The contemporary master’s 14th novel is a pulsating exploration of our recent history akin and comparable to such predecessors as White Noise (1985), Libra (1988) and Mao II (1991).
It’s a subtle deployment of intersecting narratives which begins on September 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers are falling. Keith Neudecker, a New York City office worker who survives the disaster, returns, not to the apartment where he has lived since separating from his wife Lianne, but to her and their young son Justin: a gaunt, wraith-like figure covered in ashes, broken glass and blood, carrying a stranger’s briefcase. In brief, cryptic segments that move backward and forward in time, we learn of the couple’s past difficulties and nominal “reconciliation,” in relation to Lianne’s troubled closeness to her elegant mother Nina and memories of her father, her volunteer work with a neighborhood Alzheimer’s patients’ support group, the poker playing cronies with whom Keith has led a separate life and the owner of the briefcase he carried out of the Tower (to whom he impulsively returns it, with whom he forges a mutually consolatory intimacy). DeLillo subtly connects these and numerous other episodes and motifs, introducing the figures of an Iraqi true believer preparing himself for martyrdom, a jaded European (Nina’s lover) who confidently predicts America’s impending downfall and the eponymous “performance artist” whose seemingly suicidal plunges increasingly clearly adumbrate and embody the experience of “free fall” toward which all this ruthlessly compact novel’s characters are leaning. Exquisitely written sentence by sentence, perfectly constructed and infused with a harrowing momentum that never relaxes its grip on the reader’s nerves, this is arguably the crowning work of DeLillo’s estimable career: a compassionate and despairing dramatization of current events that shows how inextricably the political and the personal worlds are fatefully entwined. You’ll scarcely be able to draw a breath throughout its lucid, overpowering climactic pages.
Beauty from ashes.