Do not expect to read Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007) as you would read a mainstream novel, with a plot that takes you on a straight-line journey. The form is circular, moving the reader around and around a central point and then ending up where he started—at the falling twin towers after jet airliners have been hijacked and crashed into them.
A man walks away from the fallen towers. He is terribly disoriented and bleeding. Although Keith Neudecker is not walking in circles, his mind is certainly spinning. Moving with him are all the rest of the characters, including an actor, a man who does performance art on the sides of randomly selected New York buildings. The artist’s simulates a vision that both the actor and Keith witnessed—a man flinging himself out of one of the broken windows on one of the top floors of the World Trade Center that fateful day in 2001. It is an image that both the actor and Keith cannot get out of their minds.
Keith and this actor are not the only people affected, of course. The entire city reels in the aftermath. There are the thousands of deaths and thousand more left to mourn. While this certainly could be a compelling novel, DeLillo focuses on something else. He turns his characters inside out and exposes the psychological damage that they have suffered beyond the mourning. He shows how various characters attempt to deal with it—or, if they cannot deal with it, how they change their lives in order to avoid it.
Keith and his wife, Lianne, had been separated before the crash. Keith had his own apartment close to the towers so he could walk to work. But in his dazed state after the towers collapse, Keith only wants to go home—to the place that he, Lianne, and their son, Justin, once shared. Keith shows up at the front door, his face sprayed with shards of glass and waits until Lianne invites him in.
Lianne’s mother, Nina, warns her daughter not to take Keith back. But Lianne cannot say no. She takes Keith to the hospital to be treated, then waits, and watches, as their separation dissolves into a new type of relationship. This new form resembles the old one in very few details. They look like a family again, but there are many psychological scars as well as new wounds that are slowly opening. Keith disappears at times. Lianne almost cracks under the pressure of their new relationship and the fear that her whole world, like the towers, may someday come crashing down.
As Keith spins into a new world where very little is defined, characters flit in and out of his life. The friends they have lost and their own narrow escape from the fiery hell that they barely escaped affects all of them. In the course of the novel, subjects of religion, terrorism, death, and the meaning of life are played with but never resolved. Even the hijackers appear momentarily, as DeLillo attempts to give them faces and a reason for doing what they felt was right. Everyone in this story tries to move forward, tries to extract him or herself from the past. This proves to be an all but impossible task. To prove it, the novel ends exactly where it begins, with Keith wandering on the streets of New York, dazed and bleeding.
The novel opens in a “time and space of falling ash and near night.” It is the morning of September 11, 2001 and the World Trade Center is collapsing. The reader is given slow-motion glimpses of the horror—the “stink of fuel fire” and the “fitful cries of disbelief.” Keith Neudecker, a lawyer in his late 30s who worked in the North Tower, walks in an ash-covered daze towards the place “where he’d been going all along”—the apartment of his estranged wife and their son.
Three days pass. The reader learns that Keith and Lianne have reconciled and he has moved back into their home. Lianne is comforted by his physical presence and his pilgrimage to her apartment. The couple is intimate again.
The focus of most of the remaining parts of the novel is on a series of alternating vignettes of the couple confronting his or her new reality: Keith, that he is still alive; Leanne, his return and its implications for her and their son. Keith remembers the poker games in his former apartment and is haunted by the deaths of so many of his friends. Lianne becomes immersed in her volunteer work for Alzheimer’s patients and begins to depend on the meetings for emotional support. Her patients are the “living breath” of the tragedy. Lianne also thinks quite a bit about her father, who committed suicide when diagnosed with dementia.
As Lianne moves from home to hospital, “Falling Man”, a performance artist who mimics “those stark moments in the burning towers when people fell or were forced to jump”, intrigues her. Meanwhile, Justin, their son, steals a pair of binoculars, scanning the sky for planes and for “Bill Lawton,” his misinterpretation of the name Bin Laden.
Keith realizes he carried someone else’s briefcase out of the tower. He returns to the briefcase to its owner Florence Givens. Florence had been a Tower worker from the floor below him, and an immediate connection is made over their shock and guilt at surviving the tragedy. “She wanted to tell him everything,” Delillo writes. “He knew she hadn’t talked about this, not so intensely, to anyone else.” She explains her torturous and...
(The entire section is 890 words.)
Chapter 1 Summary
Don DeLillo has written fourteen novels and three plays; he has won many awards both national and international. His novel Underworld was named one of the best novels of the past twenty-five years. Falling Man was published in 2007.
The scene is terrifying. Ash is falling from the sky, and the sky is darker than it should be this time of day. People are running through the debris and mud; many are holding jackets over their heads and handkerchiefs over their mouths. Some have taken shelter under cars. A man in a suit, holding a briefcase, sees smoke, ash, and debris flying around him on all sides. Otherworldly things are happening in the unexpected morning darkness. It is noisy and unnatural.
Faces are a thousand feet above, looking down, and there is a stench of burning fuel and the sound of sirens. There is something else, something that does not belong: a shirt is coming down out of the high smoke. He watches it as it drifts and falls near the river.
Many people have stopped to look back at the “writhing lives” and “scorched objects” behind them. Someone steps out of a doorway and hands him a bottle of water; he is unable to use his left arm. He is wounded but still walking. Policemen and security guards, hands on the butts of their guns, are running into the chaos.
Around him people are “shedding water” from the sprinkler systems, and personal items of all kinds are lying discarded in the streets: laptops and handbags and shoes, as well as masses of paper including resumes, contracts, and business documents. People are running then stopping in disbelief, many of them veering down side streets. There is fire, smoke, and ash. Runners out for their morning jog cannot believe what they see, and members of the tai chi group in the park appear to be posed in mid-air, arms and hands extended.
One tower has fallen. In time he hears the second tower fall. It is the north tower coming down; “that was him coming down, the north tower.” It is lighter here and perhaps more normal, if there is such a thing anymore. He can breathe more easily. Behind him, walking as if in mass formation, are thousands of people attempting to escape the destruction. He keeps going until he has to stop; he can go no farther.
The man tries to tell himself he is alive, but it is an obscure thought and he has difficulty believing it. Traffic is minimal and there are no taxis to be had. Suddenly an old panel truck appears with “Electrical Contractor, Long Island City” painted on the side. It stops and the driver leans out his window and examines this man. He sees a man “scaled in ash, in pulverized matter” and asks him where he wants to go. Only when the man gets in the truck and shuts the door does he understand where he has been going all along.
Chapter 2 Summary
Every touch, gesture, and action used to be intimate between them. That was in the early times, eight years ago, when the marriage was new—not the “eventual extended grimness” their marriage became. As Lianne sorts the mail, she discovers a postcard casually scrawled by a friend visiting Rome. The picture catches her attention. It is a photo of Shelley’s twelve-canto poem called Revolt of Islam. It is a beautiful design, but that is not why it captures her attention. Though it had been mailed weeks before, she is struck by the coincidence of that title arriving on this week, a mere three days after the planes had struck.
Lianne tells her mother she is glad her son was with his grandmother when his father arrived at their door, covered with ash and soot, gray and bloody and unexpected. It would have been awful for Justin to see his father like that, Lianne tells her mother as they sit in Nina’s comfortable apartment just off of Fifth Avenue. She explains that she did not know what to do. The phones were out, so they went to the hospital. Nina Bartos, a retired university professor, asks why he came to her apartment, why he did not go to a friend’s house—or straight to the hospital himself. Lianne says she does not know but that Keith is fine. He simply needs some rest and some time.
It is clear that Nina does not think highly of her daughter’s choice in a husband. She asks how Justin is doing, having his father back in their home. Lianne says the boy seems fine; he is back in school, now that schools have reopened. Her mother asks what is next, and Lianne says there is nothing next:
Eight years ago they planted a bomb in one of the towers. Nobody said what’s next. This was next.
When the towers fell, Lianne thought he was dead, like so many others thought their loved ones were dead. Nina reminds her daughter that she once wanted something, something she thought Keith would provide; unfortunately, he is a man who “wanted a woman who’d regret what she did with him.” Lianne loved the idea of living full-time with such a dangerous man, says Nina, but he is a man “built for weekends.” And she married him.
Lianne reminds her mother that she then threw him out, would not allow him to stay. If Keith had been an artist, a scholar, or a poet, she says, Nina would have approved of his bad behavior in the name of “art.” Then he would have been allowed to behave in whatever outrageous manner he chose. As she taunts her mother with this double standard, the intercom buzzes. Lianne prepares to hear the doorman announce the arrival of Martin, her mother’s lover.
Chapter 3 Summary
At the hospital, Keith signs a series of documents as wounded people are wheeled through the hallways around him. He struggles to write his name and tie the hospital gown, but Lianne is there to help him. He is examined and checked for fatal conditions such as hemorrhage, dehydration, and diminished blood flow to tissues. The doctor removes glass from his face and talks about the survivors they expected to come but never arrived. The medical staff is standing useless, waiting for patients who will never come because they are buried in the rubble.
Justin’s two best friends live in a high-rise ten blocks away from his house. They are a brother and sister, and Lianne meets their mother, Isabel, on the street. Isabel is...
(The entire section is 1174 words.)
Chapter 4 Summary
After the separation there was a kind of symmetry: Keith had his weekly six-man poker game downtown and Lianne had her weekly “storyline sessions” in East Harlem for six or so men and women in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. After the towers fell, the card games ended, but Lianne’s sessions have become more intense. A clinical psychologist began the group strictly for morale, and now Lianne is in charge. She talks with them about their lives and then suggests a topic for them to write about, such as remembering their fathers or something they always wanted to do but never did. After twenty minutes of writing, they each share what they have written. There are frightening lapses and unfinished sentences, but they...
(The entire section is 1534 words.)
Chapter 5 Summary
Keith enters the park and he is struck by how ordinary everything seems. He is carrying the briefcase and wants to turn back; he passes the tennis courts and wants to throw the offending object in the reservoir. Once he reaches her apartment building, he climbs the six flights of stairs and knocks on her door. She is a little wary but lets him in as he starts to explain that he had not meant to wait so long to return the briefcase, which he had tried to express on the phone yesterday. She explains that she had not canceled the credit cards because she thought the entire bag was lost in the rubble. The woman is about his age, a light-skinned black woman; she offers him some water. He tells her he found her name in the directory but...
(The entire section is 1402 words.)
On Marienstrasse Summary
After evening prayers one cold, rainy night, an older man and a younger man stand in the doorway. Hammad blows on his cupped hands for warmth, watches a woman bicycling by, and prepares to listen to the old man’s story.
Fifteen years ago he had been a rifleman in the Shatt al Arab as he watched thousands of shooting boys pouring across the mudflats. Many were weaponless; many of those who had rifles were so small they were overwhelmed by their heavy weapons. He was a member of Saddam’s army and the boys were martyrs for the Ayatollah’s cause. They seemed to rise from the earth, and he shot at them and watched them fall.
Hammad is nothing more than a casual acquaintance with this man, a baker who had...
(The entire section is 949 words.)
Chapter 6 Summary
When Lianne’s husband arrived at her door on that day, it did not seem possible, a man appearing whole out of an ash storm. He was carrying a briefcase and stood there, nodding slowly at her. He walked past her to the kitchen and sat. She called her doctor, the hospital, 911, but she heard nothing except the sound of overloaded lines. She offered him water; he said everyone tried to give him water. Lianne knows if he had suffered a serious injury he could not have walked all the way here, but there was so much blood. As she gently wiped his hands, face, and head, he told her there was a shirt coming down out of the sky. There was too much blood to be just his; most of it must have come from somewhere else.
(The entire section is 1243 words.)
Chapter 7 Summary
Lianne sees the hint of two towers, the smudges of grey behind the white bottle in the still life. She turns away from the painting and is struck by what she sees as another still life in the living room—Mother and Lover. Nina does not see towers in the painting; she sees architecture maybe, but not modern towers. When Nina has stopped looking at everything else, she plans to look at these still life paintings. Eventually she will simply look at blank walls. Lianne teases Martin, asking what he has on his walls. He tells her he keeps bare walls—almost bare—both at home and at the office.
The couple’s argument continues: God does or does not exist and invoking God is a way to excuse bad behavior. Martin hunches...
(The entire section is 1284 words.)
Chapter 8 Summary
Keith is not walking through the park in breathless anticipation of his time with Florence. Though they enjoy one another’s bodies, he keeps returning because of what they know together, their shared experience of that timeless spiral drift as they exited the tower that day. He goes back because of that, even though these meetings contradict what he now knows to be true for his life: it is meant to be lived in a serious and responsible manner, not snatched in segments. As he leaves each time, Florence wonders if she can stay who she is or if she has to become one of those people who watches people walk out the door. Florence wonders if they are still themselves, but Keith feels like someone else when she looks at him sometimes....
(The entire section is 1428 words.)
Chapter 9 Summary
As Lianne leaves the community center after her Alzheimer’s group meeting, she knows their time together is coming to an end; she does not think she can start over with another six or seven people, enjoying the beauty but always grasping after her father. She wants to go home to find a message from Carol Shoup asking her to call as soon as possible; instead, she walks without a plan and finds herself in a place that reminds her of Rosellen. She remembers the woman’s last writing and thinks she understands the repetition, the rephrasing of a single word, as a kind of protection against the final stark condition.
Keith walks back through the park after spending half an hour with Florence. He picks up Justin from...
(The entire section is 1191 words.)
In Nokomis Summary
Hammad has a Visa card, a frequent-flyer number, and the use of a Mitsubishi. He and the others are living in a pink cottage on the gulf coast, and it is hot. One day they sit at the table and pledge their allegiance to their duty, in “blood trust,” to kill Americans. He shops in the supermarket and he is invisible to them, just as they are becoming invisible to him. Occasionally he looks at women, but he knows things most of them will not imagine in ten lifetimes.
His flight training is not going well; most of the others are doing better. Amir is an excellent pilot, logging extra hours in the Boeing 767 simulators, sometimes paying in cash wired from Dubai. They are all afraid the government is monitoring their...
(The entire section is 1025 words.)
Chapter 10 Summary
Half a million people are on the streets of New York protesting the war, the President, and government policies. Lianne and Justin walk the entire route amid the burning paper mâché floats, people distributing leaflets for all kinds of causes, and hovering police helicopters. She would rather not be here, but she wants Justin to feel as if he is part of a movement, a dissent. Since the event three years ago, all of life has become public, and Lianne wishes she were anywhere but here.
Justin has collected leaflets all along the route. They tell him to mourn the dead, heal the wounded, end the war, and seek Allah, among other things. He leans against a wall, squatting, to read the pamphlets, asking her to pronounce or...
(The entire section is 929 words.)
Chapter 11 Summary
Keith has spent months mastering the game of poker. He goes home periodically for three or four days—for fatherhood, food, sex, and love—and is now making money with some consistency. Although he still feels the need to go back to his wife and son, Keith is at home in a casino. He does not study his fellow players and their “tells,” as most do; instead, he studies the cards. His personal habits are strict: he drinks very little alcohol, he only allows himself five hours of sleep each night, and he does not smoke the cigars he once enjoyed. When he travels, Keith always looks around him to see who might pose a threat.
At one tournament, Keith discovers Terry Chang is also now playing poker for a living. They meet...
(The entire section is 663 words.)
Chapter 12 Summary
A nearby gallery is displaying a collection of Morandi paintings, and Lianne realizes even a simple display of still life paintings has political overtones for her as she recalls her mother and Martin discussing the nature of God and jihad. Nina wanted her Morandi paintings, along with some others, returned to Martin soon after their estrangement. Lianne honored her mother’s wishes and shipped them. It made Lianne sad to think of them being sold in a cell-phone transaction. No one else is at the showing, and she likes the silence. As she views the paintings, Lianne sees a version of the painting that had been in Nina’s apartment. The two dark, tall oblongs and the white bottle. This time when she looks at it closely, she sees...
(The entire section is 843 words.)
Chapter 13 Summary
Along with five hundred others, Lianne is summoned for jury duty. She learns the trial is for a lawyer accused of “aiding the cause of terrorism.” Lianne completes the forty-five-page questionnaire with a combination of truths, half-truths, and gentle lies. She is juror 121 but is dismissed because of her questionnaire, and she is unsure whether the truths or the lies got her dismissed. She has been offered books on terrorism and related subjects to edit, and she wonders now why she had once been so desperate to immerse herself in such things so near the event’s happening and with the sound of Middle Eastern music playing incessantly in the hallway below her. As the trial progresses, a female lawyer defends a blind sheik but...
(The entire section is 592 words.)
Chapter 14 Summary
There are sounds everywhere around him, and Keith works hard to hear each of them. The sound of chips being played and stacked and counted, like a cacophony of insect friction. He has to break his own habit of not listening so he can hear. The clink of chips, the “toss and scatter,” dealers and players, a persistent ringing that no one else hears.
Here, at the poker table, he fits in like nowhere else. In his off hours he chats with the dealers and almost becomes one of them. Sometimes, in the middle of a game, he gets the urge to walk out of the room and get on a plane, pull down the shade, and fall asleep. By the time a fresh deck of cards appears, however, he is again ready to play.
There is no...
(The entire section is 1493 words.)
In the Hudson Corridor Summary
They have secured the aircraft, and Hammad is sitting up front in the jump seat, catching his breath. He is supposed to keep watch or patrol the aisles with his box cutter. Mace, which he had sprayed, is floating heavily in the air, and he is bleeding from a cut on his upper arm. He is not confused, just out of breath, but he is not certain where his box cutter is.
If the plan is moving forward as he understands it, the plane is heading toward the Hudson corridor; however, there is no window through which he can look without leaving his seat. His cell phone is on vibrate, and the airplane is still. He feels no sensation of flight, and this is his long-held wish: to die with his brothers. His breath comes in short bursts...
(The entire section is 972 words.)