Introductory Lecture and Objectives
September 11, 2001, marked a grim day in United States history. On a sunny Tuesday morning, Islamic extremists hijacked and intentionally crashed four commercial airliners in three locations. Nearly 3,000 people were killed, including 2,753 in New York City’s World Trade Center towers, which collapsed shortly after being hit. The horrific events and long aftermath of that day provide the backdrop for Falling Man, Don DeLillo’s story of a fictional World Trade Center survivor and his family.
DeLillo introduces Keith Neudecker as he staggers bloodied from the scene of the attacks through the otherworldly streets of New York. At the end of the novel, DeLillo circles back to September 11 with a muted depiction of Keith’s horror inside the tower. In between, the narrative follows Keith and his estranged wife Lianne in the days and years after the attacks. The couple reunites tentatively, and Keith begins a brief affair with a fellow survivor. Through Lianne’s eyes, DeLillo also explores the shadows cast by the day on the lives of Lianne’s mother Nina, Nina’s lover Martin, Lianne and Keith’s son Justin, and the elderly members of a writing group who are in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Three short chapters imagine the life and mind of a September 11 terrorist as he transforms from young student to Islamic radical in the years before the attacks.
Connection and disconnection in the characters’ relationships provide the dramatic tension in Falling Man. After the attacks, Lianne yearns for security and a renewed connection with Keith. Keith wants to be close to his family at first, but he later retreats both emotionally and physically. His affair quickly blooms and dies. Nina’s long-term relationship with Martin falters over their divided views on the causes of terrorism. As Sam Leith of The Spectator notes, “Falling Man is not simply the story of how catastrophe can rekindle human connections. It rather tells the complicated story of how people try to come together, and half succeed, and then fall apart from each other again.” Falling Man also examines the potent appeal of religion and ritual, both for the American characters who seek meaning and order after the disorienting horror of September 11 and for the terrorist who murders in God’s name.
In his long career as a novelist, Don DeLillo has written frequently on the topic of terrorism. A lifelong New Yorker, he seems to have presaged the September 11 attacks with details in some of his work. In the 1977 novel Players, he describes the World Trade Center: “The towers didn’t seem permanent.” The cover of his 1998 book Underworld shows a photograph of the tops of the twin towers shrouded in clouds. Next to them, the silhouette of a bird in flight could, on first glance, be mistaken for a plane.
Because of DeLillo’s interest in New York City and in terrorism, his September 11 novel was eagerly anticipated by readers and critics. When it was published, it was greeted with mixed reviews. Some critics familiar with DeLillo’s earlier work expected a novel that would illuminate the post-September 11 cultural and geopolitical climate in DeLillo’s broad, satirical signature style. Instead, the scope of Falling Man is small, the tone is somber, and Keith Neudecker, DeLillo’s protagonist, is largely unsympathetic. Other reviewers feel Falling Man is important precisely because of the humility with which the acclaimed author explores the traumatic day in the country’s recent past. DeLillo does include one of the sly and shocking elements that are typical of his work. His character Falling Man is a performance artist who wears a safety harness to jump from high places. Dressed in a business suit, Falling Man plunges toward the ground, his attire and body posture mimicking a widely seen news photograph of a man dropping to his death from one of the burning towers. DeLillo leaves the motivation behind Falling Man’s ritual mysterious. This intentional ambiguity is perhaps DeLillo’s way of questioning the value of art, including his own novel, as a response to a personal and public tragedy as painfully raw and recent as the terrorist attacks of September 11.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Describe each character’s response to the September 11 terrorist attacks.
2. Explain the changes in the characters’ relationships as the book progresses.
3. Discuss the roles religion and ritual play in the characters’ lives.
4. Identify Keith’s conflicting desires for connection and disconnection.
5. Identify Lianne’s fears and describe her attempts to deal with them.
6. Discuss possible interpretations of Falling Man’s performance art.
7. Describe Hammad’s transformation as he becomes a terrorist.