If you've read James's review you'll already know what this book is about: a man walks away from the rubble of the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001 and, stupefied, returns to his estranged wife and child. We spend a similar amount of time with husband and wife but it is Lianne whose reactions and emotions are explored most deeply. Keith remains a closed book. Like James I was curious to discover how a literary giant such as Don DeLillo would tackle the events of September 11. All but the youngest readers will remember the day vividly. We have been deluged with articles, books, television documentaries and films about the attacks. What is left to say?
But the story we know is the big story, the global story, the political story. The official narrative has been used to justify two wars and the systematic rolling back of civil liberties. Rudy Giuliani, whose contribution on the day was at best irrelevant and at worst malign, hopes to ride his status as the hero of 9/11 all the way to the White House.
So much for the big story. What DeLillo seems to be concerned with is the small story, the story at human level. That much is evident from the title of the book, which is singular, picking an individual from the thousands affected that day.
The Falling Man refers in the book to a performance artist who, wearing a harness, throws himself from structures around New York, a living reminder of the fate of the individual. But the title also refers to the photograph, taken by Richard Drew, of a man falling from the one of the towers. Widely used on September 12, the photograph caused controversy, not least because the likelihood that the man threw himself from the building rather than dying in the fire raised the shameful subject of suicide. The photo has seldom been published since.
Of course, the Falling Man could also be Keith himself. He is a man trapped in motion, forever unable to settle and the book's ending does little to suggest that this will change.
DeLillo uses Lianne's work with her Alzheimer's Group to demonstrate the importance of life at the human scale. She encourages them to write their stories and share them with the group, knowing that soon their stories will be lost to them forever.
The big narrative is acknowledged but relegated to the background. Nina, Lianne's mother, argues with her German lover about the political reasons for the attacks but DeLillo doesn't give either argument much weight. Instead the couple, driven apart by disagreement, seem to symbolise the split between Europe and America.
Lianne's father looms over the story too. Faced with encroaching Alzheimer's, he shot himself. Like the falling man in the photo, he chose suicide rather than a slower, more painful death.
DeLillo's prose is magnificent, particularly his description of the attack on the Towers, which is almost perfect and seems effortless. Only his dialogue stutters - a problem I had with Underworld too. Every character sounds the same. Even the child, Justin, talks with a stagey, profound distance that just doesn't ring true for me.
Nevertheless, this is a fantastic book that takes a big story and makes it small again and it's all the more powerful for it.