BOOK DISCUSSION GUIDE
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
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
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
c)chronic physical signs of hyperarousal, including sleep problems,
irritability, trouble concentrating, anger, blackouts, exaggerated startle
response, and hypervigilance to threat. (www.medicinenet.com/posttraumattic_stress_disorder
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
She thought of the resolute hush that fell over the room when the
took up their pens and begin to write, oblivious to the clamor around
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
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
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
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?
article about Don DeLillo
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.