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Falling Man: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, May 15, 2007
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The defining moment of turn-of-the-21st-century America is perfectly portrayed in National Book Award winner Don DeLillo's Falling Man. The book takes its title from the electrifying photograph of the man who jumped or fell from the North Tower on 9/11. It also refers to a performance artist who recreates the picture. The artist straps himself into a harness and in high visibility areas jumps from an elevated structure, such as a railway overpass or a balcony, startling passersby as he hangs in the horrifying pose of the falling man.
Keith Neudecker, a lawyer and survivor of the attack, arrives on his estranged wife Lianne's doorstep, covered with soot and blood, carrying someone else's briefcase. In the days and weeks that follow, moments of connection alternate with complete withdrawl from his wife and young son, Justin. He begins a desultory affair with the owner of the briefcase based only on their shared experience of surviving: "the timeless drift of the long spiral down." Justin uses his binoculars to scan the skies with his friends, looking for "Bill Lawton" (a misunderstood version of bin Laden) and more killing planes. Lianne suddenly sees Islam everywhere: in a postcard from a friend, in a neighbor's music--and is frightened and angered by its ubiquity. She is riveted by the Falling Man. Her mother Nina's response is to break up with her long-time German lover over his ancient politics. In short, the old ways and days are gone forever; a new reality has taken over everyone's consciousness. This new way is being tried on, and it doesn't fit. Keith and Lianne weave into reconciliation. Keith becomes a professional poker player and, when questioned by Lianne about the future of this enterprise, he thinks: "There was one final thing, too self-evident to need saying. She wanted to be safe in the world and he did not."
DeLillo also tells the story of Hammad, one of the young men in flight training on the Gulf Coast, who says: "We are willing to die, they are not. This is our srength, to love death, to feel the claim of armed martyrdom." He also asks: "But does a man have to kill himself in order to accomplish something in the world?" His answer is that he is one of the hijackers on the plane that strikes the North Tower.
At the end of the book, De Lillo takes the reader into the Tower as the plane strikes the building. Through all the terror, fire and smoke, De Lillo's voice is steady as a metronome, recounting exactly what happens to Keith as he sees friends and co-workers maimed and dead, navigates the stairs and, ultimately, is saved. Though several post-9/11 novels have been written, not one of them is as compellingly true, faultlessly conceived, and beautifully written as Don De Lillo's Falling Man. --Valerie Ryan
From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. 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)
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_Falling Man_ focuses on Keith and Lianne, a New York couple who have direct experience with the plane attack on the Towers. Keith was actually at work in the Towers that day, and though he escaped with little more physical injury than a damaged wrist, he and Lianne, who had previously been separated, come back together as a reaction to this tragedy. Keith has even escaped what one doctor calls 'organic shrapnel': pieces of human that get propelled into victims' bodies as the result of a suicide bomber.
But this organic shrapnel is one of the metaphorical centers of this book. The blowing apart of humans, the scattering of humanity, so that they are clutching for whatever they can find that gives them meaning. Lianne explores art and volunteering for an Alzheimer's writing group. Keith throws himself into poker and his estranged wife's bed and an obsession with a briefcase he carried out of the Towers without thinking.
But DeLillo, as any great writer does, examines to actualities of existence, the search for meaning that will almost always direct one down a different path than planned. Memory and philosophy intermix just like bits of suicide bomber flesh may bury itself into the face and chest of the bystander, and the result is that a horrifying event such as this will always be a part of you. Keith and Lianne are looking for a way to live with what has happened to them, and sometimes the bravest thing one can do is accept the realities of themselves and not accept a false change done out of fright. Just like the strange wisdom of Lorne Michaels' question to Giuliani on Saturday Night Live when, weeks after 9/11 he said, "Can we be funny again?", DeLillo shows us that there is courage in allowing yourself to fall short of being a good person, if that is where you were headed all along.
Keith Neudecker is a real estate lawyer working in the World Trade Center when the plane hits. He survives and walks back into the life of his estranged wife right after the accident. In these tragic circumstances they try to patch up the remnants of their relationship. They have a precocious seven year old son, Justin, who doesn't say much but is affected enough by the attacks to start taking a binocular to the skies in search for more planes. Neither Lianne or Keith are especially sympathetic characters, but it's hard to tell if it's them or the way their personalities have been affected by the attacks. Near the end of the novel they are discussing what each wants and Lianne tells Keith, "You want to kill somebody". One of the things that is a bit perplexing about the story is we don't really know exactly what kind of people they were before the attacks. Keith's taciturn nature is what seems to have separated him from Lianne and the tragedy just magnifies this to a point where he drops out of life, he is so numb. Also, because of the attacks, both of them are on edge, prone to rage and have episodes of violence.
I actually came to appreciate the novel a little bit more after finishing it than while I was actually reading it. This was partly due to the vague writing style of DeLillo. He seems to be trying too hard, and the prose sometimes comes off a bit pretentious like a young novelist trying to find himself at a creative writing workshop. Give me the prose of John Irving, Russell Banks or Cormac McCarthy any day. The sections of the book dealing with Lianne's senior citizens' writing group and Lianne's mother and her German art dealer lover were particularly excruciating. And boring. But the impression the novel leaves as a whole is that this was a point in time that clearly separates everything that came before from everything after.
The best writing actually occurs in the closing sections of the three separate parts of the book which trace the doings of Hammad, one of the terrorists who ends up on the plane to hit the first tower. And the seamless way he connects Hammad and Keith at the end of the book is quite good.
Some people have mentioned that this novel wouldn't be a good choice for the first DeLillo novel to read. They may have been right. But I still plan to read "Underworld" and "White Noise".
** 1/2 stars (maybe ***)