Don DeLillo

Falling Man

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Falling Man Summary

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In Falling Man (2007) Don Delillo explores the aftermath, both immediate and protracted, of the events of 9/11, using the experiences of a small cast of characters to delve into themes of estrangement, loss, distance and silence that will pervade the novel. It is told through a series of vignettes, or short glimpses into the lives of a family of Manhattan residents, that appear in no particular order and lend the novel a feeling of disjointedness. This style mimics the disconnectedness the characters experience in the wake of the tragedy, as they attempt to reconcile their past lives with their lives post-9/11.

In the opening scene protagonist Keith Neudecker, a lawyer working in the World Trade Center, has managed to escape from the collapsing tower and wanders away from the wreckage and chaos in something of a daze. He has no destination in mind until he is asked by a truck driver where he wants to go. It is not revealed that Keith ends up at the apartment belonging to his wife, Lianne, and young son, Justin, until the following chapter.  Lianne and Keith had separated sometime before the attack, with Keith taking up residence at an apartment close enough to the towers to allow him to walk to work.

After 9/11 Keith begins to pick up some of the threads of domestic life again, seeking the comfort of home and family. Lianne recalls that when they were first together, before the estrangement, sex was omnipresent in their relationship, and though they are able to be intimate again, they never fully reconcile their relationship. This is partially because Keith takes a romantic interest in another survivor from the attack, a woman named Florence, who’s briefcase Keith mistakenly grabbed from the stairwell when he fled the building. Though their relationship is also sexual in nature, the two are drawn to each other mainly because of the kinship they feel as survivors. Together they question if they are the same people they were before the towers fell, or if they have somehow changed fundamentally.

While this question of changing identities also affects Lianne, her life after the attack is characterized by reliving the past in various ways. She continues to  run a support group for  patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s, sometimes assigning short writing projects to the group where they can share some of their memories. Lianne immerses herself in this project of working to recover and solidify the memories of the group members and it becomes very trying for her when the group breaks up. Outside of this support group, Lianne is constantly re-affected by the trauma of the attacks, she sees images of the towers everywhere, particularly in a still life painting by Giorgio Morandi (her mother admits to seeing some architecture in the background, but doesn’t necessarily think it is the twin towers). She also takes an interest in a performing artist called Falling Man, who wears business attire and jumps from buildings while wearing a safety harness, to evoke the way people had jumped from the burning and collapsing buildings. As all of this goes on in the lives of the adults, Justin and his friends use a pair of binoculars to scan the skies for more planes from “Bill Lawton,” their mispronunciation of bin Laden.

Though Lianne is invested in the revival of her marriage, and in Keith’s emotional and physical recovery, her closest relationship is with her mother, Nina.  Nina openly admits that she doesn’t think her daughter should have married Keith, and is critical of elements of their relationship both before and after the attack. She surrounds herself with artwork, particularly still- life portraits, so her apartment seems like a museum. Nina is even dating an art dealer, Martin, and the two have several deep discussions about the nature of god and the meaning of life throughout the novel. Ultimately, a difference of opinion on these matters leads to an estrangement between Nina and Martin as well.

Keith, unable or unwilling in integrate completely back into the life he led before 9/11 eventually leaves his family and joins the professional poker circuit. This is partially an act of homage to coworker whose death he witnessed during the collapse of the towers.

Interspersed throughout the novel are small sections set apart from the action taking place in Manhattan.  They describe the life of a Middle Eastern man named Hammad as he takes flight lessons on the Gulf Coast. It is revealed that Hammad is one of the hijackers involved in the attack and the novel ends with a vivid and gruesome description of the crash, and what Keith experienced from the inside of the tower.

It is not an ending of resolution so much as it is repetition, closing on a mirror of the opening scene. After 9/11 the very fabric of the daily life of these characters had changed; there is the constant expectation of another attack mingled with the traumatic memories of the first.