In the shadow of the towers

The World Trade Center haunted Don DeLillo's writing for three decades. Now he draws a stunned, allu

You could say there have been foreshadowings. From Don DeLillo's Underworld (1997), the great American novel of the second half of the 20th century: "My son used to believe that he could look at a plane in flight and make it explode in midair by simply thinking it . . . he'd sense an element of catastrophe tacit in the very fact of a flying object filled with people." Elsewhere in that novel, in 1974, two characters watch the World Trade Center being constructed: "Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think." DeLillo's fifth novel, Players (1977), features a woman who works in a grief management firm high up in the newly finished World Trade Center: "the towers didn't seem permanent", she thinks, but then, "Where else would you stack all that grief?" The same novel also depicts a cabal of terrorists who want to blow up the Stock Exchange.

In Mao II (1991), "Out the south windows the Trade towers stood cut against the night, intensely massed and near. This is the word 'loomed' in all its prolonged and impending force." Mao II's novelist protagonist argues that terrorists are winning a "zero-sum game" against novelists: "Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative." White Noise (1984) is, among other things, a comedy of disaster response, as victims of an "airborne toxic event" are chided for not acting as they would in a drill. The jacket image of Underworld, in its US and UK first editions, is a photograph of the twin towers, their upper stories shrouded in mist, with a bird flying towards them.

There is already a blackly satirical, weirdly prescient 9/11 novel scattered in arcane fragments through DeLillo's existing work. But the real event, it seems, demands an explicit response. Very terrible thing but you have to look at it. Falling Man's title alludes to the famous, horrific photograph of an unidentified man falling headfirst from one of the towers after the attack. In one of those DeLilloan cultural inventions that seem more dense with meaning than actual cultural events, New York in this novel is haunted after the attacks by a performance artist known as the Falling Man, who hangs himself upside-down from balconies and bridges across the city in wordless imitation of the unknown victim.

The story focuses on a small group of characters in the aftermath: Keith, an office worker in one of the towers who managed to get out, and Lianne, the wife to whom he returns, plus her mother and her mother's boyfriend, a cynically provocative European art dealer; and Keith and Lianne's nine-year-old son, who scans the skies with binoculars for the return of a man called "Bill Lawton", figment of misheard news. This being a DeLillo novel, it is not a confection of sentimental adultery and cheap hope, as was Jay McInerney's post-9/11 effort, The Good Life. Indeed, the novel explicitly warns the reader what not to expect, as Keith returns to his old apartment: "In the movie version, someone would be in the building, an emotionally damaged woman or a homeless old man, and there would be dialogue and close-ups." Difficult to imagine a movie version of this novel, patterned as a sequence of charged tableaux and moods, shot through with streaks of obsidian comedy. Picking out slivers of glass from Keith's face, a doctor describes to him the phenomenon of "organic shrapnel", whereby bits of a suicide bomber's blown-up body can lodge in the skin of bystanders. After much revolting detail, the doctor finishes with casual reassurance: "This is something I don't think you have." Throughout the book, bombs of laconic irony explode when least expected, such as when Keith "walked north toward the barricades, thinking it might be hard to find a taxi at a time when every cab driver in New York was named Muhammad".

In such a context, DeLillo's idiosyncratic method of dialogue acquires even more allusive and slyly destabilising force. Beginning every DeLillo novel, during the period of acclimatisation, one has the impression that the dialogue is highly stylised: people talk at angles past one another, in sometimes nonsensical fragments of sentences. Then one realises that it is the very fluidity of other novels' dialogue that is artificial: the improbably easy, logical and perfectly parsed flow of most fictional conversation does not resemble the way people speak. DeLillo refuses even to chivvy along his characters with expressive punctuation. Where other writers use dashes and ellipses, he is surgical with the full stop. Lianne's mother warns her: "But if you let your sympathy and goodwill affect your judgment." No trailing dots, no "then" to the "if". Sometimes people leave nothing unsaid; sometimes they don't have another thing to say. Some scenes of the novel are written as though deafened and exhausted beyond all language - for instance, when Lianne and Keith sit silently together watching television, "as a correspondent in a desolate landscape, Afghanistan or Pakistan, pointed over his shoulder to mountains in the distance".

DeLillo's prose has always had the quality of seeming stunned by the world, vitrified into shards of glassy perfection by the sheer force of light bouncing off people and things. A style often taken as deliberately remote or studiedly cool, it seems almost the opposite, a function of exquisite sensitivity. But can one still be sensitive to small things when such a big thing has happened? Such is the question implied by a curious moment when Keith is still wandering dazed through the city in the aftermath of the attack. "He crossed Canal Street and began to see things, somehow, differently. Things did not seem charged in the usual ways, the cobbled street, the cast-iron buildings." The worry that ordinary things no longer seem "charged" might be read as an authorial lament, rather than one credibly belonging to this character. The novel is none the less full of beautiful, almost casually deployed observations - a day of "wind-whipped rain" is "the weather everywhere, the state of mind, generic Monday"; men betting on horse races are "showing the anxious lean of body english that marks money on the line"; the clicking of chips in a casino is "insect friction". Through the eyes of Keith, in particular, DeLillo appears to be making an effort to render the ashen world newly strange, such as when Keith visits a gym and deadpans the scene: "They strained against weighted metal sleds and rode stationary bikes."

And yet, there still seems something self-questioning about Falling Man, which also contains passages written from the point of view of one of the hijackers, named Hammad, whom we see first in Hamburg, then in America, and finally on the plane. Affectless, estranged, almost stereotypical, these interpolations seem primarily to work as an acknowledgement that hypersophisticated artistic humanism is not the only game in town. But their very existence in the scheme of the novel also allows some extraordinary cross-allusions - for example, when DeLillo describes, in a gorgeous celebration of the inexplicit dynamics of male friendship, the weekly games of poker that Keith used to play with his friends, most now dead. Once they decided to play only one variety of poker, they still observed the ritual of announcing five-card stud at every deal, "and they loved doing this, straight faced, because where else would they encounter the kind of mellow tradition exemplified by the needless utterance of a few archaic words". Where else. No question mark. A slow fuse is lit that snakes and ramifies through the pages.

The presence of Hammad's storyline is also, perhaps, finally justified by an extraordinary coup: as the plane approaches the tower, we are in the hijacker's consciousness, and then, at the instant it hits, we are catapulted mid-paragraph into Keith's point of view, as though by the force of the explosion itself, and so the reader is subjected to some faint analogue of the characters' own disorientation and shock. The novel's end recounts how Keith descends from his office and emerges into the plaza, where DeLillo recapitulates with variation the novel's very first scene, drawing a tight circle of recurring nightmare. These are pages of magnificent force and control, DeLillo's genius at full pelt. Reading them, you have to remind yourself to keep breathing.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, What now?

ahisgett - Flickr
Show Hide image

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis