Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ekphrastic fiction(s): Falling Man

Though our course studies ekphrastic poetry, there's a growing attention out there to ekphrasis in fiction. I recently finished reading Don DeLillo's Falling Man, a post 9-11 novel. An excerpt from that novel was published in The New Yorker earlier this year.

Key in the narrative are several ekphrastic moments, including an important look at two paintings in the apartment of an art historian, the mother-in-law of the 9-11 survivor at the center of the story.

The first time they are mentioned, DeLillo describes them this way, through the eyes of the protagonist's estranged wife:

What she loved most was the two still-lifes on the north wall, by Giorgio Morandi, a painter her mother had studied and written about. They were groupings of bottles, jugs, biscuit tins, that was all, but there was something in the brushstrokes that held a mystery for her, or in the irregular edges of the vases and jars, some reconnoiter inward, human and obscure, away from the very light and color of the paintings. Natura morta. The Italian term for still-life seemed stronger than it had to be, ominous, even, but these were matters she hadn’t talked about with her mother. Let the latent meanings turn and bend in the wind, free from authoritative comment.

Later, as Lianne looks at the paintings, she sees them differently. While observing the paintings with her mother's lover, an art dealer with a sketchy past (that may have included some Italian terrorist connections back in the 1960s), she recognizes how even familiar shapes can, when pulled from their usual context, transform to something more sinister:

They looked together.

Two of the taller items were dark and somber, with smoky marks and smudges, and one of them was partly concealed by a long-necked bottle. The bottle was a bottle, white. The two dark objects, too obscure to name, were the things that Martin was referring to.

"What do you see?" he said.

She saw what he saw. She saw the towers.

Of course the towers are what she and her husband, and most of the nation, see continually in the immediate days and months after the attacks. The television images themselves became part of our "social imaginary" (to quote Charles Taylor). We play and replay them, perhaps wondering, perhaps hoping the images will resolve differently the next time.

All of this bears on the novel's main image, the horrifying, suspended figure of a single falling man against the backdrop of the towers, a photo that appeared briefly in the New York Times and around the country, then disappeared from view. This "still life" or "natura morta" inspires a performance artist in the novel who imitates the "falling man" at locations throught New York City. And he becomes the icon through which DeLillo examines the worlds of his characters, stilled and frozen, somehow, in time by their experience of the terrorist attacks. Ekphrasis opens a way into and through what overwhelms us.

As critics have noted, this is not DeLillo's best novel by a long shot. Still, it's a compelling book. As DeLillo put it in an essay shortly after the event, to respond to such loss and fear is nearly impossible for a writer. There is "something empty in the sky,” he says. “The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space.” And to fill that space, or hold it open for a bit longer, DeLillo turns to ekphrasis, giving us an entire novel animated and venerating that single photograph and all it contains (and necessarily fails to hold).

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