Friday, May 31, 2013
Thursday, May 30, 2013
|Photo by Richard Drew|
Surviving the Fall
The tooth came last. It came home two years ago, and once it did Eulogia Hernandez knew that the rest of her husband Norberto would never follow. She knew that he was gone because she knew that he was complete, and she could finally stop dreaming of his return.
It was the dream that had kept her alive, in the days after Norberto disappeared when the buildings fell down, and it was the dream that had started killing her in the years since she and her three daughters had began returning pieces of him to the grave in Puerto Rico. All she had ever wanted — the only mercy she had ever asked for — was the knowledge that her husband was trying to come home when he died, that he was trying to reach her and the girls. That's why they suffered so when that newspaper reporter looked at that terrible picture of the man falling through the sky and said that the man was Norberto. The man in that photo wasn't trying to come home. He was falling. The man in that photo wasn't Norberto.
Eulogia feared for her sanity, when people kept saying that it was — that she didn't know what she knew. Her daughters, too. The youngest, Tatiana, was fifteen at the time. She began hearing voices, because she began listening to the people who said that her father was the man in the picture. "I thought it was true," she says now. "It looked like him, with the uniform and everything. So I didn't know who to believe, who to trust. I didn't know who was who, and if I could believe my own family..."
It got better, after it was proven that the newspaper reporter made a mistake — after, in the words of Tatiana's older sister Catherine, "my father's name was cleared." And it got better when they began bringing Norberto back home to Puerto Rico. "It sounds morbid," says Catherine, "but we have him almost complete. We have his legs, we have his skull, his torso, and an arm. And it means a lot to us, because he's there. We alternate every year, at the anniversary — one year in New York, at Ground Zero, and one year in Puerto Rico. This year, it's New York. But when we go to New York, it's out of respect for my father and for the others who died. When we go to Puerto Rico, it's for comfort. There is much more comfort in the place where he's at rest than in the place where he was killed."
And yet even when Norberto began going home to Puerto Rico, Eulogia couldn't let go of the dream that he still might go home to her. "My mother couldn't talk about him, and you couldn't talk to her," Tatiana says. "She would get so emotional. She was stuck in her own little world. She kept wondering, 'What if he's lost somewhere? What if he's wandering the streets and doesn't know he is?' The false hope of him coming home was driving her crazy."
The tooth lifted the curse, even more than the article in Esquire that said he wasn't the man in the picture, the Falling Man. After the tooth was sent to her two years ago, she decided to talk to someone — to do what she'd always refused to do, and get help. She even called Norberto's sister, to tell her that the last of her brother had made it home. She hadn't spoken to Norberto's sister in eight years. She hadn't spoke to her since Norberto's sister had responded to the newspaper reporter's entreaties, had looked at the picture of the Falling Man that had been proffered to her and had said, "Yes, that's my brother. That's Norberto." Now Eulogia called her about the tooth, and kept calling her until, as Catherine says, "little by little, they came back together. They reconciled. They don't talk all the time, like they used to, but they talk. My father's sister is my aunt again."
They brought the tooth down to Puerto Rico last year, and buried it with the rest of Norberto Hernandez, in the place where he was born. And now they are what Norberto wanted them to be, together. They all live in the Long Island town where they moved after 9/11, Eulogia living in the same house with Tatiana and Jackie, her oldest daughter, and Jackie's five children; and around the block from Catherine, who's married with two kids of her own. Jackie's a doctor's assistant, studying to become a nurse; Catherine's a police officer in Queens; and Tatiana's studying to become a commercial pilot on Long Island after putting aside her dream to join the Air Force — after realizing that she could never leave her mother, or her sisters, or the memory of Papi.
Are they healed? They are not, even though Eulogia can now whisper on the phone that "I accept the reality that I am here alone with my three daughters." For one thing, they still do not think that the photograph that Richard Drew took of the Falling Man should ever have been published. "I won't look at it," Catherine says. "For the families, it should have been kept in a vault, kept for themselves. And I think that every family would agree. It's a horrific image. The first time I saw it, my heart dropped; I literally felt sick to my stomach. To think that someone had to go through that. And then when people started saying that the man in the photo was my father..."
For another, they believe that they are expected to feel different somehow, with the arrival of the tenth anniversary. They do not feel different. "The tenth feels the same as the ninth, feels the same as the eighth," Catherine says. "And it all feels the same as the day after. My father's gone, and he's never coming back. That's what it feels like."
They do not feel comforted by what is supposed to comfort them — by the completion of the memorial and the construction of another tower in the place where the towers fell — for what the world regards as an act of memory, the Hernandezes regard as the start of the inevitable forgetting. "I personally disagree with them building another building there," Jackie says. "I personally feel that that piece of land should be sacred, that they should build a cemetery and leave it alone. But nobody cares what the families say, to be honest with you. They do what they want to do. The government doesn't take us into consideration for anything. Their consideration is getting the finances back up. It's beyond painful. They build again, and God forbid there's another attack. Then what? They should just leave it alone. Just leave it alone."
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Museum
Jonathan Briley's pager is supposed to be getting back home soon.
Gwendolyn Briley Strand works in Washington, D.C. — what she calls "the epicenter of memorials" — and knows what cold comfort memorials bring. "They're never the way that the families, the grieving people, deal with their loss," she says. "They're the way the world deals with its loss. They're not for us. They're for the rest of the country, and they're for history."
Nevertheless, Gwendolyn is going to be in New York with her family on Sunday, to see the memorial, and to hear, once again, the reading of the name of her brother Jonathan. "I've gone every year," she says, "because of the feeling that's there, among the families. You know, everyplace I go, if I tell people I lost someone on 9/11, I hear the same thing: 'Oh, you're the first person I've met who has.' Well, at Ground Zero, everyone's lost someone. It's the only place I can go where I'm not the odd man out."
And yet there's something that distinguishes Gwendolyn from all the other grieving family members who will observe the tenth anniversary of the attacks on Sunday morning — the fact that her brother, Jonathan, has been made to stand for all. She and her family have changed places with the Hernandezes; the same Esquire article that "cleared" Norberto Hernandez of being the Falling Man made the provisional case that it was Jonathan Briley. The memorial that will stand for all the others murdered that day is on the ground; the memorial for Jonathan is in the sky, or in the infinitely replicable pixels of a digital photograph.
"The first time I looked at that photograph, it took my breath away," she says. "Now I am quite at peace with it not being Jonathan."
You see, she has Jonathan, in the same way that the Hernandezes have Norberto; and at the same time she knows that no one does. A few days after the attacks, her father, the Rev. Alexander Briley of the Shiloh Baptist Church in New Rochelle, made, for the first time in his life, a public demand of God. He demanded that God restore his son to him — that God deliver the miracle that would deliver to him a body to bury. God answered his furious prayer; and from the dust and the rubble came what Gwendolyn calls "Jonathan's full form." Afterwards, Reverend Briley used to say that God gave him exactly the miracle he asked for, but he asked for the wrong one. He should have asked for the return of Jonathan, alive.
Now Jonathan is buried in Mt. Kisco, next to his mother, who died in 2009. But Gwendolyn doesn't visit him there, because he is not there, any more than he is there in Richard Drew's photograph. "I believe in the trinity of the human being — mind, body and spirit. And I know that after the death of the body, he's not there. He's in God's hands."
In the same way, he's not in the photograph of the Falling Man. "People have to get over wondering who this man was," she says. "He's everybody. We're so stuck on who he was that we can't see what's right there in front of us. The photo's so much bigger than any man, because the man in the photo is clearly in God's hands. And it's God who gives us the grace to go on."
Gwendolyn does wonder, however, about her father. Reverend Briley was diagnosed with Parkinson's shortly after the death of his wife, and the disease has progressed rapidly. "He hasn't been out of bed in a year, and I'm not sure if he knows what's happening on Sunday. But maybe that's another of God's mercies. I think of Jonathan dying at forty-three, and then my father getting to this stage in his life. Which is the better way? Jonathan's death took so much out of my father. Maybe it's good where he is right now."
As for Jonathan, he is everywhere, and he belongs to everybody. "They recovered some of his personal effects, and they're at the Smithsonian," Gwendolyn says. "I have the bracelet he wore that day. But they have his pager, his ID card, and his keys. And they have gone all over the world, in a traveling exhibition. It started here, in Washington. But it's traveled all over the world. It's supposed to be getting back home soon. Maybe it already has."
Falling (Mad) Man
On September 11, 2001, Richard Drew took a picture. He was a photographer for the Associated Press, and he'd been dispatched to downtown New York, where the twin towers of the World Trade Center were on fire — were, indeed, already ruins, even before they fell. When he staked out his place near the police perimeter, however, Drew focused not on the fire but on the falling. People were jumping out of the towers in droves, and after they jumped, they fell. Drew pointed his lens at them and followed them down. He shot them en masse and he shot them individually, and at 9:41 AM he shot a man in a white shirt and black pants tumbling in the air, scrambling in the air, but appearing to manage one blessed moment of consonance before completing his fall out of the camera's view. This photograph — the photograph of a man falling 1,000 feet headfirst somehow righting himself before joining the ruin — is the photograph that appeared the next day in the New York Times and in newspapers all over the world. It had no title, and after readers protested its publication, it was withdrawn from view.
Six years later, AMC broadcast the first episode of its drama about the Golden Age of Madison Avenue, Mad Men. The title sequence portrayed a man — the stark silhouette of a man — in a suit and a tie, falling from the window of an office tower. Was the image a reference to Drew's photograph? Absolutely. Did the entire show exist within the peculiar set of quotation marks that 9/11 furnished, and travel back 50 years in order to reckon obliquely with the last ten? It did, which accounts for the almost forensic nature of our fascination with it. The show doesn't merely begin with a sequence portraying a man's fall. The show begins with a man's fall to tell us that it's about a man's fall — to tell us that as it begins, it will also end.
And now AMC stands weirdly accused of making reference to 9/11, in its promotional poster for Mad Men's fifth season, set to commence on Sunday, March 25. On the one hand, the poster is merely a continuation of the art that has accompanied the show since its inception — a bit of shorthand that refers as much to the viewing public's impatience to get Mad Men back after its extended hiatus as it does to the existential consequences of Dick Whitman impersonating a dead man named Don Draper. At the same time, the poster dispenses with the corporate context specific to Mad Men, indeed with context altogether, and, by concentrating on one falling man, seems out to remind viewers that the show is really about the Falling Man... that for all its American-Century trappings, it's set squarely in the age of American decline.
As a result, bloggers have created something of a controversy around the poster, suggesting that unnamed "people" are "upset" with it, when apparently the only people really upset with it are the bloggers looking to create controversy. Still, when a television network is accused of exploiting a sacred 9/11 image for its own purposes, it's worth looking once again at the image in question to see what those purposes might be. In particular, it's worth reminding ourselves that the guardians of American culture have been exploiting sacred 9/11 images since at least 9/12, and that Drew's photograph was initially deemed anything but sacred — was declared "exploitative" — because it told a truth that could not be easily exploited. At a time when the country was greedy for heroes and martyrs to give purpose to its pain, Drew's photograph portrayed a victim representative in his fear, his desperation, and in his solitary resolve. At a time when the country was desperate for images that were communal and redemptive, Drew gave it a man left to the mercy not of God but of gravity, and dying utterly alone.
The photograph was not called "The Falling Man" back then. It was called leering pornography, and sentenced to an invisible career as cultural contraband. It did not resurface until Esquire published a story entitled "The Falling Man" in its September 2003 issue, whereupon the photograph gained its title, and its symbolic status. You see, by that time it was clear that despite the best efforts of the American government and the American media, the legacy of 9/11 was not going to be moral clarity but rather moral unease — an almost vertiginous sensation of the ground giving way beneath our feet, along with just about everything else. That sensation, alas, has never gone away, and it is what has been mined brilliantly by the makers of Mad Men. If, in 2003, America was finally able to look at a two year-old photograph suggesting that it had to revise what it thought it knew about how people died on 9/11, by 2007 it was primed to watch a prime-time melodrama suggesting that it had to revise what it thought it knew about how people lived in 1960. It was ready to hear that what it had always regarded as American exceptionalism got its start as American entitlement, and was always fated to fall back to earth.
After I wrote "The Falling Man" in 2003, I got a call from a friend of mine, who said, "Well, now you have a book." I asked him what he meant, and he told me that anyone I wanted to write about could be written about for a book called "The Falling Man," because, in his words, "We're all falling men now." I never wrote the book, but I remember what my friend said every time I look at Richard Drew's photograph or, for that matter, the credit sequence for Mad Men. We're all falling men now. Drew's photograph became a symbol both specific and universal because it dared to tell us that 9/11 was not the beginning of something but rather the end, that it didn't constitute the "victory of the American spirit," as presidents and pundits tried so hard to tell us, but rather a loss, final and decisive, with which we'd always have to reckon. The "controversial" Mad Men poster has some of the same resonance, because it reminds us that the reckoning goes on — who could not imagine the figure of Barack Obama silhouetted against that limitless white background? — and started before most of us were even born.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
|The Falling Man|
Photo by Richard Drew
The Falling Man
by Tom Junod
Esquire, September 8, 2009
Originally appeared in the September 2003 issue
In the picture, he departs from this earth like an arrow. Although he has not chosen his fate, he appears to have, in his last instants of life, embraced it. If he were not falling, he might very well be flying. He appears relaxed, hurtling through the air. He appears comfortable in the grip of unimaginable motion. He does not appear intimidated by gravity's divine suction or by what awaits him. His arms are by his side, only slightly outriggered. His left leg is bent at the knee, almost casually. His white shirt, or jacket, or frock, is billowing free of his black pants. His black high-tops are still on his feet. In all the other pictures, the people who did what he did -- who jumped -- appear to be struggling against horrific discrepancies of scale. They are made puny by the backdrop of the towers, which loom like colossi, and then by the event itself. Some of them are shirtless; their shoes fly off as they flail and fall; they look confused, as though trying to swim down the side of a mountain. The man in the picture, by contrast, is perfectly vertical, and so is in accord with the lines of the buildings behind him. He splits them, bisects them: Everything to the left of him in the picture is the North Tower; everything to the right, the South. Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag, a banner composed entirely of steel bars shining in the sun. Some people who look at the picture see stoicism, willpower, a portrait of resignation; others see something else -- something discordant and therefore terrible: freedom. There is something almost rebellious in the man's posture, as though once faced with the inevitability of death, he decided to get on with it; as though he were a missile, a spear, bent on attaining his own end. He is, fifteen seconds past 9:41 a.m. EST, the moment the picture is taken, in the clutches of pure physics, accelerating at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared. He will soon be traveling at upwards of 150 miles per hour, and he is upside down. In the picture, he is frozen; in his life outside the frame, he drops and keeps dropping until he disappears.
The photographer is no stranger to history; he knows it is something that happens later. In the actual moment history is made, it is usually made in terror and confusion, and so it is up to people like him -- paid witnesses -- to have the presence of mind to attend to its manufacture. The photographer has that presence of mind and has had it since he was a young man. When he was twenty-one years old, he was standing right behind Bobby Kennedy when Bobby Kennedy was shot in the head. His jacket was spattered with Kennedy's blood, but he jumped on a table and shot pictures of Kennedy's open and ebbing eyes, and then of Ethel Kennedy crouching over her husband and begging photographers -- begging him -- not to take pictures.
Richard Drew has never done that. Although he has preserved the jacket patterned with Kennedy's blood, he has never not taken a picture, never averted his eye. He works for the Associated Press. He is a journalist. It is not up to him to reject the images that fill his frame, because one never knows when history is made until one makes it. It is not even up to him to distinguish if a body is alive or dead, because the camera makes no such distinctions, and he is in the business of shooting bodies, as all photographers are, unless they are Ansel Adams. Indeed, he was shooting bodies on the morning of September 11, 2001. On assignment for the AP, he was shooting a maternity fashion show in Bryant Park, notable, he says, "because it featured actual pregnant models." He was fifty-four years old. He wore glasses. He was sparse in the scalp, gray in the beard, hard in the head. In a lifetime of taking pictures, he has found a way to be both mild-mannered and brusque, patient and very, very quick. He was doing what he always does at fashion shows -- "staking out real estate" -- when a CNN cameraman with an earpiece said that a plane had crashed into the North Tower, and Drew's editor rang his cell phone. He packed his equipment into a bag and gambled on taking the subway downtown. Although it was still running, he was the only one on it. He got out at the Chambers Street station and saw that both towers had been turned into smokestacks. Staking out his real estate, he walked west, to where ambulances were gathering, because rescue workers "usually won't throw you out." Then he heard people gasping. People on the ground were gasping because people in the building were jumping. He started shooting pictures through a 200mm lens. He was standing between a cop and an emergency technician, and each time one of them cried, "There goes another," his camera found a falling body and followed it down for a nine- or twelve-shot sequence. He shot ten or fifteen of them before he heard the rumbling of the South Tower and witnessed, through the winnowing exclusivity of his lens, its collapse. He was engulfed in a mobile ruin, but he grabbed a mask from an ambulance and photographed the top of the North Tower "exploding like a mushroom" and raining debris. He discovered that there is such a thing as being too close, and, deciding that he had fulfilled his professional obligations, Richard Drew joined the throng of ashen humanity heading north, walking until he reached his office at Rockefeller Center.
There was no terror or confusion at the Associated Press. There was, instead, that feeling of history being manufactured; although the office was as crowded as he'd ever seen it, there was, instead, "the wonderful calm that comes into play when people are really doing their jobs." So Drew did his: He inserted the disc from his digital camera into his laptop and recognized, instantly, what only his camera had seen -- something iconic in the extended annihilation of a falling man. He didn't look at any of the other pictures in the sequence; he didn't have to. "You learn in photo editing to look for the frame," he says. "You have to recognize it. That picture just jumped off the screen because of its verticality and symmetry. It just had that look."
He sent the image to the AP's server. The next morning, it appeared on page seven of The New York Times. It appeared in hundreds of newspapers, all over the country, all over the world. The man inside the frame -- the Falling Man -- was not identified.
They began jumping not long after the first plane hit the North Tower, not long after the fire started. They kept jumping until the tower fell. They jumped through windows already broken and then, later, through windows they broke themselves. They jumped to escape the smoke and the fire; they jumped when the ceilings fell and the floors collapsed; they jumped just to breathe once more before they died. They jumped continually, from all four sides of the building, and from all floors above and around the building's fatal wound. They jumped from the offices of Marsh & McLennan, the insurance company; from the offices of Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading company; from Windows on the World, the restaurant on the 106th and 107th floors -- the top. For more than an hour and a half, they streamed from the building, one after another, consecutively rather than en masse, as if each individual required the sight of another individual jumping before mustering the courage to jump himself or herself. One photograph, taken at a distance, shows people jumping in perfect sequence, like parachutists, forming an arc composed of three plummeting people, evenly spaced. Indeed, there were reports that some tried parachuting, before the force generated by their fall ripped the drapes, the tablecloths, the desperately gathered fabric, from their hands. They were all, obviously, very much alive on their way down, and their way down lasted an approximate count of ten seconds. They were all, obviously, not just killed when they landed but destroyed, in body though not, one prays, in soul. One hit a fireman on the ground and killed him; the fireman's body was anointed by Father Mychal Judge, whose own death, shortly thereafter, was embraced as an example of martyrdom after the photograph -- the redemptive tableau -- of firefighters carrying his body from the rubble made its way around the world.
From the beginning, the spectacle of doomed people jumping from the upper floors of the World Trade Center resisted redemption. They were called "jumpers" or "the jumpers," as though they represented a new lemminglike class. The trial that hundreds endured in the building and then in the air became its own kind of trial for the thousands watching them from the ground. No one ever got used to it; no one who saw it wished to see it again, although, of course, many saw it again. Each jumper, no matter how many there were, brought fresh horror, elicited shock, tested the spirit, struck a lasting blow. Those tumbling through the air remained, by all accounts, eerily silent; those on the ground screamed. It was the sight of the jumpers that prompted Rudy Giuliani to say to his police commissioner, "We're in uncharted waters now." It was the sight of the jumpers that prompted a woman to wail, "God! Save their souls! They're jumping! Oh, please God! Save their souls!" And it was, at last, the sight of the jumpers that provided the corrective to those who insisted on saying that what they were witnessing was "like a movie," for this was an ending as unimaginable as it was unbearable: Americans responding to the worst terrorist attack in the history of the world with acts of heroism, with acts of sacrifice, with acts of generosity, with acts of martyrdom, and, by terrible necessity, with one prolonged act of -- if these words can be applied to mass murder -- mass suicide.
In most American newspapers, the photograph that Richard Drew took of the Falling Man ran once and never again. Papers all over the country, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to the Memphis Commercial Appeal to The Denver Post, were forced to defend themselves against charges that they exploited a man's death, stripped him of his dignity, invaded his privacy, turned tragedy into leering pornography. Most letters of complaint stated the obvious: that someone seeing the picture had to know who it was. Still, even as Drew's photograph became at once iconic and impermissible, its subject remained unnamed. An editor at the Toronto Globe and Mail assigned a reporter named Peter Cheney to solve the mystery. Cheney at first despaired of his task; the entire city, after all, was wallpapered with Kinkoed flyers advertising the faces of the missing and the lost and the dead. Then he applied himself, sending the digital photograph to a shop that clarified and enhanced it. Now information emerged: It appeared to him that the man was most likely not black but dark-skinned, probably Latino. He wore a goatee. And the white shirt billowing from his black pants was not a shirt but rather appeared to be a tunic of some sort, the kind of jacket a restaurant worker wears. Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the North Tower, lost seventy-nine of its employees on September 11, as well as ninety-one of its patrons. It was likely that the Falling Man numbered among them. But which one was he? Over dinner, Cheney spent an evening discussing this question with friends, then said goodnight and walked through Times Square. It was after midnight, eight days after the attacks. The missing posters were still everywhere, but Cheney was able to focus on one that seemed to present itself to him -- a poster portraying a man who worked at Windows as a pastry chef, who was dressed in a white tunic, who wore a goatee, who was Latino. His name was Norberto Hernandez. He lived in Queens. Cheney took the enhanced print of the Richard Drew photograph to the family, in particular to Norberto Hernandez's brother Tino and sister Milagros. They said yes, that was Norberto. Milagros had watched footage of the people jumping on that terrible morning, before the television stations stopped showing it. She had seen one of the jumpers distinguished by the grace of his fall -- by his resemblance to an Olympic diver -- and surmised that he had to be her brother. Now she saw, and she knew. All that remained was for Peter Cheney to confirm the identification with Norberto's wife and his three daughters. They did not want to talk to him, especially after Norberto's remains were found and identified by the stamp of his DNA -- a torso, an arm. So he went to the funeral. He brought his print of Drew's photograph with him and showed it to Jacqueline Hernandez, the oldest of Norberto's three daughters. She looked briefly at the picture, then at Cheney, and ordered him to leave.
What Cheney remembers her saying, in her anger, in her offended grief: "That piece of shit is not my father."
The resistance to the image -- to the images -- started early, started immediately, started on the ground. A mother whispering to her distraught child a consoling lie: "Maybe they're just birds, honey." Bill Feehan, second in command at the fire department, chasing a bystander who was panning the jumpers with his video camera, demanding that he turn it off, bellowing, "Don't you have any human decency?" before dying himself when the building came down. In the most photographed and videotaped day in the history of the world, the images of people jumping were the only images that became, by consensus, taboo -- the only images from which Americans were proud to avert their eyes. All over the world, people saw the human stream debouch from the top of the North Tower, but here in the United States, we saw these images only until the networks decided not to allow such a harrowing view, out of respect for the families of those so publicly dying. At CNN, the footage was shown live, before people working in the newsroom knew what was happening; then, after what Walter Isaacson, who was then chairman of the network's news bureau, calls "agonized discussions" with the "standards guy," it was shown only if people in it were blurred and unidentifiable; then it was not shown at all.
And so it went. In 9/11, the documentary extracted from videotape shot by French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet, the filmmakers included a sonic sampling of the booming, rattling explosions the jumpers made upon impact but edited out the most disturbing thing about the sounds: the sheer frequency with which they occurred. In Rudy, the docudrama starring James Woods in the role of Mayor Giuliani, archival footage of the jumpers was first included, then cut out. In Here Is New York, an extensive exhibition of 9/11 images culled from the work of photographers both amateur and professional, there was, in the section titled "Victims," but one picture of the jumpers, taken at a respectful distance; attached to it, on the Here Is New York Website, a visitor offers this commentary: "This image is what made me glad for censuring [sic] in the endless pursuant media coverage." More and more, the jumpers -- and their images -- were relegated to the Internet underbelly, where they became the provenance of the shock sites that also traffic in the autopsy photos of Nicole Brown Simpson and the videotape of Daniel Pearl's execution, and where it is impossible to look at them without attendant feelings of shame and guilt. In a nation of voyeurs, the desire to face the most disturbing aspects of our most disturbing day was somehow ascribed to voyeurism, as though the jumpers' experience, instead of being central to the horror, was tangential to it, a sideshow best forgotten.
It was no sideshow. The two most reputable estimates of the number of people who jumped to their deaths were prepared by The New York Times and USA Today. They differed dramatically. The Times, admittedly conservative, decided to count only what its reporters actually saw in the footage they collected, and it arrived at a figure of fifty. USA Today, whose editors used eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence in addition to what they found on video, came to the conclusion that at least two hundred people died by jumping -- a count that the newspaper said authorities did not dispute. Both are intolerable estimates of human loss, but if the number provided by USA Today is accurate, then between 7 and 8 percent of those who died in New York City on September 11, 2001, died by jumping out of the buildings; it means that if we consider only the North Tower, where the vast majority of jumpers came from, the ratio is more like one in six.
And yet if one calls the New York Medical Examiner's Office to learn its own estimate of how many people might have jumped, one does not get an answer but an admonition: "We don't like to say they jumped. They didn't jump. Nobody jumped. They were forced out, or blown out." And if one Googles the words "how many jumped on 9/11," one falls into some blogger's trap, slugged "Go Away, No Jumpers Here," where the bait is one's own need to know: "I've got at least three entries in my referrer logs that show someone is doing a search on Google for 'how many people jumped from WTC.' My September 11 post had made mention of that terrible occurance [sic], so now any pervert looking for that will get my site's URL. I'm disgusted. I tried, but cannot find any reason someone would want to know something like that.... Whatever. If that's why you're here -- you're busted. Now go away."
Eric Fischl did not go away. Neither did he turn away or avert his eyes. A year before September 11, he had taken photographs of a model tumbling around on the floor of a studio. He had thought of using the photographs as the basis of a sculpture. Now, though, he had lost a friend who had been trapped on the 106th floor of the North Tower. Now, as he worked on his sculpture, he sought to express the extremity of his feelings by making a monument to what he calls the "extremity of choice" faced by the people who jumped. He worked nine months on the larger-than-life bronze he called Tumbling Woman, and as he transformed a woman tumbling on the floor into a woman tumbling through eternity, he succeeded in transfiguring the very local horror of the jumpers into something universal -- in redeeming an image many regarded as irredeemable. Indeed, Tumbling Woman was perhaps the redemptive image of 9/11 -- and yet it was not merely resisted; it was rejected. The day after Tumbling Woman was exhibited in New York's Rockefeller Center, Andrea Peyser of the New York Post denounced it in a column titled "Shameful Art Attack," in which she argued that Fischl had no right to ambush grieving New Yorkers with the very distillation of their own sadness...in which she essentially argued the right to look away. Because it was based on a model rolling on the floor, the statue was treated as an evocation of impact -- as a portrayal of literal, rather than figurative, violence.
"I was trying to say something about the way we all feel," Fischl says, "but people thought I was trying to say something about the way they feel -- that I was trying to take away something only they possessed. They thought that I was trying to say something about the people they lost. 'That image is not my father. You don't even know my father. How dare you try telling me how I feel about my father?' " Fischl wound up apologizing -- "I was ashamed to have added to anybody's pain" -- but it didn't matter.
Jerry Speyer, a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art who runs Rockefeller Center, ended the exhibition of Tumbling Woman after a week. "I pleaded with him not to do it," Fischl says. "I thought that if we could wait it out, other voices would pipe up and carry the day. He said, 'You don't understand. I'm getting bomb threats.' I said, 'People who just lost loved ones to terrorism are not going to bomb somebody.' He said, 'I can't take that chance.' "
Photographs lie. Even great photographs. Especially great photographs. The Falling Man in Richard Drew's picture fell in the manner suggested by the photograph for only a fraction of a second, and then kept falling. The photograph functioned as a study of doomed verticality, a fantasia of straight lines, with a human being slivered at the center, like a spike. In truth, however, the Falling Man fell with neither the precision of an arrow nor the grace of an Olympic diver. He fell like everyone else, like all the other jumpers -- trying to hold on to the life he was leaving, which is to say that he fell desperately, inelegantly. In Drew's famous photograph, his humanity is in accord with the lines of the buildings. In the rest of the sequence -- the eleven outtakes -- his humanity stands apart. He is not augmented by aesthetics; he is merely human, and his humanity, startled and in some cases horizontal, obliterates everything else in the frame.
In the complete sequence of photographs, truth is subordinate to the facts that emerge slowly, pitilessly, frame by frame. In the sequence, the Falling Man shows his face to the camera in the two frames before the published one, and after that there is an unveiling, nearly an unpeeling, as the force generated by the fall rips the white jacket off his back. The facts that emerge from the entire sequence suggest that the Toronto reporter, Peter Cheney, got some things right in his effort to solve the mystery presented by Drew's published photo. The Falling Man has a dark cast to his skin and wears a goatee. He is probably a food-service worker. He seems lanky, with the length and narrowness of his face -- like that of a medieval Christ -- possibly accentuated by the push of the wind and the pull of gravity. But seventy-nine people died on the morning of September 11 after going to work at Windows on the World. Another twenty-one died while in the employ of Forte Food, a catering service that fed the traders at Cantor Fitzgerald. Many of the dead were Latino, or light-skinned black men, or Indian, or Arab. Many had dark hair cut short. Many had mustaches and goatees. Indeed, to anyone trying to figure out the identity of the Falling Man, the few salient characteristics that can be discerned in the original series of photographs raise as many possibilities as they exclude. There is, however, one fact that is decisive. Whoever the Falling Man may be, he was wearing a bright-orange shirt under his white top. It is the one inarguable fact that the brute force of the fall reveals. No one can know if the tunic or shirt, open at the back, is being pulled away from him, or if the fall is simply tearing the white fabric to pieces. But anyone can see he is wearing an orange shirt. If they saw these pictures, members of his family would be able to see that he is wearing an orange shirt. They might even be able to remember if he owned an orange shirt, if he was the kind of guy who would own an orange shirt, if he wore an orange shirt to work that morning. Surely they would; surely someone would remember what he was wearing when he went to work on the last morning of his life....
But now the Falling Man is falling through more than the blank blue sky. He is falling through the vast spaces of memory and picking up speed.
Neil Levin, executive director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, had breakfast at Windows on the World, on the 106th floor of the World Trade Center's North Tower, on the morning of September 11. He never came home. His wife, Christy Ferer, won't talk about any of the particulars of his death. She works for New York mayor Mike Bloomberg as the liaison between the mayor's office and the 9/11 families and has poured the energy aroused by her grief into her work, which, before the first anniversary of the attack, called for her to visit television executives and ask them not to use the most disturbing footage -- including the footage of the jumpers -- in their memorial broadcasts. She is a close friend of Eric Fischl's, as was her husband, so when the artist asked, she agreed to take a look at Tumbling Woman. It, in her words, "hit me in the gut," but she felt that Fischl had the right to create and exhibit it. Now she's come to the conclusion that the controversy may have been largely a matter of timing. Maybe it was just too soon to show something like that. After all, not long before her husband died, she traveled with him to Auschwitz, where piles of confiscated eyeglasses and extracted tooth fillings are on exhibit. "They can show that now," she says. "But that was a long time ago. They couldn't show things like that then...."
In fact, they did, at least in photographic form, and the pictures that came out of the death camps of Europe were treated as essential acts of witness, without particular regard to the sensitivities of those who appeared in them or the surviving families of the dead. They were shown, as Richard Drew's photographs of the freshly assassinated Robert Kennedy were shown. They were shown, as the photographs of Ethel Kennedy pleading with photographers not to take photographs were shown. They were shown as the photograph of the little Vietnamese girl running naked after a napalm attack was shown. They were shown as the photograph of Father Mychal Judge, graphically and unmistakably dead, was shown, and accepted as a kind of testament. They were shown as everything is shown, for, like the lens of a camera, history is a force that does not discriminate. What distinguishes the pictures of the jumpers from the pictures that have come before is that we -- we Americans -- are being asked to discriminate on their behalf. What distinguishes them, historically, is that we, as patriotic Americans, have agreed not to look at them. Dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of people died by leaping from a burning building, and we have somehow taken it upon ourselves to deem their deaths unworthy of witness -- because we have somehow deemed the act of witness, in this one regard, unworthy of us.
Catherine Hernandez never saw the photo the reporter carried under his arm at her father's funeral. Neither did her mother, Eulogia. Her sister Jacqueline did, and her outrage assured that the reporter left -- was forcibly evicted -- before he did any more damage. But the picture has followed Catherine and Eulogia and the entire Hernandez family. There was nothing more important to Norberto Hernandez than family. His motto: "Together Forever." But the Hernandezes are not together anymore. The picture split them. Those who knew, right away, that the picture was not Norberto -- his wife and his daughters -- have become estranged from those who pondered the possibility that it was him for the benefit of a reporter's notepad. With Norberto alive, the extended family all lived in the same neighborhood in Queens. Now Eulogia and her daughters have moved to a house on Long Island because Tatiana -- who is now sixteen and who bears a resemblance to Norberto Hernandez: the wide face, the dark brows, the thick dark lips, thinly smiling -- kept seeing visions of her father in the house and kept hearing the whispered suggestions that he died by jumping out a window.
He could not have died by jumping out a window.
All over the world, people who read Peter Cheney's story believe that Norberto died by jumping out a window. People have written poems about Norberto jumping out a window. People have called the Hernandezes with offers of money -- either charity or payment for interviews -- because they read about Norberto jumping out a window. But he couldn't have jumped out a window, his family knows, because he wouldn't have jumped out a window: not Papi. "He was trying to come home," Catherine says one morning, in a living room primarily decorated with framed photographs of her father. "He was trying to come home to us, and he knew he wasn't going to make it by jumping out a window." She is a lovely, dark-skinned, brown-eyed girl, twenty-two years old, dressed in a T-shirt and sweats and sandals. She is sitting on a couch next to her mother, who is caramel-colored, with coppery hair tied close to her scalp, and who is wearing a cotton dress checked with the color of the sky. Eulogia speaks half the time in determined English, and then, when she gets frustrated with the rate of revelation, pours rapid-fire Spanish into the ear of her daughter, who translates. "My mother says she knows that when he died, he was thinking about us. She says that she could see him thinking about us. I know that sounds strange, but she knew him. They were together since they were fifteen." The Norberto Hernandez Eulogia knew would not have been deterred by smoke or by fire in his effort to come home to her. The Norberto Hernandez she knew would have endured any pain before he jumped out of a window. When the Norberto Hernandez she knew died, his eyes were fixed on what he saw in his heart -- the faces of his wife and his daughters -- and not on the terrible beauty of an empty sky.
How well did she know him? "I dressed him," Eulogia says in English, a smile appearing on her face at the same time as a shiny coat of tears. "Every morning. That morning, I remember. He wore Old Navy underwear. Green. He wore black socks. He wore blue pants: jeans. He wore a Casio watch. He wore an Old Navy shirt. Blue. With checks." What did he wear after she drove him, as she always did, to the subway station and watched him wave to her as he disappeared down the stairs? "He changed clothes at the restaurant," says Catherine, who worked with her father at Windows on the World. "He was a pastry chef, so he wore white pants, or chef's pants -- you know, black-and-white check. He wore a white jacket. Under that, he had to wear a white T-shirt." What about an orange shirt? "No," Eulogia says. "My husband did not have an orange shirt."
There are pictures. There are pictures of the Falling Man as he fell. Do they want to see them? Catherine says no, on her mother's behalf -- "My mother should not see" -- but then, when she steps outside and sits down on the steps of the front porch, she says, "Please -- show me. Hurry. Before my mother comes." When she sees the twelve-frame sequence, she lets out a gasping, muted call for her mother, but Eulogia is already over her shoulder, reaching for the pictures. She looks at them one after another, and then her face fixes itself into an expression of triumph and scorn. "That is not my husband," she says, handing the photographs back. "You see? Only I know Norberto." She reaches for the photographs again, and then, after studying them, shakes her head with a vehement finality. "The man in this picture is a black man." She asks for copies of the pictures so that she can show them to the people who believed that Norberto jumped out a window, while Catherine sits on the step with her palm spread over her heart. "They said my father was going to hell because he jumped," she says. "On the Internet. They said my father was taken to hell with the devil. I don't know what I would have done if it was him. I would have had a nervous breakdown, I guess. They would have found me in a mental ward somewhere...."
Her mother is standing at the front door, about to go back inside her house. Her face has already lost its belligerent pride and has turned once again into a mask of composed, almost wistful sadness. "Please," she says as she closes the door in a stain of morning sunlight. "Please clear my husband's name."
A phone rings in Connecticut. A woman answers. A man on the other end is looking to identify a photo that ran in The New York Times on September 12, 2001. "Tell me what the photo looks like," she says. It's a famous picture, the man says -- the famous picture of a man falling. "Is it the one called 'Swan Dive' on Rotten.com?" the woman asks. It may be, the man says. "Yes, that might have been my son," the woman says.
She lost both her sons on September 11. They worked together at Cantor Fitzgerald. They worked on the equities desk. They worked back-to-back. No, the man on the phone says, the man in the photograph is probably a food-service worker. He's wearing a white jacket. He's upside down. "Then that's not my son," she says. "My son was wearing a dark shirt and khaki pants."
She knows what he was wearing because of her determination to know what happened to her sons on that day -- because of her determination to look and to see. She did not start with that determination. She stopped reading the newspaper after September 11, stopped watching TV. Then, on New Year's Eve, she picked up a copy of The New York Times and saw, in a year-end review, a picture of Cantor Fitzgerald employees crowding the edge of the cliff formed by a dying building. In the posture -- the attitude -- of one of them, she thought she recognized the habits of her son. So she called the photographer and asked him to enlarge and clarify the picture. Demanded that he do it. And then she knew, or knew as much as it was possible to know. Both of her sons were in the picture. One was standing in the window, almost brazenly. The other was sitting inside. She does not need to say what may have happened next.
"The thing I hold was that both of my sons were together," she says, her instantaneous tears lifting her voice an octave. "But I sometimes wonder how long they knew. They're puzzled, they're uncertain, they're scared -- but when did they know? When did the moment come when they lost hope? Maybe it came so quick...."
The man on the phone does not ask if she thinks her sons jumped. He does not have it in him, and anyway, she has given him an answer.
The Hernandezes looked at the decision to jump as a betrayal of love -- as something Norberto was being accused of. The woman in Connecticut looks at the decision to jump as a loss of hope -- as an absence that we, the living, now have to live with. She chooses to live with it by looking, by seeing, by trying to know -- by making an act of private witness. She could have chosen to keep her eyes closed. And so now the man on the phone asks the question that he called to ask in the first place: Did she make the right choice?
"I made the only choice I could have made," the woman answers. "I could never have made the choice not to know."
Catherine Hernandez thought she knew who the Falling Man was as soon as she saw the series of pictures, but she wouldn't say his name. "He had a sister who was with him that morning," she said, "and he told his mother that he would take care of her. He would never have left her alone by jumping." She did say, however, that the man was Indian, so it was easy to figure out that his name was Sean Singh. But Sean was too small to be the Falling Man. He was clean-shaven. He worked at Windows on the World in the audiovisual department, so he probably would have been wearing a shirt and tie instead of a white chef's coat. None of the former Windows employees who were interviewed believe the Falling Man looks anything like Sean Singh.
Besides, he had a sister. He never would have left her alone.
A manager at Windows looked at the pictures once and said the Falling Man was Wilder Gomez. Then a few days later he studied them closely and changed his mind. Wrong hair. Wrong clothes. Wrong body type. It was the same with Charlie Mauro. It was the same with Junior Jimenez. Junior worked in the kitchen and would have been wearing checked pants. Charlie worked in purchasing and had no cause to wear a white jacket. Besides, Charlie was a very large man. The Falling Man appears fairly stout in Richard Drew's published photo but almost elongated in the rest of the sequence.
The rest of the kitchen workers were, like Norberto Hernandez, eliminated from consideration by their outfits. The banquet servers may have been wearing white and black, but no one remembered any banquet server who looked anything like the Falling Man.
Forte Food was the other food-service company that lost people on September 11, 2001. But all of its male employees worked in the kitchen, which means that they wore either checked or white pants. And nobody would have been allowed to wear an orange shirt under the white serving coat.
But someone who used to work for Forte remembers a guy who used to come around and get food for the Cantor executives. Black guy. Tall, with a mustache and a goatee. Wore a chef's coat, open, with a loud shirt underneath.
Nobody at Cantor remembers anyone like that.
Of course, the only way to find out the identity of the Falling Man is to call the families of anyone who might be the Falling Man and ask what they know about their son's or husband's or father's last day on earth. Ask if he went to work wearing an orange shirt.
But should those calls be made? Should those questions be asked? Would they only heap pain upon the already anguished? Would they be regarded as an insult to the memory of the dead, the way the Hernandez family regarded the imputation that Norberto Hernandez was the Falling Man? Or would they be regarded as steps to some act of redemptive witness?
Jonathan Briley worked at Windows on the World. Some of his coworkers, when they saw Richard Drew's photographs, thought he might be the Falling Man. He was a light-skinned black man. He was over six five. He was forty-three. He had a mustache and a goatee and close-cropped hair. He had a wife named Hillary.
Jonathan Briley's father is a preacher, a man who has devoted his whole life to serving the Lord. After September 11, he gathered his family together to ask God to tell him where his son was. No: He demanded it. He used these words: "Lord, I demand to know where my son is." For three hours straight, he prayed in his deep voice, until he spent the grace he had accumulated over a lifetime in the insistence of his appeal.
The next day, the FBI called. They'd found his son's body. It was, miraculously, intact.
The preacher's youngest son, Timothy, went to identify his brother. He recognized him by his shoes: He was wearing black high-tops. Timothy removed one of them and took it home and put it in his garage, as a kind of memorial.
Timothy knew all about the Falling Man. He is a cop in Mount Vernon, New York, and in the week after his brother died, someone had left a September 12 newspaper open in the locker room. He saw the photograph of the Falling Man and, in anger, he refused to look at it again. But he couldn't throw it away. Instead, he stuffed it in the bottom of his locker, where -- like the black shoe in his garage -- it became permanent.
Jonathan's sister Gwendolyn knew about the Falling Man, too. She saw the picture the day it was published. She knew that Jonathan had asthma, and in the smoke and the heat would have done anything just to breathe....
The both of them, Timothy and Gwendolyn, knew what Jonathan wore to work on most days. He wore a white shirt and black pants, along with the high-top black shoes. Timothy also knew what Jonathan sometimes wore under his shirt: an orange T-shirt. Jonathan wore that orange T-shirt everywhere. He wore that shirt all the time. He wore it so often that Timothy used to make fun of him: When are you gonna get rid of that orange T-shirt, Slim?
But when Timothy identified his brother's body, none of his clothes were recognizable except the black shoes. And when Jonathan went to work on the morning of September 11, 2001, he'd left early and kissed his wife goodbye while she was still sleeping. She never saw the clothes he was wearing. After she learned that he was dead, she packed his clothes away and never inventoried what specific articles of clothing might be missing.
Is Jonathan Briley the Falling Man? He might be. But maybe he didn't jump from the window as a betrayal of love or because he lost hope. Maybe he jumped to fulfill the terms of a miracle. Maybe he jumped to come home to his family. Maybe he didn't jump at all, because no one can jump into the arms of God.
Oh, no. You have to fall.
Yes, Jonathan Briley might be the Falling Man. But the only certainty we have is the certainty we had at the start: At fifteen seconds after 9:41 a.m., on September 11, 2001, a photographer named Richard Drew took a picture of a man falling through the sky -- falling through time as well as through space. The picture went all around the world, and then disappeared, as if we willed it away. One of the most famous photographs in human history became an unmarked grave, and the man buried inside its frame -- the Falling Man -- became the Unknown Soldier in a war whose end we have not yet seen. Richard Drew's photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves. The picture is his cenotaph, and like the monuments dedicated to the memory of unknown soldiers everywhere, it asks that we look at it, and make one simple acknowledgment.
That we have known who the Falling Man is all along.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
Jonathan Franzen and I conducted this interview at his dining room table, in his apartment on the Upper East Side, one morning in the early part of summer. Because we have known each other for a number of years, and have gotten better and better, over the years, at talking—at, I guess, knowing one another—we had some idea that we might be able to speak openly and comfortably about certain things that are not necessarily easy to speak about in a public forum, but are nonetheless central to Jonathan’s project. I was eager to hear Jonathan talk about various changes in his life, and about the ways in which his work has more and more become—at least as I read it—a kind of container for, and an expression of, lived experience. Reading Jonathan, I am always startled by how much I admire the writer, by how much pleasure I get in the reading. With The Corrections, I was up all night, until eight or nine in the morning. It seemed to me an absolutely thrilling work, brave and funny and beautiful and, above all, generous. There is something monumental about this novel. It is the product of a deep and prolonged struggle. Its intelligence is everywhere apparent. I could go on in search of words to praise this novel, words that might in some way be truly compatible with, might truly address, Jonathan’s achievement. Reading The Corrections, I feel myself to be in the presence of a work of art. The novel honors, and builds on, the tradition in which it exists.
Donald Antrim It’s been nearly ten years since the publication of your second novel, Strong Motion, and a few more years since The Twenty-Seventh City came out. I’d like to hear you talk about what went on during the years after Strong Motion — how your new novel came to be and what was happening in your personal life and in your family. I also want to hear some of your ideas about writing in general. Before we begin, I want to say that The Corrections seems, to me, profoundly and substantively a departure from your earlier books. In each of your novels, you devise intricate, sophisticated plots. You bring the reader along on a ride. Strong Motionand The Twenty-Seventh City both grow out of daring, somewhat implausible-seeming gambits: massive earthquakes in the suburbs outside Boston, the appointment of a corrupt Asian Indian woman as chief of the St. Louis police. As you think about them now, with The Correctionsnearing publication, would you say that your first two novels belong together?
Jonathan Franzen Yes, in that I continue to be interested in the dramatic intersection of personal, domestic stories with larger social stories. In the first two books, there were these large, externalized, heavily plotted dramas, at the focus of which were individual families. The new book goes about managing the drama very differently.
DA You were younger when you wrote those books—considerably younger when you wrote the first.
JF I was about 13, in some ways, when I wrote the first book. Approximately 18 when I wrote the second.
DA Well, if I understand what you’re saying, then—
JF I was a kid. And let me step back here and say that I was a very late kid—growing up, I had parents who were much older than I. To a substantial degree, my social life consisted of interactions with serious grown-ups. And in a funny way that’s what the first book, Twenty-Seventh City, was: a conversation with the literary figures of my parents’ generation. The great sixties and seventies Postmoderns. I wanted to feel like I belonged with them, much as I’d spent my childhood trying to be friends with my parents and their friends. A darker way of looking at it is that I was trying to impress them. The result, in any case, was that I adopted a lot of that generation of writers’ concerns—the great postwar freak-out, the Strangeloveian inconceivabilities, the sick society in need of radical critique. I was attracted to crazy scenarios.
DA Is this urge to become a younger peer of those writers who were prominent when you and I were growing up—
JF And we’re talking about Pynchon, DeLillo, Gaddis, Heller, Barth—
DA Certainly. But it sounds to me as if, with The Corrections, you wanted to make those conspiracy plots fall away, and that you wound up with a different kind of emotional landscape. For instance, Chip Lambert, the middle child in your fictional family, gets involved in a variety of dubious and self-destructive scenarios. There’s a love affair with his student, and, toward the end of the novel, a trip to post-Soviet Lithuania, which is fairly disastrous. Chip’s behavior seems like a result of his financial incompetency and his questionable sense of himself as a man in the world, more than a reaction to enormous forces beyond his control.
JF Actually the forces are substantially the same, but in the new book they take the form of interior urges and anxieties, rather than outward plot elements. We may freak out globally, but we suffer locally. Not that I take any particular credit for this shift of emphasis. Jane Smiley has this theory of an alternation of literary generations. Smiley thinks there are two fundamental possible preoccupations for the novelist. One is a kind of venturing forth to discover the wonders of the world, à la Robinson Crusoe or Don Quixote. That school of outward-looking fiction reaches its culmination in Candide, in which the world turns out to be full of horrors. Voltaire’s lesson is: Go home, cultivate your garden. And so the adventurous world-seeking novel is succeeded by the great 19th century domestic novel. Which itself then culminates in Kafka: you can stay home, but home is a horror, too. Within American literature you find the venturing-forthness in Twain and Hemingway, the at-homeness in Wharton and O’Connor. The dichotomy is gender-specified to some extent. But I feel like I’m essentially participating in one of those swings, a swing away from the boys-will-be-boys Huck Finn thing, which is how you can view Pynchon, as adventures for boys out in the world. At a certain point, you get tired of all that. You come home.
DA Speaking of boys, or men, in the world, you’ve written for Harper’s about the novelist as an increasingly marginalized figure in American society. Do you have feelings or anxieties that you’ve been aware of in recent years, not so much about writing a particular book, but about living as a writer of fiction?
JF I look at my father, who was in many ways an unhappy person, but who, not long before he got sick, said that the greatest source of satisfaction in his life had been going to work in the company of other workers. He got up every weekday morning for forty-plus years, put on a nice suit and a hat, went to this wonderfully structured environment, and did work that he perceived to be important and constructive. I think any artistic child of a businessman is prone to a sense of the slightness of what he or she is doing. Of the uselessness of art. This uselessness is intrinsic, of course, and that’s part of art’s charm. But it’s useless nonetheless. And when you compound this with the general dimunition in the stature of the novelist since the days of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who were celebrities to a degree that novelists of like caliber nowadays simply can’t be, when you compound this with the sense of being in one’s father’s shadow, well, you risk feeling like a little kid. My first response to this feeling of smallness was to try to Know Everything, to exude confidence and total command. But when the world refuses to be changed by what you’re writing—when the world takes, essentially, no note of it—it gets harder and harder to persuade yourself that your desire for total control, and your head-on engagement with Big Issues, is meaningful. So I’ve spent a lot of the last decade retooling. There were also changes in my private life that made it clear that the premises I’d begun with were no longer sufficient.
DA Let’s talk about your private life. I suspect that your experiences with family, and what I know about what you’ve gone through during this chunk of time, have a huge bearing on the ways in which family becomes, in this new novel, more central and preoccupying than in earlier work.
JF Well, my father died in 1995. Up until then I’d been trying, sporadically and unsuccessfully, to write a book that was similar to the first two, with an elaborate, externalized, and exceedingly complicated plot. Within a few months of his death, I began writing stuff that came from a very different place.
DA During those years, you actually worked over and discarded a huge amount of material. I have the impression of you tossing out about three or four possible manuscripts.
JF Yes and no. Even before Strong Motion was published, I had an idea for a third book. I tried to write it, I found it wasn’t working, and so I changed it. And I kept changing it, and changing it, and eventually nothing was left of the original, although it was still connected to the original in the way that my body now is connected with my body at the age of 12—all the cells replaced, but very gradually. Finally, about six years in, I said, “To hell with all that.” Material that was more urgent had announced itself.
DA Other things were happening in life as well. Several years ago, your mother passed away.
JF Yeah, my mother more recently. Frankly, though, the thing that enabled me to get those first two books written was that I had a very stable home life. I’d gotten married pretty much right out of college, to someone I’d gone to school with, also a writer, and we had a very quiet, very steady domestic life that we dedicated to reading and writing. That’s really all there was, except for tiny little doses of family and an honorary friend or two. Ours was essentially a universe of two, set up as a kind of antidote to the overwhelming family universes that each of us had come from. As long as that marriage lasted, I could just shut down questions on certain important personal topics. Is this relevant?
DA You’re doing fine. Keep talking.
JF Well, at a certain point our universe of two started breaking down. My first book was a big success. Her first book she couldn’t sell. By the time I was writing the second novel, there were tensions. And, in ways that are terrible to recall, those tensions just got worse. The early nineties were taken up with ever-more-desperate attempts to preserve a marriage, and then, finally, after that bargaining stage was over, accepting and mourning the death of this immensely important marriage. And meanwhile my father’s mind was dissolving with Alzheimer’s, and my mother was getting sick. Maybe it’s no surprise that the book I was trying to write in those years would change. What seemed to me important was changing weekly, daily, almost hourly. I think the last time my wife and I were together in public was at my father’s memorial service. Not long after that, something loosened up. There was a space in which I could actually start to write again, a little bit, something that was mine and not ours.
DA Let me ask you something. You’re talking about a growing discontent with work that had been supported by the conditions of your life, followed by a period during which your family, not only your marriage, but your own family—
JF All the people who were most important in my life—
DA Are no longer there. Given that you were having these experiences that you couldn’t control, to what extent were you conscious of exploring what was happening as it happened?
JF I’m uncomfortable with the idea that suffering creates material for art, or that conflict and trouble are what the novelist thrives on. I think it’s more accurate to say that the attempt to be a living, productive artist is often what creates the trouble and the conflict. I had an immense conflict of loyalties, for example, regarding my marriage. I felt explicitly that if I would just stop being a writer, I could make the marriage work. And it wasn’t just my marriage. My mother had my father on her hands. Ever more trouble out there. And I would go back home to the Midwest for four days, and then I wouldn’t go again for six, eight months. I had to preserve my emotional equilibrium in order to do my work. I felt terribly guilty about that, because in a sense, why not take three months and go and really help out? But I couldn’t, I would have gone crazy. We would’ve been irritating each other the whole time. But—and this is my point—the fact of who I am is what would have created the irritation. And who I am is a man who writes novels.
DA You’re describing something pretty difficult, the guilt over not being able to go home, and in the meantime exploiting, if not the more concrete and remembered experiences and events of family life, then something immediate in your relationships to your mother and to your father, just as you are losing them. So, I’m imagining that this could be a fairly frightening time.
JF Oh. Of course.
DA Do you also feel guilty for having written the book?
JF No. I don’t. Not at all. It’s akin to the flip side, as I keep trying to stress. There’s a flip side.That I was writing the book was what was creating much of my trouble.
JF And the book in turn stands as a record of who I am. I wouldn’t wish it away any more than I would wish my personality away, or my privacy and individuality. It was a taboo-a-week in terms of its creation. I was constantly thinking, You can’t write about that. Each taboo was accompanied by a set of technical problems—how to make the material interesting enough to justify violating the taboo. But no, I don’t feel guilty. The most important experience of my life, really, to date, is the experience of growing up in the Midwest with the particular parents I had. I feel as if they couldn’t fully speak for themselves, and I feel as if their experience—by which I mean their values, their experience of being alive, of being born at the beginning of the century and dying towards the end of it, that whole American experience they had—I feel as if I’m part of that, and it’s part of me. One of my enterprises in the book is to memorialize that experience, to give it real life and form. Even if both of my parents would have personally hated the book, which they may very well have, I still don’t feel guilty about it.
DA Writing this novel was a kind of constant correction against some other novel you could have written but didn’t want or need to, and it’s a correction against something that might’ve been easier, in favor of something that feels dangerous.
JF I did a nonfiction piece five years ago for The New Yorker about the tobacco industry and my own cigarette smoking. At the time, I was still concealing from my mother, whose father had died of lung cancer, that I was myself a cigarette smoker. I was talking one day with my editor at The New Yorker, Henry Finder, and he said: “How about the tobacco industry, do you have any interest in that?” I said: “That is the one thing I absolutely can’t write about.” And he said: “Therefore you must write about it.” And that became a kind of rallying cry for the book. The more I felt, Don’t write that, the more I knew I was on the right track.
DA Of course, writing the thing you can’t write is an opportunity for a certain amount of destabilization and confusion.
JF It’s bound up with shame. The resistance manifested itself as shame. “No, I can’t be that straightforward and, no, I can’t drop that mantel of utter mastery of fact and total control of data, because then I’ll appear as this weak, puny boy, and not as the sort of striding, dadlike man that I wanted to be.” Simply to write a book that wasn’t dressed up in a swashbuckling, Pynchon-sized megaplot was enormously difficult. I spent years trying to somehow make it nonetheless work before I realized this thing’s dead, and no matter how terrifying it is to let go of that kind of plotting, I have to let go.
DA Were the Lamberts in those earlier versions?
JF The Lamberts crept in little by little. I was developing the character of Chip, and, as a matter of process, I was trying to learn to write scenes in which I would conceive of a character and then make the character extremely uncomfortable. With Chip, I had the idea of a would-be East Village hipster—and then here come his grotesquely square Midwestern parents on precisely the day when his life is falling apart. Hence Enid and Alfred Lambert. Eventually I threw away almost everything that was not Lambert-related.
DA The Corrections, like the earlier two novels, is, however different, nonetheless a big, complex book. It carries us along, and to me at least it’s much more involving than the earlier books. I think this has something to do with the plot unfolding to reveal its own origins in choices made by the characters. The Lamberts’ lives are complicated again and again by their own actions, their lives are complicated by their own lives. In The Corrections, the conspiracies become personal. I’m thinking of Alfred’s Parkinsonism, his slow decline, as a kind of conspiracy of the body against itself. Alfred in dementia envisions a conspiracy of sentient turds. At the end of his life he imagines his nurses in a conspiracy against him. His paranoia is an illness of the mind created as a symptom of an illness of the body.
JF These are life-sized conspiracies. Gary, the older son, believes that his wife and children are conspiring to cast him as clinically depressed so as to win certain domestic battles, particularly the battle over whether his family is going to go back to the Midwest for Christmas. Gary becomes deeply paranoid himself, wondering not only whether he may indeed be mentally ill, but also whether his wife and kids are conspiring to make him feel mentally ill. There’s all the stuff that you might get in a typical conspiracy novel, except that here the conspiracy is a family matter. Likewise Gary’s contorted attempts to avoid turning into his father, and his paranoid suspicion that he’s failing. His attempts to improve on his father’s life make him all the more like his father.
DA Were you very aware, while writing The Corrections, of the Lambert children embodying or rejecting distinct aspects of their parents’ strong, domineering personalities?
JF To say that the book is thematically self-conscious is to put it mildly. I come from a kind of old-fashioned Midwest, and I live in a technocorporate, postironic, cool, late-late-late Eastern world. The two worlds hardly ever talk to each other, but they’re completely, constantly talking to one another inside me. And certainly my enterprise in the book, and probably the enterprise of most novelists at some level, is to take different strains in their own character, different modules in their own personality, and create whole characters on the page. I have my parents talking to me in my head and then other parts of myself talking back. I think this is potentially an interesting conversation. Something almost everyone does is vow not to be like his or her parents. At the same time, we mourn certain ways in which we’re not like them. Talking with one’s parents becomes a way of talking about the changes that have been wrought in the last 50 years by the various technological and political developments that we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Again, these are issues that the postmoderns were also writing about, but presented in a way that makes them more personal, relates them more to the family romance and the emotional life of the author.
DA Sometimes we create ourselves as our parents to the extent that we rebel against them.
JF Right, so there’s this drama of trying to correct, of trying to be different. This is what much of life is about.
DA Did you find in writing this novel that the converse could also be true, that the extent to which you accepted your parents in you gave you some freedom to be not them, someone of your own creation?
JF Yes. Here’s an example. There were about twenty years during which I basically couldn’t talk to my mom, and I concealed everything about myself from her. Sometimes I could hardly stand to be in the same room with her. This sense of mortification started at about age 12 and continued into my mid-thirties. Some of it had to do with her refusal to see what kind of person I was, and her specific disapproval of writing as a career. A different person, a different son, might have shrugged it off. And to some extent I did shrug it off. Or, actually, what I did was get married. I found a woman who liked what I liked. But then around the time my father got sick and my marriage was falling apart, something changed with my mom. She became more forgiving of all of her children, certainly of me. In the five years before she died, she underwent a transformation of her own. She discovered that she actually was happier being a less critical and more generous person. And as that happened, suddenly this window opened in me, and I realized, Well, you know, I’m actually a lot like her. I no longer had to deny that there was any connection between us, you know, I don’t know how I ended up with this mom.
DA This oscillation between acceptance and rejection is something the Lambert children struggle with all the time. They struggle heroically to avoid coming home. But of course they do come back again, near the end of the book, for Christmas. Christmas is an obsession with Enid, reenacting the rituals that seem obsolete and sad, like the Advent calendar on the door.
JF It occurs to me, as we speak, that Christmas is Enid’s novel. Christmas is the thing to be achieved. She wants it to have formal perfection. It’s something she works on, she’s obsessed with it, year round. Enid is an artist of Christmas, and she’s tired of her daughter-in-law’s inferior artwork. She’d like one last chance to produce a really good Christmas of her own. By which she means something old-fashioned—much as The Corrections itself is old-fashioned. And yet, because of the changes that have occurred in the family, and also because we live in a changed world, a fully old-fashioned kind of Christmas is no longer feasible. The holiday becomes, instead, a comic and tragic disaster. Well, probably more tragic than comic. I think of art in general, and certainly of a novel, which is an extremely conservative medium among the arts, as being about various familiar forms and rituals. There’s nothing really new to say about the human condition, and so every novel is kind of a ritual reenactment, or retelling, of familiar stories, which proceed along expected but somehow satisfying lines. This ritual aspect is one reason why, for me, in a larger way, art in general and literature in particular have basically replaced the Christianity of my parents’ generation.
DA Another way that the Lambert children all act out this business of escaping from home, or thinking that they’re escaping from home, is through sex.
JF An escape from Alfred’s puritanism.
DA Maybe I could just run through some of the sexual scenarios in the book. There are great, long passages of sex.
JF God, I was unaware of this, but go on.
DA Well, let’s see, there’s Chip’s academic career-ending affair with his student Melissa. There’s Denise’s affair with the man in her father’s office, another defining and destructive act. Later in life, Denise begins an obsessive, obliterative affair with the wife of the man backing her successful restaurant in Philadelphia. That’s not a great idea on the face of it. Denise is pretty much undone by sex, and so is Gary, who I think of as the orderly, sentimental son. He seems bewildered and frustrated over sex, and the lack of sex, and its replacement by angry domestic fighting in his marriage. There is also, at one point, Enid’s attempt to give Alfred a blow job. She’s trying to seduce him into using inside information to make financial investments that could change their lives. Alfred won’t tolerate the suggestion of a shady financial move any more than he’ll tolerate Enid’s blow job, and you could say that Alfred’s fear of a blow job causes Enid to feel, and possibly to be, poor.
DA The evidence, to me, is of sex as a kind of report on the state of affairs between people who wind up alone.
JF Oh, that’s harsh.
DA Is that too harsh?
JF I think that’s harsh. I think the sex is there partly because I feel like it’s something I can write well about and I seldom see written about well, and so I naturally gravitate to it. But my breakthrough, the thing I learned in writing this book if I learned nothing else, was that a good way to write a scene, a good way to write a book, is to define a character by what he or shewants. Sex is useful to the storyteller because the wanting can be so extreme. The wanting is so blunt and ferocious. It’s a great plot device; once you take away conspiring Indians, or serendipitous earthquakes, you need something else to drive the plot.
JF These are hungry people. There may be a lot of sex in the book, but there’s even more food. I feel as if I gravitated toward food and sex because I myself was hungry in a million ways—sexually hungry, literally hungry, hungry to have a new book done, hungry for attention as any novelist is. But I was also looking for a counterpoint to the relative abstraction of the cultural or political or linguistic preoccupations that drove the previous generation of big novels. Saying “I’m hungry and I want something” is a form of correction, a correction towards more traditional and humane motives for a novel.
DA There are many, many corrections in The Corrections.
JF Market corrections, and prisons. And Chip is obsessed with making corrections to his screenplay that he’s trying and failing to sell.
DA Enid’s attempt to correct her mood with what turns out to be a club drug that she gets from a bogus doctor on a cruise ship. And Alfred thinking about his young daughter Denise and about how he planned to give her some of the gentleness and indulgence that he withheld from Gary and Chip. But then you say, and I’m quoting, “What made correction possible also doomed it.”
JF Yes, a bunch of things going on there. For one thing, I’ve found that it’s possible to go for years or even decades without telling yourself the truth about your life. The most important corrections of the book are the sudden impingements of truth or reality on characters who are expending ever larger sums of energy on self-deception or denial; and what’s being denied, of course, is usually awful news. Death, for example. I also increasingly consciously saw the book as part of a conversation about American progress, the idea of self-invention. We live in an age of self-improvement, in a self-improving country with a long history of self-improvement; and I am reasonably obsessed with Gatsby. As for the particular line, “What made correction possible also doomed it,” in a sense that’s simply the tragic spirit. Every gain is offset by a loss, and most losses bring some sort of a gain. That’s the spirit of the book as a whole. Beyond that, I’d rather not interpret the line. I think it’s interpretable, but I don’t want to be the one to do it.
DA That’s fine, that’s fine.
JF But where does that leave us?
DA Well, that leaves me with another question. You mentioned that you have a self-conscious awareness of your own thematic material.
JF Oh God, yes.
DA Describe what you think the thematic concerns of this novel are, aside from what we’ve already talked about. More to the point, what do you think your large preoccupations look like, now that you’ve written three novels?
JF I’m not sure what my big preoccupations will turn out to be. We were talking earlier about the sense of being a threatened writer with a threatened sense of importance, and therefore a threatened sense of personhood. From my perspective, I feel like I’m part of an embattled, retreating cultural minority that cares about books and about the values that have traditionally been associated with literature—tragic and comic values. But these values are threatened by materialism, materialism in two senses. First the sense of preoccupation with things and with money. Potential readers are busy experiencing other entertainment and earning the money to buy the fancy technological equipment necessary to enjoy it, and so forth. And then, even more to the point, there’s a vulgar intellectual materialism that is encapsulated, for instance, in the currency of the term “clinical depression.” If I say, “At that time in my life I was clinically depressed,” in a way this ends the conversation. It replaces a potentially interesting story with a very simple, material story. “I was clinically depressed. The chemicals in my brain were bad. And I took this material thing into my body, and then the chemicals in my brain were better, and I was better.” Obviously I’m not trying to minimize the seriousness of actual profound depression. But what we gain as science learns how to correlate the organic with the psychological, we lose in terms of the larger conversation. The poetic, the subjective, and particularly the narrative account of what a person is and what a life means—I feel like the novelist’s vision is engaged in a turf war with the scientific, biological, medical account.
DA The conversation around something like clinical depression forecloses a larger conversation about grief or loss.
DA Or about changes in life that are frightening or even terrifying.
JF Or about harmful changes in society that we might want to resist.
DA I think the novel, and the business of being a novelist, and thinking not only about one’s own position as a novelist in the world, but also about the lives of characters who populate a novel—this is a way to keep the larger conversation from being foreclosed.
JF I hope so. I certainly see that in your own novels.
DA We’ll talk about that another time. I have one more thing to ask you. Is The Correctionsthe book you want it to be? Are you proud of it?
JF I wrote much of it very quickly. I wrote eighty percent of it in the last year. I was on a federal jury when I was finishing it. I came to the point when I had two days left to write the last section of the last chapter and then the epilogue. I wrote each of them in a day, and I finished each day crying and not sure why, whether because the content was reminding me of sad content in my own life or because I was letting go of something that had given my life structure and meaning for nearly a decade. There was, as I was getting the last pages down, just this sense of grief. It nonetheless felt very sweet. When I handed the book in, I had a feeling I’d never had before and fear I will never have again—the feeling that I’d actually done what I set out to do. I’d spent a couple of years thinking, My God, if I can pull this off, it’ll be good. But then I would get so terrified and excited by that prospect that I wouldn’t sleep and wouldn’t work until I fell back into my proper working mode, which is moderately depressed. Once I was moderately depressed again, I could continue to work. But at the very end, when I was done, I did have one moment of pure elation. Of Yeah! Okay!
—Donald Antrim is the author of the novels The Verificationist,The Hundred Brothers, and Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.