Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570
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.
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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.
Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890
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 seemingly endless attempt to get out of the building, repeating it twice for Keith. On his second visit to her, they sleep together.
During the next two weeks, Leanne and Keith try to adjust to each other’s presence, “their lives in transition.” Keith continues to feel “strange to himself.” Leanne becomes consumed in obituaries of the dead and sensitive to little nuisances, particularly the “music located in the Islamic tradition” that emanates from an apartment below theirs. She physically assaults the woman playing the music.
An interlude shifts the novel’s focus to Hamburg, Germany, where Hammad, an ex-Iraiqi soldier, joins the plotters and hijackers of 9/11, including Mohammaed Atta (the real-life leader of the 9/11 attacks). Hammad still reels over the killing of young Iranian soldiers in the Iraq-Iran war, but is inspired by the discipline and devout belief of Amir, the terrorist leader, and joins the jihad. A later interlude with Hammad details his preparations for 9/11: training in an Afghani jihadist camp and to his lessons at a flight school in the Florida Panhandle.
The story then spins back to Lianne and Keith who remain physically intimate, but she continues to doubt the sustainability of their relationship. Keith continues to see Florence, who wants to expand their relationship. “You saved my life,” she says. “I was nearly gone, nearly dead. Then you walked in the door.” She believes he took the briefcase to keep her alive. Even though the affair is brief, lasting only 15 days, it becomes clear to Keith that “erotic pleasure was not what sent him back there. It was what they knew together.”
Three years pass. Lianne fights to maintain a sense of order about her life but continues her almost pathological search for understanding. She becomes fixated on editing books about terrorism. She becomes unnerved by an appearance by Falling Man on a walk home. He dangles from a subway platform. The “stillness itself” of his stylized mid-air pose rattles her. Later in the novel, Lianne, still scanning obituaries, comes across the news of Falling Man’s death and is swept up in the feeling that she could never comprehend his actions.
Keith has become a professional poker player, coming home sparingly and “lost at times for something to say. There was no language to tell them how he spent his days and nights.” The marriage continues, but his absence causes both to withdraw from one another. Keith, while sympathetic to his wife’s longing to be a family again, senses a gulf, for “[S]he wanted to be safe in the world and he did not.” Lianne becomes immersed in religion and finally comes to term with her uncertainty and fear. She will leave Keith.
The novel ends with a collage of images of 9/11. First, Hammad’s last thoughts and acceptance of death as the flight he is holding hostage collides with the North Tower and then Keith, working in the building, stumbles out of the Tower with thousands of others, “walking in a long sleep.” In a daze, he is handed a briefcase—Florence Givens’s briefcase—and walks off with it, leaving the Tower moments before collapse.