As you suggest, we would have been disappointed in DeLillo had he not written a "9/11 novel"—a strange new literary genre. Like the fabled blind men with the elephant, we all agree it exists but have no idea what shape it ought to take or what its purpose should be. More than any other contemporary novelist, DeLillo has always had his sensors tuned to precisely what is most destabilizing in American culture, the currents of distress and ennui that start off like veins somewhere under our skin and swell into networks that invade every realm of society. If the cover of Underworld (that famous André Kertész photograph of the twin towers dissolving upward into fog) wasn't coincidental enough for you, how about the passage in that book contemplating the weight of a human body's ashes, or the art installation involving—what else?—airplanes, or the shower of paper that endlessly rains on the field of the Polo Grounds after Bobby Thomson's home run?
Of course, the innate superstition of DeLillo's narratives primes us to spot such connections. And in a way, 9/11 represents the ultimate vindication of his famous paranoia. (Just because you're paranoid, it doesn't mean a terrorist event of unprecedented proportions isn't going to crash down on your head!) But it also was a serious setback—a disruption of his narrative of the way we live now. Because at the heart of DeLillo's paranoia was the (deeply plausible) suspicion that we ourselves were implicated in what had become of American society. Consider this passage early on in White Noise, in which a grade school is evacuated when children and teachers start getting sick for no apparent reason. "No one knew what was wrong," the narrator tells us. "Investigators said it could be the ventilating system, the paint or varnish, the foam insulation, the electrical insulation, the cafeteria food, the rays emitted by microcomputers, the asbestos fireproofing, the adhesive on shipping containers, the fumes from the chlorinated pool, or perhaps something deeper, finer-grained, more closely woven into the basic state of things."
The idea that America might have poisoned itself carries far riskier political resonances now than it did in the mid-1980s. (I'm sure you remember what happened to anyone who suggested, in those tense weeks following the attacks, that American foreign policy might have had anything to do with 9/11.) And I don't think it's a coincidence that DeLillo's most recent work—not just Falling Man, but also Cosmopolis (2003), an explicitly pre-9/11 allegory about the unexpected downfall of an absurdly wealthy, absurdly self-absorbed man—has been emptied of its characteristic paranoia. Well, what is left to be paranoid about? DeLillo might respond. The catastrophe has already happened.
But the problem is that, in my reading, 9/11—an event that by its very nature could not have been predicted, even by a superstitious novelist who happened to understand America better than anyone else—dealt a fatal blow to DeLillo's vision of contemporary life. Even he could not make a case for 9/11 as the confluence of vast global currents, as some inevitable culmination of the obsessions and the degradations of American society. (Hammad wonders if the attacks have to take place, but the novel, by not answering yes, implicitly answers no.) And perhaps this is why, as you note, DeLillo refuses in Falling Man to put 9/11 into any sort of context.
What he has given us instead—and I think he was right, both artistically and morally, to make this choice—is a vision of the sheer grief and pain of that day, and its aftereffects on a single marriage. You're right, of course, that this has become a "conventional" approach, and I think the reason is that it fits with one of our cultural myths about 9/11: We like to think that day acted as a kind of emotional and spiritual thunderbolt, blasting through our cynicism and complacency and bringing in its wake a new age of openness. (Remember the death of irony?)
This is what happens in Julia Glass' novel The Whole World Over, a book that is beautifully imagined until 9/11 crashes down in the middle of it, after which feuding characters are reconciled and others settle into quirky domesticity. Even Claire Messud, in The Emperor's Children (the most celebrated 9/11 novel to date), cannot entirely resist this cliché, although, in her defense, it happens to the novel's most clichéd character. Only Ken Kalfus manages to avoid it entirely: His thoroughly original 9/11 novel, A Disorder Peculiar to Our Country, imagines with incendiary comedy a bitterly divorcing husband and wife, each of whom is most annoyed to discover that the other did not die in the attacks.
DeLillo, to his credit, also undermines the conventional narrative. Lianne and Keith reunite, after a fashion, but they remain, like all of DeLillo's lovers, fundamentally disconnected. Yet while in White Noise or Underworld it was the universe that made it impossible for people to connect—our essential separation from each other was a symptom of modern times—here it is 9/11 that renders these two inaccessible. For me, the portrayal of this relationship was the most flawed aspect of the book. DeLillo hasn't exactly been known for his realistic approach to love, but I'm more willing to accept his high stylization when it comes embedded in the irony of White Noise or the seething discontent of Underworld. These sections of the book where Lianne and Keith attempt to interact felt simply vacant to me, as if DeLillo's characters, deprived of their ability to express crucial underlying social currents, had nothing left to do.
What I think DeLillo does most successfully, oddly enough, is what I would have thought least necessary: the reproduction of that day itself. After all, no news event in recent memory was more thoroughly reported than 9/11. Did we need to hear it described again? But the account of what happens to Keith in the towers and on the way down the stairwell, what he sees and hears and breathes—all this I found moving and absorbing.
Yet, DeLillo's success raises a problem for me. I want to call your attention to a passage on the book's last page (in a lovely twist, the novel comes around full circle, so that the end brings us back to the beginning), which describes the fall of one of the towers:
The windblast sent people to the ground. A thunderhead of smoke and ash came moving toward them. The light drained dead away, bright day gone. They ran and fell and tried to get up, men with toweled heads, a woman blinded by debris, a woman calling someone's name. The only light was vestigial now, the light of what comes after, carried in the residue of smashed matter, in the ash ruins of what was various and human, hovering in the air above.
I find the language here literally breathtaking—for its beauty, but also for its audacity in juxtaposing such self-consciously lovely phrases ("bright day gone," the "vestigial … light of what comes after") with the grotesqueness of the subject. This is an old debate that often surfaces in the context of Holocaust literature, another genre in which writers have had to struggle with the inescapable tension between the novel's desire to bring the news and the fact that everybody already knows—or thinks they know—the essential facts of what happened. Do you remember how crass it seemed after 9/11 to read writers struggling to find new words to describe the attacks, when we had all seen the towers falling ourselves on CNN? And yet in DeLillo's hands it doesn't seem crass to me, and I wonder if that's because we've gained enough perspective by now, or because he simply does it better than anyone else.
In a New York Times Magazine piece published shortly before Underworld, DeLillo described seeing the juxtaposition of Bobby Thomson's home run and the Russian atomic-bomb test on the front page of the newspaper: "A fiction writer feels the nearly palpable lure of large events and it can make him want to enter the narrative," he wrote. Is 9/11 a sort of literary Mount Everest: Novelists must rise to the challenge simply because it's there? Or do we hold out a last vain 19th-century hope that the novel will help us make sense out of an event that still, despite all the type spilled over it, eludes a consoling narrative? In the same article, DeLillo described the novel as "the dream release, the suspension of reality that history needs to escape its own brutal confinements." This is a beautiful idea, but what does it mean in practice?