46 pages 1 hour read

Don DeLillo

Falling Man

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2007

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Summary and Study Guide


Falling Man is a 2007 novel by American author Don DeLillo. The novel explores the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. This guide uses an eBook version of the 2011 Picador edition of Falling Man.

Plot Summary

On September 11, 2001, a group of 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacks commercial passenger planes and attempt to crash them into American landmarks. In addition to one plane that crashed into the Pentagon and one that crash-landed outside Washington in Pennsylvania, two planes crashed into the Twin Towers at the World Trade Center in New York City. The towers collapsed after being hit by the planes. Keith Neudecker is a lawyer who works in one of the towers. On the day of the attack, he wanders through the dusty, chaotic streets of New York in a daze. Having escaped the collapsing buildings, he does not know what to do. A passing truck picks him up, and he asks to be taken to the apartment belonging to his estranged wife, Lianne. Keith and Lianne have been separated for several years, but they are not officially divorced. They have a young son named Justin. Lianne ushers Keith into her apartment and tries to treat his wounds. Like everyone else, she is shocked by the attack and cannot process what has happened.

In the wake of the attacks, Keith moves into Lianne’s apartment. They do not talk much about what has happened to him, but he seems to seek out the comforts of domestic life. Lianne is pleased with the companionship, and she is happy that Justin can spend time with his father. In the weeks after the attack, Keith meets a fellow survivor from the attack on the towers, Florence Givens, and they develop an intimate and, eventually, a sexual relationship. He thinks he should tell Lianne about this affair, but he never does. He struggles to define why he needs to talk to Florence about their shared experiences.

At the same time, Lianne tries to return to normal life. She learns about a performance artist named Falling Man who uses a safety harness to dangle himself from tall buildings, recreating a famous image of a man committing suicide by jumping out of the towers on the day of the attack. Lianne works with a group of Alzheimer’s patients, running a therapy group where the patients write and share stories, though their memories are beginning to fade. Simultaneously, Lianne notices that her son struggles to understand his own traumatic memories of the terrorist attack. Justin and his friends constantly scan the New York skies in search of more planes, and they refuse to accept that the towers have fallen. Lianne also does not understand the developing nature of her relationship with Keith. She talks about this with her mother, Nina, who suffers from a series of medical issues. Her mother has a lover named Martin, a German art dealer who was once a member of a student political group that committed acts of terrorism. He seems more inclined to empathize with the Al-Qaeda terrorists, and Lianne worries that her mother could be in love with a man with such a complicated and murky past.

The characters struggle to return to normal life. As the world changes, Lianne and Justin attend an anti-war march, and Justin is fascinated by the diverse people who hand out leaflets. Keith becomes a professional poker player, spending an increasing amount of time in Las Vegas and only returning to New York for a few days at a time. He finds that the repetition and the routine of poker comfort him in an ever-changing world. An old friend of Keith’s also plays poker in Las Vegas, though Keith eventually distances himself from the man and withdraws into isolation. Nina dies, and Martin moves back to Germany. While organizing everything in the wake of her mother’s death, Lianne has several conversations with Martin before never seeing him again. Their philosophical conversations explore the meaning of life and the nature of God.

At the end of each of the novel’s three parts, the story switches to an earlier point in time. A young Muslim man named Hammad studies engineering in Germany. He becomes friends with a group of radical religious scholars, including Amir (whose full name is Mohamed Mohamed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta). Though Hammad is intrigued by Western culture and women, his religious friends convince him of the evils of Western society. Hammad joins them as they move to Florida and attend flight schools. Based on their unique and radical interpretation of Islam, the men plan the September 11 attacks as part of a religious war against the West. They are funded by unknown people in the Middle East. On the day of the attacks, Hammad and other men hijack a plane and fly to New York City. Hammad sits in the cockpit and fastens his seatbelt as the plane crashes into the tower.

In a continuation of the flashback, Keith is in the tower at the moment of the attack. He is dazed and confused, struggling to understand what has happened. He exits his office and tries to find his friend, although his friend is fatally wounded, and Keith is forced to leave him. Along with thousands of others, Keith slowly walks out of the building. Once he is out, the tower collapses. The streets are filled with dust, ash, and blood.