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Title: Falling Man
Author: Don DeLillo

Summary: "There is September 11 and then there are the days after, and finally the years." "Falling Man is a novel about the event that defines turn-of-the-century America. It begins in the smoke and ash of the burning towers and tracks the aftermath of this global tremor in the intimate lives of a few people." "First there is Keith, walking out of the rubble into a life that he'd always imagined belonged to everyone but him. Then Lianne, his estranged wife, memory-haunted, trying to reconcile two versions of the same shadowy man. And their small son Justin, standing at the window, scanning the sky for more planes." "These are lives choreographed by loss, grief and the enormous force of history." Brave and brilliant, Falling Man traces the way the events of September 11 have reconfigured our emotional landscape, our memory and our perception of the world.

Notes: The kid. Godzilla. The siblings. Falling man. The flat, smart, clipped way New Yorkers talk, but also the numb monosyllables of the trauma survivor. This is the language of the living dead, the walking wounded, those living in the aftermath of the shattering of the Twin Towers and the New York and American psyches in Don De Lillo's Falling Man.

The novel published in 2007 was greeted by mixed reviews, lauded as a literary tour-de-force and criticized for its wooden, self-absorbed characters, its essential lack of drama, its falling into the imitative fallacy of being almost plotless, re-enacting the dead inner lives of the survivors by having very little happen. As some reviewers indicated, it was as if De Lillo were fighting against the "magnetic effect of plot":

Plot drew them together more tightly than ever. Plot closed the world to the slenderest line of sight, where everything converges to a point (De Lillo, 174).

Like Toni Morrison's novel of the aftereffects of slavery Beloved; and the 1993 movie Fearless, whose plot reminded me of Falling Man, the novel chronicles post-traumatic life. The psychiatric diagnosis of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is made on the basis of the following groups of symptoms:

a) recurrent re-experiencing of the trauma (intrusive memories, flashbacks, recurrent nightmares, dissociative reliving of the trauma)

b)avoidance to the point of having a phobia about places, people, and things associated with the traumatic event and general numbing of emotional responsiveness

c)chronic physical signs of hyperarousal, including sleep problems, irritability, trouble concentrating, anger, blackouts, exaggerated startle response, and hypervigilance to threat. (

The rituals of poker games where piles of chips are almost, but not quite, twinned, the explosions of rage at slight provocation, the constant allusions to the Twin Towers (use of the word "doubling," seeing in a Morandi still life or natura marta in Italian-- "dead nature "-- the Twin Towers in a pairing of bottles), the obsessive remembering of the details of escaping the Tower, the frenzied sex between the once-estranged husband and wife, all these and much more. point to the obsessive thinking and acting of trauma survivors. The lack of human connection is palpable.

Lianne, the wife and pivotal character, intellectually argues with her mother about politics and religion, barely talks to her husband at all, and feels emotionally attached only to the members of her Alzheimer patient writing group. In these sections, I found myself more connected to the characters who were struggling to keep their memories than to the other characters who were trying to lose theirs. Similarly, in the three short sections narrated by Hammad, one of the airplane hijackers, I found more connection to his passion and struggle to cut himself off from his normal human desires than to the main characters of the novel. Perhaps this is a flaw.

But if there is anything or anyone heroic or redemptive in this novel, it is the act of writing itself. It is in the Word: "This Book is not to be doubted" (De Lillo 23). Lianne remembers the writing group:

She thought of the resolute hush that fell over the room when the members
took up their pens and begin to write, oblivious to the clamor around them...(232)

Researchers in the field of psychotherapy and neuroscience are finding that constructing a coherent narrative is the road out of the land of Trauma. Thus story and words take on a healing power.

Beyond the apparent flatness of plot and character is a thrilling poeticism in the writing of this novel. Horror is treated with a delicacy that only underlines the horror:

...his face warm with the blood on Rumsey's shirt, blood and dust. The man jumped in his grip. There was a noise in his throat, abrupt, a half second, a half gasp, and then blood from somewhere, floating, and Keith turned away, hand still clutching the man's belt. He looked at Rumsey, who'd fallen away from him, upper body lax, face barely belonging. The whole business of being Rumsey was in shambles now... (243)

The book begins and ends with the iconic figure of the falling man, the white shirt flying, the body poised upside down with one leg cocked against the other, an uncanny repetition of the Tarot card of The Hanged Man, a card that suggests surrender. The Tarot Deck also has a card called the Tower, which is on fire, people eerily jumping out. The latter card suggests traumatic change and shifts. Thus does life imitate art.

Falling Man is a difficult and, perhaps flawed book. But its language, along with its imagery, is unforgettable.

Questions for Discussion:
1. Falling Man chronicles a tragic, defining moment in American history, yet the news stories are left out. We see the event through the eyes of the people who witnessed it, or through the story of the terrorist, Hammad. What do you make of DeLillo's choice?

2. Discuss Keith and Lianne's separate pursuits of solace and relief. What does Keith's relationship with Florence provide him? Why does Lianne depend so deeply on her meetings with the Alzheimer's patients? Are there similarities in the way that Keith and Lianne attempt to recuperate and comprehend their new post-9/11 world? What are the differences?

3. One plotline focuses on Nina, Lianne's mother, and Martin, Nina's German lover. What are the issues regarding America and American patriotism that surface in Nina and Martin's debates? What is the role of their story in the novel? Why is it significant that we discover that Martin's real name is Ernst Hechinger and that he was on the periphery of a terrorist group in Germany in the 1970s?

4. Keith eventually enters the professional poker circuit, spending a great majority of his time away from home, in anonymous windowless rooms, gambling. What do you think of Keith's descent into this state of alienation?

5. Why does Lianne believe that Keith wants to kill someone (p. 214)? Both Lianne and Keith have outbursts of anger or violence -- Keith when "shopping" for beds with Florence, Lianne in her encounter with the woman in her apartment building who plays loud Arabic music. Are these episodes symptoms of unexamined disturbance?

6. Children in DeLillo's fiction are often uncannily wise and observant. Keith and Lianne's son Justin and his friends, the twins, try to make sense of the event in secret. They watch with binoculars to see if the planes will come back. They whisper about "Bill Lawton." What do they contribute to the novel? What does their perspective offer?

7. Lianne thinks that Falling Man, the performance artist, "eluded her" (p. 224) - that she felt connected with the other people who watched him fall from the tracks, but "not that man who'd stood above her, detailed and looming" (p. 224). While Lianne researches Falling Man online she comes upon material from a New School panel discussion concerning, "Falling Man as Heartless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror" (p. 220). How would you characterize Falling Man's performances?

8. Besides Falling Man, consider some of the other symbols used in this novel. Discuss the significance of the briefcase and the Morandi paintings.

9. At the end of each of the three parts within the novel is a brief coda featuring Hammad, a terrorist, as the protagonist. What effect do you think these passages have on the novel as a whole? How does the inclusion of the terrorist's perspective affect a story told primarily from the victims' point of view?

10. Is there meaning in the book's narrative structure? It opens with Keith walking out of the wreckage, moves on to explore how Keith and Lianne struggle to cope with life after 9/11, and concludes with the attacks themselves, as Keith watches his friend die and then escapes down the stairs. Why do you think DeLillo both opens and closes the novel in the midst of the chaos? How different, in terms of the narration and connotation, is the introduction from the conclusion?

11. The novel closes with the following lines, "Then he [Keith] saw a shirt come down out of the sky. He walked and saw it fall, arms waving like nothing in this life" (p. 246). Discuss how these concluding sentences made you feel. What do you think DeLillo was trying to accomplish in closing his 9/11 novel in this way?

12. Did you sympathize with Keith and Lianne? Do you think that they're good parents and spouses, or, are these questions made irrelevant given their circumstances following 9/11? Did you feel more strongly connected to one character over another? Consider their interactions and expectations of one another in the aftermath of the attacks. What effect did this have on you as a reader?

13. In novels that explore a tragedy of some kind, redemption is often a crucial element. Is there redemption in this novel? Why or why not?

14. Has Falling Man allowed you to gain new perspective on 9/11? Has it shown you an aspect of the event's consequences that you hadn't considered before?

15. As with any major historic event, people often remember exactly what they were doing when that event occurred. As a group, share your 9/11 experiences. How have your feelings about the attacks changed, if at all, with the passage of time?

Related Information:

Salon article about Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo list of works and biography

Books about Giorgio Morandi's life and works.

Notes provided by Susan Oringel. Questions and some related information provided by Book Browser.

This discussion guide made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency. Sponsored by the Mohawk Valley Library System and participating member libraries.

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