Don DeLillo, 9/11 and the Remains of Fresh Kills

How to Cite

Taveira, R. (2010). Don DeLillo, 9/11 and the Remains of Fresh Kills. M/C Journal, 13(4).
Vol. 13 No. 4 (2010): waste
Published 2010-08-19

It’s a portrait of grief, to be sure, but it puts grief in the air, as a cultural atmospheric, without giving us anything to mourn.

—— Tom Junod, “The Man Who Invented 9/11

The nearly decade-long attempt by families of 9/11 victims to reclaim the remains of their relatives involves rhetorics of bodilessness, waste, and virtuality that offer startling illustrations of what might be termed “the poetics of grief.” After combining as the WTC Families for Proper Burial Inc. in 2002, the families sued the city of New York in 2005. They lost and the case has been under appeal since 2008. WTC Families is asking for nearly one million tons of material to be moved from the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island in order to sift it for human remains. These remains will then be reclaimed and interred: Proper Burial. But the matter is far less definitive. When a judge hearing the appeal asked how one would prove someone’s identity, the city’s lawyer replied, “You have to be able to particularise and say it’s your body. All that’s left here is a bunch of undifferentiated dust.” The reply “elicited gasps and muttered ‘no’s’ from a crowd whose members wore laminated photos of deceased victims” (Hughes). These laminated displays are an attempt by WTC Families to counteract the notion of the victims as “undifferentiated dust”; the protected, hermetic images are testimony to painful uncertainty, an (always) outmoded relic of the evidentiary self.

In the face of such uncertainty, it was not only court audiences who waited for a particular response to the terrorist attacks. Adam Hirsch, reviewer for the New York Sun, claimed that “the writer whose September 11 novel seemed most necessary was Don DeLillo. Mr. DeLillo, more than any other novelist, has always worked at the intersection of public terror and private fear.” DeLillo’s prescience regarding the centrality of terrorism in American culture was noted by many critics in the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre. The novelist even penned an essay for Harper’s in which he reflected on the role of the novelist in the new cultural landscape of the post-9/11 world. In an online book club exchange for Slate, Meghan O’Rourke says, “DeLillo seemed eerily primed to write a novel about the events of September 11. … Rereading some of his earlier books, including the terrorism-riddled Mao II, I wondered, half-seriously, if Mohamed Atta and crew had been studying DeLillo.” If there was any writer who might have been said to have seen it coming it was DeLillo. The World Trade Center had figured in his novels before the 9/11 attacks. The twin towers are a primary landmark in Underworld, gracing the cover of the novel in ghostly black and white. In Players (1977), a Wall Street worker becomes involved in a terrorist plot to bomb the New York Stock exchange and his wife works in the WTC for the “Grief Management Council”—“Where else would you stack all this grief?” (18).


As the WTC Families for Proper Burial Inc. trial demonstrates, the reality of the terrorist attacks of September 11 offered an altogether more macabre and less poetic reality than DeLillo’s fiction had depicted. The Fresh Kills landfill serves in Underworld as a metaphor for the accumulated history of Cold War America in the last half-century. Taking in the “man-made mountain,” waste management executive Brian Glassic thinks, “It was science fiction and prehistory”; seeing the World Trade Center in the distance, “he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one” (Underworld 184). But the poetic balance DeLillo explores in the 1997 novel has been sundered by the obliteration of the twin towers. Fresh Kills and the WTC are now united by a disquieting grief. The landfill, which closed in 2001, was forced to reopen when the towers collapsed to receive their waste. Fresh Kills bears molecular witness to this too-big collective trauma. “‘They commingled it, and then they dumped it,’ Mr. Siegel [lawyer for WTC Families] said of the remains being mixed with household trash, adding that a Fresh Kills worker had witnessed city employees use that mixture to fill potholes” (Hughes). The revelation is obscene: Are we walking and driving over our dead? The commingling of rubble and human remains becomes a collective (of) contamination too toxic, too overwhelming for conventional comprehension. “You can’t even consider the issue of closure until this issue has been resolved,” says the lawyer representing WTC Families (Hartocollis).

Nick Shay, Underworld’s main character, is another waste executive who travels the world to observe ways of dealing with garbage. Of shopping with his wife, Nick says, “Marion and I saw products as garbage even when they sat gleaming on store shelves, yet unbought. We didn’t say, What kind of casserole will that make? We said, What kind of garbage will that make?” (121). This attests to the virtuality of waste, a potentiality of the products – commercial, temporal, biological – that comprise the stuff of contemporary American culture. Synecdoche and metonymy both, waste becomes the ground of hysteron proteron, the rhetorical figure that disorders time and makes the future always present. Like (its) Fresh Kills, waste is science fiction and prehistory.

Repeating the apparent causal and temporal inversion of hysteron proteron, Nick’s son Jeff uses his home computer to access a simultaneous future and past that is the internal horizon of Underworld’s historical fiction. Jeff has previously been using his computer to search for something in the video footage of the “Texas Highway Killer,” a serial murderer who randomly shoots people on Texan highways. Jeff tries to resolve the image so that the pixels will yield more, exposing their past and future. “He was looking for lost information. He enhanced and super-slowed, trying to find some pixel in the data swarm that might provide a clue to the identity of the shooter” (118). Searching for something more, something buried, Jeff, like WTC Families, is attempting to redeem the artifactual and the overlooked by reconfiguring them as identity.

DeLillo recognises this molecular episteme through the “dot theory of reality”: “Once you get inside a dot, you gain access to hidden information, you slide inside the smallest event. This is what technology does. It peels back the shadows and redeems the dazed and rambling past. It makes reality come true” (177). Like the gleaming supermarket products Nick and Marion see as garbage, the unredeemed opens onto complex temporal and rhetorical orders. Getting inside garbage is like getting “inside a dot.” This approach is not possible for the unplanned waste of 9/11. Having already lost its case, WTC Families will almost certainly lose its appeal because its categories and its means are unworkable and inapplicable: they cannot particularise.


In his 9/11 essay “In the Ruins of the Future,” published in Harper’s a few months after the attacks, DeLillo says “We are all breathing the fumes of lower Manhattan where traces of the dead are everywhere, in the soft breeze off the river, on rooftops and windows, in our hair and on our clothes” (39). DeLillo‘s portrait of molecular waste adumbrates the need to create “counternarratives.” Until the events of 11 September 2001 the American narrative was that of the Cold War, and thus also the narrative of Underworld; one for which DeLillo claims the Bush administration was feeling nostalgic. “This is over now,” he says. “The narrative ends in the rubble and it is left to us to create the counternarrative” (34).

DeLillo was already at work on a narrative of his own at the time of the terrorist attacks. As Joseph Conte notes, when the World Trade Center was attacked, “DeLillo, had nearly finished drafting his thirteenth novel, Cosmopolis [… and] shared in the collective seizure of the American mind” (179). And while it was released in 2003, DeLillo sets the novel in 2000 on “a day in April.” If the millennium, the year 2000, has been as Boxall claims the horizon of DeLillo’s writing, the tagging of this “day in April” at the beginning of the novel signals Cosmopolis as a limit-work (4). 9/11 functions as a felt absence in the novel, a binding thing floating in the air, like the shirt that DeLillo will use to begin and end Falling Man; a story that will ‘go beyond’ the millennial limit, a story that is, effectively, the counternarrative of which DeLillo speaks in his 9/11 essay.

Given the timing of the terrorist attacks in New York, and DeLillo’s development of his novel, it is extraordinary to consider just how Cosmopolis reflects on its author’s position as a man who should have “seen it coming.” The billionaire protagonist Eric Packer traverses Manhattan by car, his journey a bifurcation between sophistication and banality. Along the way he has an onanistic sexual encounter whilst having his prostate examined, hacks into and deletes his wife’s old money European fortune, loses his own self-made wealth by irrationally betting against the rise of the yen, kills a man, and shoots himself in the hand in front of his assassin. Eric actively moves toward his own death. Throughout Eric’s journey the socially binding integrity of the present and the future is teased apart. He continually sees images of future events before they occur – putting his hand on his chin, a bomb explosion, and finally, his own murder – via video screens in his car and wristwatch. These are, as Conte rightly notes, repeated instances of hysteron proteron (186). His corpse does not herald obsolescence but begins the true life of waste: virtual information. Or, as Eric’s “Chief of Theory” asks, “Why die when you can live on a disk?” (106). There are shades here of Jeff’s pixelated excursion into the video footage of the Texas Highway Killer: “Once you get inside a dot, you gain access to hidden information.” Life at this level is not only virtual, it is particularised, a point (or a collection of points) Eric comes to grasp during the protracted scene in which he watches himself die: “The stuff he sneezes when he sneezes, this is him” (207). 

In Falling Man, the work in which DeLillo engages directly with the 9/11 attack, the particularised body recurs in various forms. First there is the (now iconic) falling man: the otherwise unknown victim of the terrorist attack who leapt from the WTC and whose descent was captured in a photograph by Richard Drew. This figure was named (particularised) by Tom Junod (who provides the epigram for this essay) as “The Falling Man.” In DeLillo’s novel another Falling Man, a performance artist, re-enacts the moment by jumping off buildings, reiterating the photograph (back) into a bodily performance. In these various incarnations the falling man is serially particularised: photographed, named, then emulated. The falling man is a single individual, and multiple copies. He lives on long after death and so does his trauma. He represents the poetic expression of collective grief.

Particularised bodies also infect the terror narrative of Falling Man at a molecular level. Falling Man’s terrorist, Hammad, achieves a similar life-after-death by becoming “organic shrapnel.” The surviving victims of the suicide bomb attack, months later, begin to display signs of the suicide bombers in lumps and sores emerging from their bodies, too-small bits of the attacker forever incorporated. Hammad is thus paired with the victims of the crash in a kind of disseminative and absorptive (rhetorical) structure. “The world changes first in the mind of the man who wants to change it. The time is coming, our truth, our shame, and each man becomes the other, and the other still another, and then there is no separation” (80). 


The traces of American culture that were already contained in the landfill in Underworld have now become the resting place of the dust and the bodies of the trauma of 9/11. Rereading DeLillo’s magnum opus one cannot help but be struck by the new resonance of Fresh Kills.

The landfill showed him smack-on how the waste stream ended, where all the appetites and hankerings, the sodden second thoughts came runneling out, the things you wanted ardently and then did not…. He knew the stench must ride the wind into every dining room for miles around. When people heard a noise at night, did they think the heap was coming down around them, sliding toward their homes, an omnivorous movie terror filling their doorways and windows?
The wind carried the stink across the kill…. The biggest secrets are the ones spread before us. (184-5)

The landfill looms large on the landscape, a huge pile of evidence for the mass trauma of what remains, those that remain, and what may come—waste in all its virtuality. The “omnivorous movie terror filling their doorways and windows” is a picture of dust-blanketed Downtown NYC that everybody, everywhere, continually saw. The mediatory second sight of sifting the landfill, of combing the second site of the victims for its “sodden second thoughts,” is at once something “you wanted ardently and then did not.” The particles are wanted as a distillate, produced by the frameline of an intentional, processual practice that ‘edits’ 9/11 and its aftermath into a less unacceptable sequence that might allow the familiar mourning ritual of burying a corpse. WTC Families Inc. is seeking to throw the frame of human identity around the unincorporated particles of waste in the Fresh Kills landfill, an unbearably man-made, million-ton mountain. This operation is an attempt to immure the victims and their families from the attacks and its afterlife as waste or recycled material, refusing the ever-present virtual life of waste that always accompanied them. Of course, even if WTC Families is granted its wish to sift Fresh Kills, how can it differentiate its remains from those of the 9/11 attackers? The latter have a molecular, virtual afterlife in the present and the living, lumpy reminders that surface as foreign bodies.

Resisting the city’s drive to rebuild and move on, WTC Families for Proper Burial Inc. is absorbed with the classification of waste rather than its deployment. In spite of the group’s failed court action, the Fresh Kills site will still be dug over: a civil works project by the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation will reclaim the landfill and rename it “Freshkills Park,” a re-creational area to be twice the size of Central Park—As DeLillo foresaw, “The biggest secrets are the ones spread before us.”


Boxall, Peter. Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction. London: Routledge, 2006.
Conte, Joseph M. “Writing amid the Ruins: 9/11 and Cosmopolis”. The Cambridge Companion to Don DeLillo. Ed. John N. Duvall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 179-192.
Cowart, David. Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2003.
DeLillo, Don. Players. London: Vintage, 1991.
———. Mao II. London: Vintage, 1992.
———. Underworld. London: Picador, 1997.
———. “In the Ruins of the Future”. Harper’s. Dec. 2001: 33-40.
———. Cosmopolis. London: Picador, 2003.
———. Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2007.
Hartocollis, Anemona. “Landfill Has 9/11 Remains, Medical Examiner Wrote”. 24 Mar. 2007. The New York Times. 7 Mar. 2009 ‹›.
Hirsch, Adam. “DeLillo Confronts September 11”. 2 May 2007. The New York Sun. 10 May 2007 ‹›.
Hughes, C. J. “9/11 Families Press Judges on Sifting at Landfill”. 16 Dec. 2009. The New York Times. 17 Dec. 2009 ‹›.
Junod, Tom. “The Man Who Invented 9/11”. 7 May 2007. Rev. of Falling Man by Don DeLillo. Esquire. 28 May 2007 ‹›.
O’Rourke, Meghan. “DeLillo Seemed Almost Eerily Primed to Write a Novel about 9/11”. 23 May 2007. 28 May 2007 ‹›.

Author Biography

Rodney Taveira

Rodney Taveira researches and teaches modern literature, cinema, and visual culture at the University of Sydney and the National Art School, Sydney. He has previously published work on James Ellroy and Thomas Pynchon and has just completed a monograph titled, Novel Cinematics: Visuality in Pynchon, Ellroy, and DeLillo.