Sunday, April 24, 2011

Newspapers in "Falling Man"

Trying to combine the last two posts together a bit.  Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel Falling Man thinks a lot about the relationship between the individual and the historical, but in a way that is much different from Junot Diaz and Jennifer Egan.  Here the concern is about the relationship between individuals and an exemplary/spectacular/singular event.  How does an individual's relationship to a historical event like 9/11 differ from that individual's relationship to the ongoing narrative of a continuous history?  I think the novel helps us address some of these questions, while at the same time providing some insight on how newspapers mediate the transition from post-trauma to ordinary life.  Or something.  I'm really tired.

Don DeLillo's Falling Man presents characters with different relationships to visual, literary, and performance art.  The novel meditates on the ability of different genres and forms of art to mediate trauma--to help characters work through the aftermath of the terrorist attacks.  Meanwhile, the novel itself attempts to work in different genres.  The staccato, stilted dialogue of the characters often seems more like terse poetry than realistic portrayals of conversations; and (as we discussed in class), the tightly stylized form of the book resembles a self-contained still life.  In other words, Falling Man engages with questions about the usefulness (uselessness) of artistic forms as means of smoothing the transition from trauma "back to" ordinary life.

But newspapers as a medium play an equally important role as visual, performance, and literary arts when it comes to working the events of 9/11 into new patterns of ordinary existence.  I'm wondering about how newspapers act in the novel to structure emotional responses to the attacks, and what we might learn about the way that newspapers as a medium play a role in the experience of 9/11 as an event.

Lianne first confronts the face of the hijacker stand-in for Mohammad Atta in the newspaper, and this image becomes the exemplar of a terrorist identity.  "Hammad's" picture is the only one "to have a face at this point, staring out of the photo, taut, with hard eyes that seemed too knowing to belong to a face on a driver's license."  The foreboding stare that Lianne identifies here does not arise from the driver's license photo of "Hammad," but from that picture's reproduction in the newspaper.  A state document photograph becomes something altogether different when reproduced after 9/11.  It is the exemplary portrait of a terrorist.  The state document becomes interpretable, but only within the register of suspicion or dread.  It becomes something to be consumed by the public sphere and read for signs of something essentially evil, foreboding--or in this case, knowing--about the terrorist.  It is no longer the document that identifies the individual merely as the subject of state authority.  In the newspaper, that individual's photo now becomes the object that the public will examine as a piece of evidence.

In a related way, Lianne reads the newspaper profiles of the victims, ostensibly out of a sense of fidelity to the event.  These profiles are also "evidence," giving narrative body to the victims and establishing a genre for collective grieving.  Consumption of these daily testimonies to the ordinariness of the victims stands as a metaphoric weaving of traumatic loss into Lianne's daily life.  She believes that: "Not to read them, every one, was an offense, a violation of responsibility and trust."  In other words, Lianne feels she must daily rehearse the integration of traumatic loss into her life out of respect for the victims.  She feels a responsibility to structure a new daily routine around the consumption of the newspaper profiles.  This responsibility remains obscure to her.  It arises out of "some need she did not try to interpret."  Unlike the photograph, whose hermeneutic importance is self evident in its bare publication (it's in the newspaper so that the public sphere can come to the same interpretive conclusion: here is a terrorist.  Look for clues to prove that this is a terrorist), Lianne feels unable to interpret her own sense of responsibility to the victims.  The suggestion here is perhaps that one should not have to interpret a desire to have solidarity with these individuals.  As a means of rebuilding the world for oneself, one structures life around a routine that integrates loss in a concrete, repeatable way.

The last obituary we see Lianne reading is for the falling man himself: David Janiak.  What seems most important here is that the falling man's performances themselves seem a kind of testimony or obituary for the victims of the terrorist attacks.  It's a strange moment in the book--one that takes us farther into the future than at least 2003.  The immediate importance of the obituary doesn't strike Lianne.  She seems to have fallen out of the habit of reading the paper regularly ("She came across the obituary late one night, looking a t a newspaper that was six days old").  It's not until she reads about the "particular man who was photographed falling from the north tower of the World Trade Center, headfirst" that she places the importance of the obituary.  The newspaper not only contextualizes Janiak's role in the world of the novel; it also provides one of the book's two direct references to the site of the terrorist attacks.  Years after 9/11, it is a newspaper that reminds Lianne not only of the fading memory of the spectacular terrorist attacks and their immediate aftermath, but also highlights the fact that the event has faded to the background.  In the ongoing life that extends well beyond the immediate post-traumatic moment, the newspaper obituary of Janiak forces Lianne to re-confront the spectacularity of 9/11, while reminding her that the event and its aftermath have slipped into the background of her ordinary life.

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