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Falling Men: On Don DeLillo and Terror

April 30, 2013 | by

New York Police officers are seen under a news ticker in Times Square in New York, April 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

Some terrorist attacks become cultural obsessions, while others are forgotten completely. There were three bombings in New York City in 1975, none of which I’ve ever heard talked about, each of which would probably shut down the city if it happened now. In January, Puerto Rican separatists set off dynamite in Fraunces Tavern in downtown Manhattan, killing four businessmen—the same number of fatalities, incidentally, that led us to close the airspace over Boston last week. In April, four separate bombs went off in midtown Manhattan on one afternoon, damaging a diner and the offices of several finance firms. The worst one came in late December, when a package of dynamite exploded in the baggage-claim area at LaGuardia Airport, killing eleven.

These were underground disturbances, moments of disorder that helped warp the culture, even if they weren’t absorbed or even remembered. In 1975, Don DeLillo was thirty-nine, living in the city, possibly beginning work on Players, his fifth novel and his first about terrorism. Long before it became obvious, DeLillo argued that terrorists and gunmen have rearranged our sense of reality. He has become better appreciated as the world has come to resemble his work, incrementally, with every new telegenic catastrophe, every bombing and mass shooting. Throughout DeLillo’s work we encounter young men who plot violence to escape the plotlessness of their own lives. He has done more than any writer since Dostoevsky to explain them.

DeLillo’s fictional treatments of terrorism and mass shootings are extensive. In Players, a young man working in finance is drawn into a terrorist cell that plans to bomb the New York Stock Exchange. (Eerie details: the young man’s girlfriend works in the World Trade Center’s North Tower at a place called the Grief Management Council; she feels that “the towers didn’t seem permanent”; in one scene during which she gazes at the towers from the roof of her apartment, a friend remarks, “That plane looks like it’s going to hit.”) In The Names (1982), a risk analyst discovers a murderous language-cult. Mao II (1991) is about a reclusive writer who is becomes involved with a bombing-and-hostage-taking outfit out of Beirut. There’s a subplot in Underworld (1997) about a video that’s replayed endlessly on the news showing a murder by the Texas highway killer. In Cosmopolis (2003) a loner plots the killing of a finance-world celebrity. Then there’s Falling Man (2007), about the September 11 attacks.

When Falling Man came out, reviewers noted that DeLillo’s earlier books had seemed to anticipate the events of September 11, as well as the aura of dread and unreality that followed. DeLillo seemed prescient not because he predicted the future, but because he focused on history that has all but disappeared from American cultural memory: the terrorism of the 1970s, the red armies and brigades and the various liberation fronts that bombed planes and hotels and gunned down tourists in America and across Europe, the Baader-Meinhof gang attacking embassies, the Irish Republican Army shooting cops, abductions and assassinations by Marxists splinter groups. DeLillo’s work preserved the atmosphere of that time, and so seemed to foreshadow a later period of pervasive menace; in a similar way, Dostoevsky’s foresight in anticipating the Bolsheviks is more impressive if you’re not familiar with the Russian revolutionaries of the 1860s and ’70s who influenced his work.

No matter how common they’ve become, terrorist attacks and gun massacres always seem unprecedented. But the idea that the last twelve years have been a new era of terror and unreality is false. “Our postwar history has seen tanks in the streets and occasional massive force,” DeLillo told The Paris Review in 1993. “But mainly we have the individual in the small room, the nobody who walks out of the shadows and changes everything.” The rippling reality-distortion caused by this form of violence has been DeLillo’s theme from the beginning. On the same day he decided to write his first novel, DeLillo said, he picked up a paper and read about Charles Whitman, a young man who climbed a tower on the University of Texas at Austin campus in 1968 and killed eleven people with a sniper rifle. Whitman brought several guns with him, along with toilet paper and underarm deodorant. When he read about Whitman, DeLillo said, “I remember thinking, Texas again. And also, underarm deodorant.”

Texas again. For DeLillo, the Kennedy assassination is a model that prefigures later terrorist attacks and massacres: inexplicable violence committed by a nobody in the context of ubiquitous media coverage. A mountain of evidence, testimony, and theory that hides the event itself. Images of the event endlessly replayed. An imbalance between the significance of the act and the insignificance of the person who committed it. Absurdity, in other words.

Last week’s events in Boston conform to this pattern. The two Tsarnaev brothers, taken together, are an approximation of DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald, the Oswald of Libra (1988) and of DeLillo’s essays on the assassination. Tamerlan, the fundamentalist brother with mysterious connections in Dagestan and Chechnya and with the FBI, is Oswald the world-historical figure, the Oswald who defected to Moscow, who worked on a U-2 base in Japan, who read Marx. The elder Tsarnaev and Oswald are both figures in whom powerful historical forces seem to converge: Marxism, Islamic radicalism, the real and imaginary power of the American government. Both liked to hit their wives. Both died before they could tell us anything.

Dzhokhar is the other side of Oswald. He is Oswald the nobody, the Oswald of incoherent motives, the man who is not a plausible nexus of historical forces. Dzhokhar’s uncle called him a loser, and would have called Oswald the same. We know that Dzhokhar liked to smoke pot, supported the Anzhi Makhachkala soccer team, failed seven classes his first year in college. DeLillo’s Oswald, skipping school in the Bronx, a truant riding the subways, was a bad student and a terrible speller. Tamerlan is the Oswald who died with his secrets, but Dzhokhar is the Oswald of the Warren Report, whose every banal detail will be brought to light but who will never add up to a coherent personality.  

The ineptitude of their escape, too, was Oswaldesque. They layered minor crimes on top of large. Both getaways involved the superfluous killing of cops. Oswald was arrested while watching a movie, while the Tsarnaevs let the man they carjacked escape when they stopped for snacks. They were clumsy and stupid, like Oswald, and neglected practical details as if in a dream.

Then there is the constellation of unreality that the bombings have begun to create. The Boston bombings, like the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 attacks, will remain an event about which unreasonable people can disagree.

“Powerful events build their own networks of chaos and ambiguity,” DeLillo wrote in a 2004 essay on Oswald; the mass of facts that accumulated on these events has its own interconnections, missing pieces, buried meanings. The Tsarnaevs’ story is a grand banquet for conspiracy theorists, involving the FBI, the Russians, terror cells in Dagestan and Chechnya, the unsolved murder of Tamerlan’s best friend and two others in 2011. Within hours of the bombing you could find pictures online that claim to show government agents standing near the site of the first bomb right before it went off. Tamerlan himself frequented conspiracy websites—did he anticipate the endless conspiracy-theorizing that his bombing would give rise to? Conspiracy thinking is similar, in a way, to a terror plot; both lend structure to ambiguous reality. The more demonstrably false the theory, the more powerfully it serves as a protest against reality.

“Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” the novelist in Mao II says. “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” By introducing conspiracy and chaos into the world, a terrorist hopes to make himself equal to the overwhelming world surrounding him. The idea isn’t to change history but to enact one’s dream life. The person who blows up the Boston marathon instantly becomes the equal of his act. What other mythic ambition can a loser instantly achieve, just by deciding to do it? “In America it is the individual himself, floating on random streams of disaffection, who tends to set the terms of the absurd,” DeLillo wrote. “Set the terms” is right: an individual terrorist creates the absurdity in which the rest of us have to live. Whether or not Oswald or the Tsarnaevs achieved what they hoped they would achieve, their dream lives now overlap with reality. Violence gives weight to the meaningless. “This is what guns are for, to bring balance to the world,” DeLillo wrote, speaking, once again, of Oswald.

Chris Cumming is a financial reporter in New York City.




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  1. janet abbey | April 30, 2013 at 11:19 pm

    A really fine essay on the bombing and DeLillo. You know that bombing followed Grand Theft Auto quite a bit.

  2. Doctor Oz | May 1, 2013 at 6:43 pm

    I think the biggest difference between the bombings of the 1970’s and contemporary ‘terrorism’ is the unified vision of a single enemy. Everything we learned from the Cold War — every failure of what was ostensibly the ‘War on Communism’ — we have applied to the ‘War on Terror,’ particularly in the wake of Desert Storm, from which we learned that the most effective way to speak of war and violence is by taking a note from the advertising industry and developing a new language and manner by which to ‘market’ it. But whereas Desert Storm and the decade that followed were met by a lukewarm, sometimes disinterested public, this fusion of ad-speak and military parlance found its ossified in the wake of 9/11 and the dawn of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Suddenly everything became subsumed by this newly-popularized (but certainly not new) concept of ‘Terrorism’; and unlike Communism, which was sold as a specter or a virus which could infect anyone at any time, we were offered a single, definable enemy: Muslims.

    Now, of course, this concept of Terrorism is equally vague and ethereal; but in giving Terrorism a face we have offered ourselves the enormous relief of knowing that the enemy is a distinct Other, with a recognizable face, definable motives, and — thank God ! — antiquated, third-world economic backing.

    What I mean to say is that the celebrations in Boston were a celebration of relief — not from the dangerous individual himself, but from the possibility that the individual would be anything other than a Muslim. It didn’t matter that he was white or that he was an American citizen, or that he was well-liked and popular…All of that was rendered irrelevant, and in fact any and all questions of motives were thrown out the window, because Muslim criminal is so obviously a Terrorist, and a Terrorist has only one motive, which cannot be taken seriously, because terrorists are ‘extremists’ with nonsensical antiquated third-world Islamic values. Even our representatives in Congress and Senate were asking that he be tried as an enemy combatant rather than as a criminal. And yet the white males of a similar age who committed arguably far more horrifying acts of ‘terror’ — James Holmes and Adam Lanza — whose crimes were far more complex and baffling, completely motiveless and incomprehensible — these two are simply criminals, ‘sickos,’ ‘freaks,’ what have you. But they are not ‘terrorists’! Because they are not Muslim…

    In his final interview, a mere four hours before he was murdered, Pier Paolo Pasolini said: “We are particularly pleased with conspiracies because they relieve us of the weight of having to deal with the truth head on. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, while we are here talking, someone in the basement were making plans to kill us? It’s easy, it’s simple, and it’s the resistance. We might lose a few friends, but then we’ll gather our forces and wipe them out.” This has never been more true. And I don’t mean in the sense of conspiracy theories — although they are, thanks to the internet, boundless with creative ambition — but rather in the sense that American life has become reoriented about this concept of Terrorism with a capital-T. We live in relation to this concept superimposed on an entire group of people. Because it’s easier this way. Because it’s seemingly comprehensible. Because it’s easier to send your kids to school every day when you know that they wont encounter a bunch of Saudis on the way. Because you can spot them, and point them out. Because our friends in Europe are now unified in a battle against ‘immigration,’ which simply means North Africans and Arabs. Because the relationship that Israel has to the Palestinians Americans now wish to have with the entire Arab world.

    And so it’s not that we have forgotten the seventies. It’s that we simply don’t care. Because we have, thank God, found our enemy. And it’s so much easier to get to sleep now.

  3. Bill | May 1, 2013 at 7:01 pm

    Pedantic distinction, perhaps worth noting: the tower shooting was at the University of Texas, which is in Austin, not, as the post says, at the University of Austin, which (a quick google search tells me) doesn’t exist.

  4. Paul | May 2, 2013 at 12:18 am

    The credit for the photo reads as follow:

    New York Police officers are seen under a news ticker in Times Square in New York, April 16, 2013. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

  5. Mike | November 20, 2013 at 9:55 pm

    Everyone’s life has a “plot”, and can be read as a product of history, or at least of the society, or societies, they are a part of. That’s reality. I don’t think terrorists “create the absurdity in which the rest of us have to live”. The absurdity is the irony of a safe and mundane daily routine existing beside a world of poverty, political chaos and corruption. A terrorist is someone who brings that reality to light, simply by being a destabilized (and explosive) product of history. In this respect their motives, for fame or meaning or revenge, is entirely relevant. It’s all a product of history, it’s all part of the bigger plot that runs through even the most obscure nobody. They aren’t creating their own story, they’re just playing their part.

    Also, I’m not sure what it means to call a terrorist a loser. It feels dismissive. What does failure mean to us?

  6. Sapna | June 6, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    “The man alongside studies the fingernails of his right hand…In time he begins making the sound either or both of them make when troubled by anxiety, critical choices, nameless dread…It’s a prolonged hum, the speech sound m.”

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  2. […] one of the more obvious works of 9/11 fiction, Falling Man is a novel from acclaimed American author Don DeLillo. The novel follows a lawyer named Keith […]

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