09 June 2007

don delillo : falling man

In his famous (some might say infamous) appendix to his influential study, The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard contends that the postmodern work struggles continuously, if paradoxically, to find a way to present the unpresentable. Its goal, whether in the form of one of Ad Reinhardt's all-black canvases, Beckett's Unnameable, or David Lynch's Lost Highway, is to "enable us to see only by making it impossible to see"; to "please only by causing pain."

There are some situations, Lyotard maintains, that by their very nature cannot be thought about or articulated within the bounds of reason. There are some events—he cites Auschwitz—whose atrocious complexities refuse to be reduced to conventional understanding, conventional storylines and forms, to anything other than what they are: manifestations of unimaginable difficulty and radical existential unease. In the wake of such limit situations, you can only say, along with one of the characters in Don DeLillo's astonishing Falling Man: "Nothing seems exaggerated anymore. Nothing amazes me."

The task of presenting the unpresentable is central to the recent haunting and haunted genre of fiction called the 9/11 novel. Perhaps this accounts for the critical cliché that there are no good ones out there.

For my full review, please click here.


jdeshell said...

Thanks, Lance, for keeping my brain from summer rot. All I’ve been doing since the semester ended (the semester never really ends) is watching movies and reading mysteries (Jean-Claude Izzo and his Marseille trilogy mostly, along with a few mss etc) as well as assembling baby furniture. But your review of Delillio (and Davis’ question about Lunch) have at least kept a few darkened synapses from totally decay.
Anyway, let’s talk about your review. Do you mind? I’ll say first of all that discussion of DiLillo always bring me back to grad school, where I first learned to argue about books I’ve never read. I’ve probably had more arguments about DeLillo than any other writer I don’t read, except maybe Sebald. Anyway, I have read Lyotard, so that’s where I’ll start. You say that “The task of presenting the unpresentable is central to the recent haunting and haunted genre of fiction called the 9/11 novel.” My question is: what is unrepresentable about 9/11? It seems to me that the events of 9/11 are the most represented (and misrepresented) on earth. 9/11 has enjoyed a surfeit of representations, from television images played in endless loops, to bumper stickers and subsequent slogans and sloganeering diplomacy, to innumerable pages of hand-wringing, finger-pointing and flag-waving. There’s been nothing but a sort of self-representation: a mirror gazing (and not in the good sense) trauma narrative that has grown a bit stale. In fact, I would argue that it’s been the orgy of (self-) representation that has prohibited or blocked authentic inquiry into the historical context of the events of 9/11. This orgy has taken 9/11 out of history, and placed within (Barthian) myth. Barthes writes, “Myth deprives the object of which it speaks of all History.” Like many trauma victims, all we’ve heard is a “This is what has happened to me.”
Which is what seems to be happening in the DeLillo novel. And in other things I’ve read about written by American writers. Maybe this is a necessary phase. Maybe we need some time to put 9/11 back into history, back into a world where there are other forces besides reaction, other actions besides weeping and teeth-gnashing. The question to me is: did 9/11 put us back into history, a push us further into myth? The fact is, as far as I can see, NOTHING has been rethought, not our relationship with ourselves, and certainly not our relationship to others. Wait: we can no longer bring water or toothpaste onto airplanes. Other than that, what has been rethought? If anything, we’ve become less thoughtful and sympathetic as, with our permission, our government has gotten away from us.
I said I’ve been watching movies, and one of the movies I’ve been watching is Shoah. Shoah is about guilt, memory and responsibility, and how all those things combine into narratives and/of history. It was also made almost 50 years after the fact. Maybe we need those 50 years.
Anyway, when are you moving? Hope you are well. J

Ted Pelton said...

I find I'm in agreement with Jeffrey on this one (sorry, I haven't read the DeLillo book yet either, just lots & lots of contest manuscripts!) about the claim of 9/11 being unrepresentable. I just don't see how the attack was so unfathomable as the Holocaust (the event which 9/11 is likened to in this claim) is unfathomable. First there is a question of sheer scope of deaths, and while in the American imagination 3000 deaths is an incredible amount, it just ain't 9 million. Second, there is a question of motive. The motive for the Holocaust remains something that beggars our abilities to conceive -- as I recently read Giorgio Agamben point out -- that you can explain the mechanics of the Holocaust, the records are all there, but that our comprehension stops at that point. In contrast, the US being the sole world superpower, with tendrils if not absolute determining power everywhere in the world, it is surely comprehensible (certainly not to be confused with justifiable, etc.) why such a terrorist act (and it was a single act, on a single day, unlike the Holocaust, which was a sustained national industrial effort) would seek to destroy a symbol of its financial power.

Perhaps what is incomprehensible in the American imagination is not the act itself, but the felling of US exceptionalism -- that it can't happen here, to us; how can they hate our freedom?, etc. The UK, I would argue, saw its sense of exceptionalism fall gradually through the loss of its empire, with the post-mortem perhaps summed up no better by anyone than the Sex Pistols -- "Is this the UK / or just another country?" Americans, particularly in the post-WWII era, have never thought about themselves as living in "just another country." But if what fell on 9/11 was a national illusion, then I would argue that this is nothing like an unrepresentable moment. Indeed, the collapse of national illusions and the fall of exceptionalism is perhaps the most fitting topic a responsible national literature can be called upon to represent.

Most deplorable to me in our recentest era (but again not unrepresentable), and a sign of the not-dead-yet Goliath's wrath, is that the American war machine has killed far more people than were killed on 9/11 -- in a misdirected response to the wrong villian. Oops!

Hey, Lance, as I look through this I find it is less about your review than about the country I still find myself living in these days... I am not putting you on the wrong side of all this, just elaborating on these significations, to my mind.

Ted Pelton said...

Though in the sense of the deaths themselves of so many people at one time, bracketing the geopolitical significances, I am reminded of the Kurt Vonnegut line -- "There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre."

Lance Olsen said...

Well, let me start off with an answer to your most pressing question, Jeffrey: I'm in the midst of moving right now.

(For those of you who don't know, I'll be joining the faculty at the University of Utah this fall, and am in the midst of The Great Migration.)

Along the way, I've developed a theory that states that the act of moving is a lot like the act of birthing: your body apparently forgets the agony of both so you'll be dumb enough to keep performing the act over and over again.

On to DeLillo.

Perhaps this is a perverse argument, but I would contend that the plethora of movies and books about 9/11 is testament to the event's unpresentability--much in the same way I would content that the plethora of movies and books about the Holocaust is evidence of its unpresentability.

In both cases, there is a tear in what a culture believed reality's fabric to be, a tear that generates a sort of hyper-narrativity that isn't about narrativity at all, but about the inability to fully narrativize the sense of shock said culture experiences.

DeLillo seems to suggest in Falling Man that two mutually exclusive statements are both true about the aftermath of 9/11: that everything has changed (Afghanistan, Iraq, America's position in the world, etc.) and nothing has changed (in our daily doggy lives, many have willed themselves into a forced amnesia about the event and its repercussions, unable to fully imagine it, unwilling to fully consider its dimensions).

Falling Man, I would argue, creates a moment through which we can (at least momentarily) engage with an event we can't usually engage with in a complex and illuminating way.

In other words, the novel presents itself as a challenge.

That's what I think is so successful about it.

And Ted: I agree with you on most of your points, but would hesitate drawing a line between an event like 9/11 and one like the Holocaust simply because of the number of lives lost.

If we follow that reasoning, it would seemingly be fair to ask: how do 2,000 lives lost somehow count less than six million?

For me, a holocaust begins with the number one.

Hey, regardless of what you think of what I fear is my muddled reply, I highly recommend DeLillo's novel. It's a beautiful menanced thing.

Steve Tomasula said...

Given how thoughtfully Delillo has put current life through a historical lens (esp. MAO II, LIBRA & UNDERWORLD), I'm imagining FALLING MAN as an important contribution to the wider discussion you've all alluded to here, esp. the idea of how do we represent anything.... Seems like "how to represent the act" is the rope in the tug of war waged by the right and the left, with both often leaving out the unsaid, something that Delillo does take as a given in books like LIBRA: that these representations, including historical ones, or maybe especially historical ones, are a matter of language, of narrative structure.... In this regard, I would still recommend Charles Bernstein's GIRLY MAN as the most articulate, insightful, and important statement on 9/11 I've read--it puts the constructed nature of both the event and our reaction to it on the surface and through this action achieves the most potent political act literature can. A poem isn't going to shield anyone from a bomb, but a book of poems like this might shield us from the rhetoric of our so-called leaders. Well, I'll start to rant if I continue, but I thought GIRLY MAN would make a great parallel reading to Delillo's book...