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Don DeLillo & 9/11 Reflections

September 11, 2008

I have read far too many book prefaces that cursorily mention 9/11 as a chronological and cultural benchmark without seriously engaging the deep personal, social and theological issues concomitant to our national tragedy. Serious questions deserve thoughtful answers. Rarely would we look to fiction for such answers, but Don DeLillo’s Falling Man is a helpful, reflective guide. In many respects, reading this existential fiction is better than pat answers to our fumbling questions. Falling Man helps us ask better questions by offering its reader an experience of 9/11. By affording us an opportunity to feel, in limited measure, the pain and confusion of this tragedy DeLillo puts the reader in touch with the inner struggles of a 9/11 survivor and his attempt to make sense of his outer world. DeLillo writes:

It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.

The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.

He wore a suit and carried a briefcase. There was glass in his hair and face, marbled bolls of blood and light. He walked past a Breakfast Special sign and they went running by, city cops and security guards running, hands pressed down on gun butts to keep the weapons steady.

Things inside were distant and still, where he was supposed to be. It happened everywhere around him, a car half buried in debris, windows smashed and noises coming out, radio voices scratching at the wreckage. He saw people shedding water as they ran, clothes and bodies drenched from sprinkler systems. There were shoes discarded in the street, handbags and laptops, a man seated on the sidewalk coughing up blood. Paper cups went bouncing oddly by.

The world was this as well, figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air. The noise lay everywhere they ran, stratified sound collecting around them, and he walked away from it and into it at the same time.

This narrative helps us empathize with the confusion and weightlessness of a 9/11 survivor, and perhaps identify an echo of the meaninglessness that we have all suppressed in our own souls. My experience of this novel brought me into greater empathy for survivors, but it also honed my own questions for meaning and purpose.

As your reflections on this tragedy emerge, consider the thoughts of Kevin Neudeckor who walks out of “fallen ash and near night” and into the following conclusion: “Human existence had to have a deeper source than our own dank fluids. Dank or rank. There had to be a force behind it, a principal being who was and is and ever shall be.” As another character comments, “God used to be an urban Jew. He’s back in the desert now.”

The search for purpose in suffering and a God who can explain the meaning of life are natural outcomes of tragedy. Tragedy has a way of arresting our conscience and calling us to account for what we do and why we are doing it. The question raised here is an important one–has God left the city to roam the desert? Or is he present in our sufferings, speaking through a microphone as it were, in order to gain our attention? Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in New York, was asked to address survivors. Here are his reflections.

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