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.
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About the Author
Hometown:Westchester County, New York
Date of Birth:November 20, 1936
Place of Birth:New York City
Education:Fordham University, 1958
Read an Excerpt
Falling ManA Novel
By Don DeLillo
ScribnerCopyright © 2007 Don DeLillo
All right reserved.
It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night. He was walking north through rubble and mud and there were people running past holding towels to their faces or jackets over their heads. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mouths. They had shoes in their hands, a woman with a shoe in each hand, running past him. They ran and fell, some of them, confused and ungainly, with debris coming down around them, and there were people taking shelter under cars.
The roar was still in the air, the buckling rumble of the fall. This was the world now. Smoke and ash came rolling down streets and turning corners, busting around corners, seismic tides of smoke, with office paper flashing past, standard sheets with cutting edge, skimming, whipping past, otherworldly things in the morning pall.
He wore a suit and carried a briefcase. There was glass in his hair and face, marbled bolls of blood and light. He walked past a Breakfast Special sign and they went running by, city cops and security guards running, hands pressed down on gun butts to keep the weapons steady.
Things inside were distant and still, where he was supposed to be. It happened everywhere around him, a car half buried in debris, windows smashed and noises coming out,radio voices scratching at the wreckage. He saw people shedding water as they ran, clothes and bodies drenched from sprinkler systems. There were shoes discarded in the street, handbags and laptops, a man seated on the sidewalk coughing up blood. Paper cups went bouncing oddly by.
The world was this as well, figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air. The noise lay everywhere they ran, stratified sound collecting around them, and he walked away from it and into it at the same time.
There was something else then, outside all this, not belonging to this, aloft. He watched it coming down. A shirt came down out of the high smoke, a shirt lifted and drifting in the scant light and then falling again, down toward the river.
They ran and then they stopped, some of them, standing there swaying, trying to draw breath out of the burning air, and the fitful cries of disbelief, curses and lost shouts, and the paper massed in the air, contracts, resumés blowing by, intact snatches of business, quick in the wind.
He kept on walking. There were the runners who'd stopped and others veering into sidestreets. Some were walking backwards, looking into the core of it, all those writhing lives back there, and things kept falling, scorched objects trailing lines of fire.
He saw two women sobbing in their reverse march, looking past him, both in running shorts, faces in collapse.
He saw members of the tai chi group from the park nearby, standing with hands extended at roughly chest level, elbows bent, as if all of this, themselves included, might be placed in a state of abeyance.
Someone came out of a diner and tried to hand him a bottle of water. It was a woman wearing a dust mask and a baseball cap and she withdrew the bottle and twisted off the top and then thrust it toward him again. He put down the briefcase to take it, barely aware that he wasn't using his left arm, that he'd had to put down the briefcase before he could take the bottle. Three police vans came veering into the street and sped downtown, sirens sounding. He closed his eyes and drank, feeling the water pass into his body taking dust and soot down with it. She was looking at him. She said something he didn't hear and he handed back the bottle and picked up the briefcase. There was an aftertaste of blood in the long draft of water.
He started walking again. A supermarket cart stood upright and empty. There was a woman behind it, facing him, with police tape wrapped around her head and face, yellow caution tape that marks the limits of a crime scene. Her eyes were thin white ripples in the bright mask and she gripped the handle of the cart and stood there, looking into the smoke.
In time he heard the sound of the second fall. He crossed Canal Street and began to see things, somehow, differently. Things did not seem charged in the usual ways, the cobbled street, the cast-iron buildings. There was something critically missing from the things around him. They were unfinished, whatever that means. They were unseen, whatever that means, shop windows, loading platforms, paint-sprayed walls. Maybe this is what things look like when there is no one here to see them.
He heard the sound of the second fall, or felt it in the trembling air, the north tower coming down, a soft awe of voices in the distance. That was him coming down, the north tower.
The sky was lighter here and he could breathe more easily. There were others behind him, thousands, filling the middle distance, a mass in near formation, people walking out of the smoke. He kept going until he had to stop. It hit him quickly, the knowledge that he couldn't go any farther.
He tried to tell himself he was alive but the idea was too obscure to take hold. There were no taxis and little traffic of any kind and then an old panel truck appeared, Electrical Contractor, Long Island City, and it pulled alongside and the driver leaned toward the window on the passenger's side and examined what he saw, a man scaled in ash, in pulverized matter, and asked him where he wanted to go. It wasn't until he got in the truck and shut the door that he understood where he'd been going all along.
Copyright © 2007 by Don DeLillo
Excerpted from Falling Man by Don DeLillo Copyright © 2007 by Don DeLillo. Excerpted by permission.
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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/