five year old me at the door and told me. I have no memory that I knew who President Kennedy was, but I remember hearing the news that he died. The question is more interesting and strange for survivors of such an event, like the characters in Falling Man, including Keith Neudecker, who was in the first tower struck, found a friend dying in a nearby office, then descended the stairs with other survivors, clutching a briefcase someone left behind. In an NPR interview, Don DeLillo describes his character as possibly "suffering some sort of dissociative amnesia that the shock of the attacks induced in him." Here is someone who was there who cannot remember. And he's hardly alone.

This is where DeLillo's use of Alzheimer's strikes me as incredibly effective. Keith's wife, Lianne (whose father had "died by his own hand" when he found out he had early Alzheimer's), works with a group of early stage Alzheimer's sufferers, leading them in writing about their lives. But she--and we--live in a post-traumatic world where no one remembers what happened to them on a particular day. They can name the day, 9/11, but they can't say clearly what happened to them, or to us, on that day. In some cases, they don't know the "real" names of people with whom they are intimate. DeLillo's description of Alzheimer's effects also applies to the effects of trauma on his characters: "a mind beginning to slide away from the adhesive friction that makes an individual possible" (30). Writing allows the Alzheimer's patients to re-collect themselves, just as the novel gives DeLillo access to what it might mean to recover a cogent memory of that event. The memory-damaged group writes nothing different from what my college students wrote: "They wrote about the planes. They wrote about where they were when it happened. They wrote about people they knew who were in the towers, or nearby, and they wrote about God" (60). Rosellen wrote that she wanted to see the jumpers hold hands; "I am closer to God than ever," she noted (61). Rosellen appears later in the novel only in Lianne's memories of her, as one day "she could not remember where she lived" and no longer came to the group's meetings (141).

Keith Neudecker recovers his memories in encounters--sexual, competitive, ever awkward--with other survivors. He's part of a huge jigsaw puzzle that attempts to put itself together, pieces seeking out other pieces, those that might fit, might be good neighbors. But nothing fits that is not being destroyed. Neighbors soothe themselves, but annoy each other with their music. The book ends with Neudecker's memories of 9/11, his recovery from amnesia, the symbolic Alzheimer's DeLillo describes. But the actual Alzheimer's patients, writing desperately together toward coherence, inevitably lose it: "The truth was mapped in slow and certain decline. Each member of the group lived in this knowledge. Lianne found it hardest to accept in the case of Carmen G. She appeared to be two women simultaneously, the one sitting here, less combative over time, less clearly defined, speech beginning to drag . . ." as Lianne imagines a memory of her past as "a spirited woman in her reckless prime, funny and blunt, spinning on a dance floor" (125). Fearful of Alzheimer's, Lianne has herself tested, succeeds (mostly) in counting down from 100 by 7s. Neither 9 nor 11 participate in that count-down, although those are the numbers that haunt her the most. She ends the book consumed (as it were) by the number 3, as she turns to Catholicism for solace.

This morning, 5/7/11, the television promises us Bin Laden's home videos, including one of an armoir that appears in what we are allowed to see of the Seals' death scene video. (In DeLillo's book, children think obsessively of a character named Bill Lawton, Americanizing him in a very telling way.) We will see Bin Laden's memories, not our own. There is no sign yet that we allow ourselves to forget him, or our own trauma, let alone any of those traumas inflicted on others in our name. Our private memories of that day were also public; some of his private memories belong to us, now. What we will do with them is a mystery. The missing photo, that of Bin Laden in death, shall haunt us too, not because we don't see it, but because we can.

I'll end with another absent photo, that of the "falling man" on whom DeLillo bases a performance artist in his book. The falling man replays a famous but hardly ever shown photograph of one of the "jumpers" from the Twin Towers. The New York Times published the photograph next to Frank Rich's review of the novel, but blurred the falling man out. Up to 200 people died on 9/11 by jumping out of the windows, away from the fire, the heat, the lack of oxygen. They would have died anyway; they were the few who "chose" to die by "their own hands." A French documentary represents "the jumpers" only as sound--repeated thuds on roofs and on the ground. Apparently, many of the thuds were edited out, as the sound itself was thought to be too traumatic for viewers (induced synesthesia?). The photographs are not violent, but are treated as if they were. I suspect that some of the trauma of the photos is precisely that lack of violence; they exist in moments between horrific events--the burning in the Towers, death from the fall on the ground. These are the moments we oddly most want to forget, when time still moves, but cannot, will not, achieve the ending we wish for it. They image the present, a last moment in time before we lose time. The Alzheimer's patient still has it; everything else has been forgotten. And so the present tense becomes pornographic precisely because it's taken out of sequence; it belongs to no notion of life as we conceive it. We are drawn to and repelled by it, in equal measure.

The falling man, unblurred by the censor, is here. The article by Tom Junod that follows investigates ways in which people approach their own memories, or forgettings, or not knowings, by way of a single photographic image. One mother of two brothers who died that day recapitulates the film, Blow Up, demanding that the photographer make a larger image. Others choose to look away from the image, even to hate, reject any possible connection between it and themselves. The photograph becomes such a powerful symbol that it's suppressed. What we choose as our icons for the event are ordinary things. Don DeLillo names them in an article he wrote for Harper's in late 2001. I found it in the Guardian, which explains the spelling: "The cellphones, the lost shoes, the handkerchiefs mashed in the faces of running men and women. The box cutters and credit cards. The paper that came streaming out of the towers and drifted across the river to Brooklyn backyards, status reports, résumés, insurance forms. Sheets of paper driven into concrete, according to witnesses. Paper slicing into truck tyres, fixed there."

We can remember these things, because they do not, on their own, traumatize us in the way a photograph does, or in the way memory is sometimes so strong we cannot find it. Some are items one finds in an Alzheimer's home, intended to calm the residents. Shoes, pieces of paper, insurance forms. There they are. The rest of us deal with them as we can.

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