Synopses & Reviews
There is September 11 and then there are the days after, and finally the years.
Falling Man is a magnificent, essential 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. It is cathartic, beautiful, heartbreaking.
"When DeLillo's novel Players was published in 1977, one of the main characters, Pammy, worked in the newly built World Trade Center. She felt that 'the towers didn't seem permanent. They remained concepts, no less transient for all their bulk than some routine distortion of light.' DeLillo's new novel begins 24 years later, with Keith Neudecker standing in a New York City street covered with dust, glass shards and blood, holding somebody else's briefcase, while that intimation of the building's mortality is realized in a sickening roar behind him. On that day, Keith, one half of a classic DeLillo well-educated married couple, returns to Lianne, from whom he'd separated, and to their young son, Justin. Keith and Lianne know it is Keith's Lazarus moment, although DeLillo reserves the bravura sequence that describes Keith's escape from the first tower as well as the last moments of one of the hijackers, Hammad until the end of the novel. Reconciliation for Keith and Lianne occurs in a sort of stunned unconsciousness; the two hardly engage in the teasing, ludic interchanges common to couples in other DeLillo novels. Lianne goes through a paranoid period of rage against everything Mideastern; Keith is drawn to another survivor. Lianne's mother, Nina, roils her 20-year affair with Martin, a German leftist; Keith unhooks from his law practice to become a professional poker player. Justin participates in a child's game involving binoculars, plane spotting and waiting for a man named 'Bill Lawton.' DeLillo's last novel, Cosmopolis, was a disappointment, all attitude (DeLillo is always a brilliant stager of attitude) and no heart. This novel is a return to DeLillo's best work. No other writer could encompass 9/11 quite like DeLillo does here, down to the interludes following Hammad as he listens to a man who 'was very genius' Mohammed Atta. The writing has the intricacy and purpose of a wiring diagram. The mores of the after-the-event are represented with no cuteness save, perhaps, the falling man performance artist. It is as if Players, The Names, Libra, White Noise, Underworld with their toxic events, secret histories, moral panics converge, in that day's narrative of systematic vulnerability, scatter and tentative regrouping. (June)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"[A] devastating novel....And it's a testament to DeLillo's brilliant command of language that readers will feel once again, whether they want to or not, as scared and as sad as they felt that day." Booklist (Starred Review)
"Falling Man feels small and unsatisfying and inadequate....Although flashes of Mr. DeLillo's extraordinary gifts for language can be found in his depiction of the surreal events Keith witnessed on 9/11...the remainder of the novel feels tired and brittle." Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Falling Man feels like the first genuine work of art [about 9/11]. Literature, Ezra Pound said, is news that stays news, and reading Falling Man is like looking into a mirror and seeing the familiar face there as if for the first time." Newsweek
"[A] powerful and direct account of the atrocity and its aftermath....Reading the virtuoso first pages of his novel, we see the catastrophe anew...as if that September morning had dawned again, fresh and bright." New York Observer
"Falling Man...provides a context that only moves and engages us because our thoughts wander, away from the book itself, to our own memories of that ghastly day....Falling Man will be called a good book. It is not a good book." Daniel Handler, Newsday
"[A] gripping, haunting ensemble piece, much less about the public, historical event than about its psychological radiation through the lives of a single New York City family." Los Angeles Times
"[B]rilliant and awe-producing, incredibly close to a full-blown masterpiece and giving us plenty to ponder for a long time." Chicago Tribune
"Like an impressive spice collection, Falling Man has many elements to choose from the Sept. 11 drama. DeLillo's choices, though, produce a sharp, bitter aftertaste rather than a fulsome, satisfying meal." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Nothing, no docudrama, fiction, theater or reporting, can match DeLillo's capture of the precise, concrete language by which we defined ourselves in the shadow of 9/11." Miami Herald
"Falling Man isn't one of DeLillo's best works, despite flashes of the intense, intellectually chilling writing that propelled Underworld....DeLillo is less successful in imagining the inner thoughts of the terrorists as the planes head for the World Trade Center. Here he seems more like Falling Man, whose art is mere re-enactment." USA Today
"Sept. 11, at least for a time, rubbed our noses in the immediacy and irrationality of death. In examining its effects on a few of the survivors, DeLillo is seeking to restore our collective awareness of the fragility of life....Reading this absorbing work makes one wonder what the hell we're doing with our lives." Houston Chronicle
"[W]hat I asked of DeLillo's Falling Man
was not that it be inventive, but that it be...commensurate to all the falling men, and the falling women, and their agony; commensurate, at the very least, to the capsule profiles that people forced themselves to read day after day, five years ago. And it's not. It's a portrait of grief, to be sure, but it puts grief in the air, as a cultural atmospheric, without giving us anything to mourn. It captures our subsequent fall from grace...without ever suggesting a reason for it other than the fact that grace is awfully hard to come by DeLillo's world." Tom Junod, Esquire
(read the entire Esquire review
"More than towers fall in DeLillo's novel. But the social harnesses that keep his characters from hitting the pavement marriage, family, church, poker don't arrest their descents altogether. One wishes DeLillo had written a book that made us want to reach out and catch them ourselves." Heller McAlpin, The Christian Science Monitor
(read the entire CSM review
"The book, one feels, should either have omitted the terrorists altogether or trained its gaze centrally on them, as DeLillo sustainedly pictured the impotence and resentment of Lee Harvey Oswald in Libra
. As it is done here, the fleeting imagining of radical evil seems shallow, and only adds to the general impression of a book that is all limbs many articulations and joints, an artful map of connections, but finally no living, pulsing center." James Wood, The New Republic
(read the entire New Republic review
In this essential work of fiction, DeLillo traces the way the events of September 11 kindled or rekindled relationships and reconfigured Americas perceptions of the world in a novel that is beautiful, heartbreaking, and, ultimately, redemptive.
About the Author
Don DeLillo is the author of fourteen novels, including Underworld, Libra, and White Noise, and three plays. He has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Jerusalem Prize. In 2006, Underworld was named one of the three best novels of the last twenty-five years by the New York Times Book Review, and in 2000 it won the William Dean Howells Medal of the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the most distinguished work of fiction of the past five years.
Reading Group Guide
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?
Enhance Your Book Club:
1. The paintings of artist Giorgio Morandi are featured as objects of interest in Falling Man. Read more about him and view some of his work at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giorgio_Morandi or on museum sites such as www.moma.org or http://www.metmuseum.org. Look into your local art museum's collections, and if it has a Morandi painting, visit the museum with your group.
2. 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?
3. Don DeLillo is a prolific and critically acclaimed author. Read this review of DeLillo titles in New York Magazine and pick another DeLillo book to read as a companion text. http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/31522/