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.