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Bodies in Rest and Motion in Falling Man.pdf

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The marital tension between Keith Neudecker and his wife before 9/11 exposes a fundamental rift in the way they see the world after 9/11. It is not, however, merely a domestic drama. Instead, it belongs with other novels that are interested in
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  CHAPTER 9 Bodies in Rest and Motion in Falling Man Linda S. Kauffman It is difficult to write about relationships between men and women in Falling Man  without sounding like the sociologist John Ray, Jr. in Nabokov’s Lolita  (1955)—pompous, self-righteous, and wrong. Critics who reduce literature to sociology will find numerous traps in Don DeLillo’s 2007 novel. For starters, while the title is singular, the novel portrays many falling men—and women. First is the man in a white chef’s coat and black shoes, plunging head first from the World Trade Center, immortalized in Richard Drew’s photograph—the shot seen round the world. The second falling man is Keith Neudecker, who sur- vives the twin towers’ collapse, but is haunted by his colleagues’ deaths. Thirdly, Keith sees a white shirt float to earth. The novel begins and ends with this—literally disembodied—image of pity and terror. The fourth is a performance artist billed as “Falling Man,” who stages impromptu parachute jumps around New York City. It is as if the para-chutist wants to put a body back in that white shirt. The women are falling too: some are “fallen women”; others are falling in and out of love. Some are spiraling downward psychically; others are slowly dying. This is a novel obsessed with the corporeal body—in motion, in bed, in suspense. Few characters rest, even when they are nearly dead. Portrait of a Marriage The stress (in both sense of the word) on bodies extends to the marital relations between Keith Neudecker and his wife, Lianne Glenn. Although they had been separated for over a year, Keith wanders home on September 11th. They resume a semblance of family life, though the conflicts that drove them to part remain unresolved. The conflicts seem SOlster_09_Fpp indd 135 SOlster_09_Fpp.indd 135 9/1/2010 4:05:18 PM 9/1/2010 4:05:18 PM  136  DON DELILLO to involve drinking, gambling, and (possibly) philandering on Keith’s part, and recriminations on Lianne’s. DeLillo alternates between Lianne’s consciousness and Keith’s. While Keith disassociates from his body, Lianne is preoccupied with her’s and her mother’s (whose health is failing). The second chapter opens with her reverie about sex. Lianne remembers their courtship and the early days of their marriage, before things soured. Every interaction was electrified by a sexual current—reading; watching television; walking down the street; entering a rented beach house, while the pounding surf “marked an earthly pulse in the blood” (7). They recapture some of that passion after September 11th, but it is now overshadowed by their new-found awareness of how  vulnerable they are to injury, loss, and death. For Lianne, their lovemak-ing is the only interval that does not seem “forced or distorted [. . .] by the press of events” (69). After they reunite, they make out in taxis and make love at home. They both want contact. At one point, Lianne presses her naked body to the full-length mirror, steamy from her husband’s shower. Elsewhere, she recalls a fling she had during her separation from Keith. Her lover traces the ridges of her body with his finger, com-paring each one to a geologic era. She opens herself and laughs. The word “opening” reverberates throughout Falling Man . Some-times it connotes desire. Sometimes it is a sign of willingness to explore the unknown, a leaning into something that does not have a name. It entails surrender—a letting go of preconceptions, abstractions. In this sense, “opening” resembles Keats’s Negative Capability—the ability to enter imaginatively into the subjectivity of another person or thing. As Keats describes it, his own personality disappears in the process of imagining the Grecian urn or the nightingale. Lianne possesses this quality: ever since she was a little girl, she has imaginatively absorbed the sensations around her, as if her body were a permeable membrane. In this regard, she resembles Karen Janney in  Mao II   (1991), who absorbs the suffering of the homeless and the dispossessed, her heart an open wound. Similarly, Lianne tries to enter imaginatively into the experience of those who were in the towers, including her own husband. Not only does she have empathy, but she almost seems psychic: she is “a sensitive” who registers the emotions around her, as if her body were a tuning fork. Negative Capability, moreover, is sensual, as when DeLillo writes that making love is “a laying open of bodies but also of time” (69). It is one of the few experiences that slows time down to discrete, still moments.Keith embodies this stillness, even though his relation to his body differs dramatically from Lianne’s. After 9/11, he “was not quite returned to his body yet” (59), which makes him sound a bit like a package, waiting to be mailed C.O.D. Keith feels as if he is hovering above or SOlster_09_Fpp indd 136 SOlster_09_Fpp.indd 136 9/1/2010 4:05:19 PM 9/1/2010 4:05:19 PM  BODIES IN REST AND MOTION IN FALLING MAN    137 beyond his body, watching himself from a distance. Since his office was destroyed when the twin towers fell, he is out of work, stripped of the normal routines that used to preoccupy him. As a result, he sees things differently, as if he had been sleepwalking through life before, but is now awake: He began to think into the day, into the minute. It was being here, alone in time, that made this happen, being away from routine stimulus, all the streaming forms of office discourse. Things seemed still, they seemed clearer to the eye, oddly, in ways he didn’t understand. He began to see what he was doing. He noticed things, all the small lost strokes of a day or a minute [. . .] . (65)Rather than being aware of the present moment, most of us live in a constant state of distraction—until something singular happens to snap us to attention.   Keith’s new-found awareness is corporeal—playing catch with his son , Justin; tasting bread crumbs; hearing music; smelling the acrid metallic air of lower Manhattan; seeing himself, as if for the first time: “Nothing seemed familiar, being here, in a family again, and he felt strange to himself, or always had, but it was different now because he was watching” (65). His acute self-consciousness implies heightened alertness, but no one knows better than Keith that alertness does not keep terror—or terrorist attacks—from happening. Keith is tense, in suspended animation. The fact that remains unstated throughout the novel is that Keith is suffering from the after-effects of trauma, particularly that of seeing his buddy Rumsey die in the office they shared. These details appear as flashes of memory, brief but recurring. The burden Keith carries centers on bodies—burned, shrieking, falling. When he has surgery for his own injury, the anesthe-sia is supposed to be a memory suppressant, but the last thing he remembers before going under is “Rumsey in his chair [. . .], which meant the memory was not suppressed [. . .], a dream, a waking image, whatever it was, Rumsey in the smoke, things coming down” (22). The unconscious erupts, despite Keith’s strenuous efforts to repress it. Instead of trying to work through trauma the way Lianne does, Keith acts out (see my “World Trauma Center” 647–59). He refuses to discuss what happened—until he meets Florence Givens, a black woman whose briefcase he inadvertently picks up while evacuating. Precarious Lives Keith is drawn to Florence because she gives voice to the very emotions he has been repressing. They share the same compulsion to go over and over that ghastly day. Even when he walks in the park with Justin SOlster_09_Fpp indd 137 SOlster_09_Fpp.indd 137 9/1/2010 4:05:19 PM 9/1/2010 4:05:19 PM  138  DON DELILLO “[h]e was still back there, with Florence, double in himself, [. . .] the deep shared self” (157). It is Florence who recounts some of the most horrific details of what it was like in the towers: the firemen racing upstairs and not coming down; water bottles passed up the line; the joking bravado of the equity traders; people with asthma, gasping for air; employees trying to use their cell phones; and above all, the darkness and the inter-minable stairs, floor by floor, spiraling down. “I feel like I’m still on the stairs,” she says. “If I live to be a hundred I’ll still be on the stairs” (57). Florence and Keith are both stuck, fixated on a moment neither of them can transcend. They are like “dreamers bleeding” (58), a description Florence applies to the wounded office workers who were all around her that morning. Florence is frankly sensual. She and Keith become lovers. With her, he shares things that he has never confessed to his wife. He once aspired to be an actor, an appropriate career for a man who feels that he’s acting the role of husband and father, imitating his own father’s role (88). Keith is eager to skate on the surface of things, but the terrorist attacks defamiliarized the habits of everyday life, making ordinary occurrences seem surreal. For example, when Keith meets Florence in the mattress section of Macy’s department store, forty or fifty people, mostly women, are wantonly bouncing on the mattresses. Each con-sumer is trying to  feel something—a sensation of desired firmness, soundness, support, as if sheer consumption will fulfill her, or make her feel safe. The scene strikes Keith as “ remarkable” (132); all the consum-ers “falling down” (133), publicly engaging in a ritual that is normally intimate. Just as  Mao II’  s mantra is that “[t]he future belongs to crowds” (16), Falling Man ’s is that “all life had become public” after September 11th (182). The terrorist attack makes Keith feel that life is “meant to be lived seriously and responsibly, not snatched in clumsy fistfuls” (137). Nevertheless, he snatches the odd hours with Florence. He is aware of the contradiction, and its unfairness to her: she is “not someone to be snatched at” (137). While Florence tests one of the mattresses, a male bystander makes what Keith presumes is a lewd comment about her. Keith punches the man, “ready to kill him” (133). Perhaps the bystand-er’s remark has racial overtones; DeLillo doesn’t say. Nevertheless, one wonders if Keith’s supercharged reaction arises because he secretly knows that his own behavior is not honorable. Florence calms him, but she soon discovers that she wants more from Keith than he has to give. Although her firm is moving across the river to regroup, she does not want to move, because it would put too much distance between the lovers. She believes Keith saved her life by appearing at her door, because she has no one else to turn to. All those who might help her after 9/11 are missing or dead. But Keith terminates SOlster_09_Fpp indd 138 SOlster_09_Fpp.indd 138 9/1/2010 4:05:19 PM 9/1/2010 4:05:19 PM  BODIES IN REST AND MOTION IN FALLING MAN    139 the affair, and the rejection Florence feels reconfirms old, unnamed wounds she has already suffered, presumably at the hands of men: “This was the old undoing that was always near, now come inevitably into her life again, an injury no less painful for being fated” (158). Florence was a fallen woman long before she is taken in adultery, but she isn’t “fallen” in the Victorian sense. Her condition isn’t sexual, but existential. It resembles Sartre’s Nausea  (1938) more than Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles  (1891). No rake has “ruined” her; instead, she is living in what DeLillo, in an essay published in Harper’s , calls “the ruins of the future” (33–40). Existence has suddenly become provisional. Or per-haps terrorism simply stripped the veil of familiarity from her eyes, laying bare her vulnerabilities. Her first name evokes Florence Nightin-gale, the kindly nurse who ministered to wounded men. Her last name suggests that while she gives and gives, men do not reciprocate. Instead, it is a “given” that Keith will leave her. Moreover, “Given!” is the penulti-mate one-word sentence in Finnegans Wake  (1939; 628), a work that reverberates throughout DeLillo’s novel, as I will show presently.Ironically, when Lianne first met Keith, her mother, Nina Bartos, warned her that Keith was made for affairs, not marriage. Nina astutely observes that Keith’s style is “to get a woman to do something she’ll be sorry for” (12). By novel’s end, Florence becomes that woman. Falling  Man  is filled with such disappointments and misperceptions. For exam-ple, at the very instant when Lianne lies in bed thinking how nice it is that Keith is finally growing into his role as husband, he is already involved with Florence. The reader is thus aware of an infidelity Lianne never discovers. However, she has her suspicions, sparked by a single word: actually  . “When she asked him about the stranger’s briefcase in the closet, why it was   there one day and gone the next, he said he’d actually returned it to the owner” (105). From long experience, Lianne knows Keith uses that word when he is lying. But she never  voices her suspicions, and Keith continues to come and go as he pleases. Both before and after 9/11, Keith is full of contradictions, one more case of that conflicted masculinity that Ruth Helyer has explored in DeLillo’s work (125–36). On the one hand, he wants to live on the edge; on the other, he needs contact with his family. He nevertheless finds domesticity stifling. Perhaps, like John Marcher in Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903), he fancies that he is destined for greater things: he “used to want more of the world than there was time and means to acquire” (128). Perhaps he drank to anaesthetize himself from these contradictions. But before I start to sound like John Ray, Jr., it’s important to highlight the Sophoclean irony of Keith’s fate, which is simply to have survived the terrorist attack, just as the Sophoclean irony SOlster_09_Fpp indd 139 SOlster_09_Fpp.indd 139 9/1/2010 4:05:19 PM 9/1/2010 4:05:19 PM
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