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Don DeLillo: Falling Man

There have been quite a few 9/11 novels but this may be the best-known and, for all I know, the best. It is the usual DeLillo style, more fragmented and kaleidoscopic than linear, though with a recognisable plot. The story concerns Keith Neudecker, who was with a small law firm in one of the twin towers attacked on 11 September 2001. He managed to escape, having seen his colleague and friend die. He staggered down the stairs, picked up a random briefcase and got out. He lived nearby so, instead of going to his apartment, he went to the apartment of his estranged wife, Lianne. He was not sure why he did, though the reason he gave was that he wanted to reassure their son, Justin, that he was all right. Lianne has had affairs since their break-up but is currently on her own, working as a part-time editor and, in particular, working with a group of Alzheimer’s patients. Keith’s job has, of course, gone. Just as important, some of his colleagues were his friends and, in particular, his poker-playing buddies. The group had met regularly, had played various kinds of poker and done other things, such as eating and drinking. But, gradually, they narrowed the options. Only five-card stud. No food and only dark-coloured drinks, Becks beer in particular. Then they had revolted against that and reverted to their previous free and easy ways. But now some of them are dead.

Lianne has worked with the group, getting them to write down their thoughts and memories. They all struggle with what they want to write about but all agree on one things. They want to write about the planes. Justin has two friends, brother and sister, whom Keith and Lianne refer to as the Siblings. It becomes apparent that the three children have a secret. They do not think that the towers have fallen yet. They are watching out for the arrival of the planes and, in particular, they are watching out for a man called Bill Lawton. All this has to be kept secret from the adults. Lianne’s mother, Nina, is also part of the story. She is having an affair with a man called Martin, who seems to be somewhat mysterious. He travels frequently to Europe, allegedly dealing in art. But it seems that he is not who he seems to be. He may have a past. Martin is almost certainly not his real name. And he may have been connected with the Baader-Meinhof Group.

Keith, of course, struggles with his life. He more or less resumes his relationship with Lianne. They live together and have sex. However, he finds the owner of the briefcase – Florence – a woman long since divorced and they start a sort of relationship;. He tries to become a father again to Justin but does not succeed very well. He gets a temporary job but that does not last and he turns to becoming a professional poker player, where he meets one of his former poker-playing buddies. Lianne works as an editor and she is nearly asked to edit a badly written book which had been rejected by numerous publishers but is now interesting, as it had predicted the 9/11 events.

DeLillo brilliantly shows the shattered and disrupted lives of a few New Yorkers caught up in the 9/11 events, how they adapt (or don’t adapt), how their lives change, even if they weren’t directly involved, how none of their lives will ever be the same. And round the whole book hovers the image of the Falling Man. While it does, of course, refer to the man who was filmed throwing himself out one of the burning towers, it more particularly refers to a man, a sort of performance artist, who goes around New York, unannounced, mimicking the falling man, by hanging upside down, wearing a business suit, from a protruding beam or similar and just hanging there upside down, supported only by a crude safety harness. He is seen by many New Yorkers and, in particular, Lianne sees him as he hangs over a railway line so that the train passengers will see him. Who he is, which is explained to some degree at the end, is symbolic of the effect of the 9/11 events on New York and New Yorkers.

Publishing history

First published 2007 by Scribner