9/11 Trauma in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man

“DeLillo’s oddly original phrasings hauntingly evoke the high tension, distorted emotions and unexpected juxtapositions of those awful days just after 9/11” – Dan Cryer, San Francisco Chronicle

This small review is featured in the Scribner edition of Falling Man (2007) and accurately describes how the literary devices used in the novel portray the traumatic events of 9/11 as distorted and awful. However, the novel also portrays trauma as unrepresentable and offers a counter-narrative of the government’s and media’s heroic-narrative; it portrays the events of 9/11 as an unrecoverable trauma; the novel is un-heroic, the narrative is unpatriotic, and the characters never redeem themselves or recover their lost identities and relationships. As M. C. Michael explains in “Don DeLillo’s Falling Man: Countering Post-9/11 Narratives of Heroic Masculinity”, the American media and Bush administration tried to constitute a narrative “which overly asserted and championed traditional notions of heroic, militarized masculinity that privilege physical strength and power accorded by such strength” (74). The main characters in Falling Man possess quite the opposite of these traits; they are severely traumatised and cannot deal with their trauma. Kristiaan Versluys describes Falling Man as “without a doubt, the darkest and the starkest […] [I]t describes a trauma with no exit, a drift toward death with hardly a glimpse of redemption. […] The endless re-enactment of trauma presented in Falling Man allows for no accommodation or resolution” (1). Kavadlo agrees as well: “Thus DeLillo presents the reader with an utterly changed, collapsed, ‘fallen’ dystopian city and establishes a mood of uncanny sadness that permeates the novel” (120). This novel is indeed a hopeless narrative and it begins with one of the main characters and focalisers: Keith Neudecker, who barely escapes death when exiting one of the towers, moments before the plane hits the second tower. The other main character is Keith’s wife, Lianne; she engrosses herself in 9/11 by watching the news nonstop and collecting newspaper articles, despite not being an immediate survivor. They have a son named Justin, who seems to deal with the events as badly as his parents, by searching for the planes in the sky with his friends. Keith also becomes involved in a sexual relationship with another 9/11 survivor named Florence. However, the relationships with Lianne and Florence do not work out and Keith decides to move to Vegas and attempt a professional poker-player career (poker being a part of his old hobby and pastime with friends). In the beginning of the novel, right after the attacks, Keith goes to Lianne’s home—his previous home, while being in a daze: “it wasn’t until he got in the truck and shut the door that he understood where he’d been going all along” (DeLillo 7). Instinctively, Keith returns to his estranged wife and child; while this could be the set-up to become a narrative in which a relationship is restored through the trauma and horror of 9/11, the relationship is never redeemed nor the trauma overcome.

8c48784b-d823-493b-b108-c52a522c9d2bThere are several literary devices that function to support the tone of ultimate downfall. The first is the unchronological structure of the novel; flashbacks and jumps in narrative occur seemingly randomly in the sense that the paragraphs are seemingly unrelated, going from one subject to another. Another prominent technique demonstrated is the point of view, which is third person, but the characters are hardly ever mentioned by name. For example, Keith is not named when he is the focaliser and he is not introduced as a character in the first chapter nor any other chapter—he simply is there like the rest of the characters; “he wore a suit and carried a briefcase” (3) is the only description of Keith given in the first chapter, which creates the “everyperson” effect. In effect, it is difficult for the reader to comprehend when Keith is the focaliser, until his name is mentioned in the chapter. In addition to the confusing point of view, direct speech dialogue is another technique to create confusion, because the dialogues are direct quotations without often indicating who says what that the reader loses track of who is who. More confusion arises when taking in account the lack of descriptive passages; the only passages which are descriptive are reminiscing flashbacks or engaging poker games, which serve to escape reality and 9/11 trauma. The paragraphs change so often that it hinders any attempt at coherent reading. In the book Out of the Blue (2009), Kristiaan Versluys discusses a similar view of the novel:

[T]he gamble DeLillo took with this book is that he tries stylistically and narratively to suggest the enervating effect of this multiple fall. In order to evoke the sense of attrition and lassitude that characterizes clinical melancholia, he has gutted his style sentence by sentence, has continuously broken the narrative momentum, has tethered his characters either to their murderous, humanity-denying beliefs or, more prominently, to their future-denying traumas. (47)

These literary techniques replicate the symptoms of trauma of which, according to the NHS’ webpagePost-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – Symptoms”, the relevant symptoms portrayed in Falling Man are concentration issues, irritability, mood swings, feeling disconnected or unable to form close relationships, and re-enacting the event (NHS Choices). While some of these literary devices function to portray this unheroic, unrecoverable type of trauma, other devices portray the classic trauma theory approach of the unrepresentable and unspeakable which was reflected in the first wave of 9/11 trauma literature.

The novel is unchronological, because there are flashbacks to events of the character’s childhood, but also to September 11th, when the main character is reliving the attacks. Through this unchrological structure, the effect of the 9/11 trauma is reinforced. The last chapter of the novel features the events of the traumatic day. This return to the beginning of the novel signifies an inescapable circle of trauma. Kavadlo discusses that “Falling Man undermines its linearity, which both begins and ends with the towers’ fall, and the individuality of its characters, who are nearly impossible to visualize, seldom described, and routinely introduced by referenceless pronouns” (Kavadlo 48). This linearity is undermined to emphasise the effect of the counter-narrative, because linearity and chronology suggest structure. However, this novel disregards all of these to emphasise trauma. In addition to the introduction and the conclusion of the novel, 9/11 is revisited twice again in chapters three and six. As McNally, Professor in Psychology at Harvard University, explains in his work Remembering Trauma (2003), “Rather than merely remembering the trauma, sufferers seemed to relive it again and again as if it were happening in the present” (8). Through the structure of the novel, it becomes evident that Keith is reliving these events and cannot escape or recover from his trauma: “to be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event” (Caruth 4-5). This means that the trauma victim relives the event over and over again, whether through nightmares, flashbacks, or compulsive tendencies, like Lianne who collects obituaries of the victims. Kavadlo agrees, but also contextualises this fictional experience of Keith to 9/11 itself; he writes that “the novel’s harrowing opening, the recurring narration of the same events, written and rewritten, becomes analogous to the repeated footage of the planes destroying the towers on television, and the way in which the trauma victim relives his pain endlessly” (48). There is a parallel between the novel’s structure and the repeated footage, and so in extent the American audience watching the footage, which suggests the reach of Falling Man as novel. It is primarily accessible and readable for a 9/11 trauma victim, meaning that the novel itself is also a way to relive the trauma, like the footage on television. The return to the day at the conclusion resembles the classic approach of trauma theory, where trauma is treated as a latent disease that has an “incubation period” before it hits, which is the “latency” effect in classic approach to trauma theory. Indeed, “the end of Falling Man returns to its narrative beginning, suggesting that we must return to the traumatic moment in order to know it” (Kavadlo 53), which means that the novel’s structure reflects Caruth’s theory. If the novel is treated with such an approach, then it would make sense that the trauma is revisited at the conclusion, and that in this narrative the trauma is unrecoverable.

Keith then symbolises the 9/11 trauma victim who was unable to recover from his trauma. Balaev explains that trauma fiction “provides a picture of the individual who suffers, but paints it in such a way as to suggest that this protagonist is an “everyperson” figure (The Nature of Trauma in American Novels 17). This is done in Falling Man by excessively using pronouns, but in a way that “leaves its pronouns without antecedents, in a way that challenges what we think of characterizations” (Kavadlo 48). Keith embodies any traumatised American man through the use of pronouns. Versluys notices that “throughout the novel, the use of “he” and “she” is abundant. Few times is the main character referred to by his name and chapters and paragraphs usually begin with “he” and “she”.

11worldtrade_337-span-articleLargeThe use of narrative point of view has two effects, namely creating a sense of dissociation and “aloofness” (Versluys 24). Firstly, this pronoun use serves to portray Keith’s dissociation with his surroundings. People are not described, they are simply referred to as “they”; for example, in chapter one,

He was walking north […]. They had handkerchiefs pressed to their mounts. 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. (DeLillo 3)

The first chapter fails to introduce or describe the main character, but sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Keith is simply there just like the woman with a shoe in each hand in the quote above. While the image of New York after 9/11 is bleak and full of terror, the chapter reads as a dissociated daze. Obviously, this is the signifying traumatic moment, and the use of pronouns supports that. The phrasing also supports this dissociation and traumatic moment. This effect of dissociation and aloofness is a distance between the reader and the novel and creates a sense of isolation. However, keeping the Bush administration in mind, which wanted to make the everyday man a hero, the referenceless pronouns and lack of descriptions fit the counter-narrative this novel tries to set. This “everyperson” is no hero—he is a victim.

While the structure and point of view in the novel function to emphasise dissociation and to provide a counter-narrative to the heroic narrative, other literary devices in the novel represent the unspeakable and unrepresentable of the trauma. The novel fails to describe the actions of characters or events of the narrative. The chapters do not seem connected, the paragraphs do not seem coherent, and even the dialogues do not seem to respond to each other. While there are some passages that seem descriptive and long, most are short, abrupt, and more often than not contain complete sentences; and so, “like the novel itself, Keith’s story presents a series of abstractions, sensations, descriptions and vignettes” (Kavadlo 48). This might contradict each other, but both phrasing styles support the symptoms of trauma, dissociation and isolation. This places the novel within the early wave of 9/11 literature of being unable to express 9/11 in words.

The chapters of Falling Man are filled with long dwindling descriptive or introspective passages, yet they do not reveal the interiority of Keith. They cause quite the opposite effect of distance. Balaev describes the use of such a style is to create a dissociating effect. The language in DeLillo, the author of the novel, uses a stream of consciousness to describe the traumatic experience. Kavadlo claims that

DeLillo’s language straddles the line between reader and character, creating a particular kind of stream of consciousness—not a Modernist, subjective interior, as much as liminal, linguistic space where reader and character, men and women, violence and redemption, prose and poetry exist simultaneously as possibilities (51).

He proposes that the language is on the boundary of poetry: “This description, with its inevitable refrain of falling, presents the paradox of beautiful yet elegiac language, and lends itself more to poetic than narrative analysis” (54) and even goes as far to claim that “Falling Man presents a novel in the form of poetry, or maybe a poem in the form of a novel” (55). This poetic style emphasises the characters’ inability to articulate as they “search for coordinates and for a language to articulate this changed world but struggle to achieve mastery over the accumulating signs and symbols” (Randal 125). This poetic form reflects the trauma theory that postulates the concept of the unspeakable, because poetry is not prose. This meansthat the trauma cannot be described in comprehensible language and employs a different writing technique to describe the 9/11 trauma. However, DeLillo This can be seen with Keith’s son Justin, as he decides to speak in monosyllabic words only, but also with Keith himself as he thinks of “something out of nowhere, a phrase, organic shrapnel”; this phrase “felt familiar but meant nothing to him” (DeLillo 83). As 9/11 changed New York literally and conceptually, Americans struggled to reshape the manner in which they viewed New York and America. Therefore, this poetic tendency of the novel fits the trend of the unrepresentable theme in the early 9/11 novels, where the trauma was so significant that it cannot be said, which reflects the theory of Caruth.

This style of writing evokes a mood of detachment during the entire novel, because the reader is put at a distance from the narrative and from the characters, which reflects on Keith’s traumatised psyche. We, as readers, do not gain insight in what Keith is going through from his actions; they simply happen. This coincides with Freud’s concept of traumatic latency, meaning that the trauma symptoms are belated. There is a gap between the character and his action, and there is a gap between the reader and the character. Keith does not discuss the trauma he goes through, nor does it become clear from the narrative, until the end where the event itself is described in detail. This coincides with an example of Caruth’s theory of trauma; she explains that trauma victims suffer from “the inability fully to witness the event as it occurs, or the ability to witness the event fully at the cost of witnessing oneself. Central to the very immediacy of this experience, that is, is a gap that carries the force of the event” (7). Keith, hardly hurt, exits the scene of trauma. He is not aware of the events himself; he is not even aware where he is going until he has escaped ground zero. In his daily life, Keith seems to have become detached: “nothing seemed familiar, being here, in a family again, and he felt strange to himself, or always had, but it was different now because he was watching” (DeLillo 82). His personal life has become disrupted, which makes him detached from himself and distorts his reaction to things such as a woman riding a horse to the park (130):

It was something that belonged to another landscape, something inserted, a conjuring that resembled for the briefest second some half-seen image only half believed in the seeing, when the witness wonders what has happened to the meaning of things, to tree, street, stone, wind, simple words lost in the falling ash (DeLillo 130).

This sentence, which seems like a poetic passage, reveals such a disrupted reaction to something rather ordinary. Keith understood only after “a long moment” that the woman “had to come out of a stable somewhere nearby” (130). The manner in which Keith’s brain works has become different, as is the case with many trauma victims; Keith has certainly not become less intelligent per se, because he becomes a professional poker player as “he studied the cards and knew the tendencies” and he can even read the poker players and their distinguish tics from genuine reactions to the cards; “the blinking was not a tell” (252), but he cannot remember their names and refers to one woman as “the blinking woman” (252). Poker has been important to Keith and he is “deeply nostalgic when he recalls the men’s camaraderie – he associates this with a kind of innocence before the ‘fall’ – but also, crucially, he admires the seriousness of purpose and the necessary discipline required to play” (Randal 121). For Keith, especially after the attacks, poker becomes his means of escape and his way to cope—so much so that he decides to move to Las Vegas to become a professional poker player. In Las Vegas he feels at peace, “hemmed in all the same, enclosed by the dimness and low ceiling and by the thick residue of smoke that adhered to his skin and carried decades of crowd and action”, and he even stays there until eight o’clock in the morning, losing himself between the “acres of neon slots” (DeLillo 241). In the casino “this was never over” and “that was the point”, because “there was nothing outside the game but faded space” (243); here he can lose himself and at the same time he “was never more than himself” whilst playing poker (286). Playing poker, Keith “enters a kind of trance” (Randal 123), while focusing on these poker games, because they represent the structure and fun he had playing. This structure and “necessary discipline” is something he needs in order to cope with his trauma. The passages that describe these poker games have a poetic sense of rhythm:

The chips were there. Behind the ambient noise and stray voices, there was the sound of tossed chips, raked chips forty or fifty tables stacking chips, fingers reading and counting, balancing the stacks, clay chips with smooth edges, rubbing, sliding, clicking, days and nights of distant hiss like insect friction. (DeLillo 286)

The repetition of the word “chips” seems to distort the word, as if staring at a word for too long, and by repeating the word so often it replicates the sound a chip makes when hitting a surface or when being tossed. The background noise of the chips nearly seems to become a self-meditating mantra. Escaping into poker and this sense of structure and repetition he wonders if “he was becoming a self-operating mechanism, like a humanoid robot” (287) and he finally feels like he “was becoming the air he breathed” (293); as if he has escaped his trauma. However, he has disrupted himself even more as he feels like a robot, pretending to be something else, and not recovering from his trauma at all, merely hiding from it at the other side of America far away from 9/11 and New York. The use of language described here emphasises his dissociation and escapism—the trauma from which he does not recover.

Despite making another attempt at their relationship, Keith and Lianne never reconnect and their relationship fails at the end of the novel, because their traumatised minds prohibit impedes them. The use of white space and dialogue imply that there is still a distance between them by literally creating space on the pages of the novel. While instinctively, Keith returns to Lianne, their relationship becomes a sexual one, not a romantic or emotional one. The reason for their sexual relationship can be attributed to a phenomenon caused by 9/11. Keeble describes that 9/11 was followed by this and named “terror sex” and explains it as “the idea that New York, gripped by collective trauma, was experiencing heightened sexual activity through a desperate need for human contact and intimacy in the immediate aftermath of the attacks” (Keeble 358). Despite the desire and desperate search for intimacy, Keith and Lianne never seem to reconnect and the distance created by the trauma remains. Terror sex is “everywhere” in Falling Man:

A flight of stairs was sex, the way she moved close to the wall with him just behind, to touch or not, brush lightly or press tight, feeling him crowd her from below, his hand moving around her thigh, stopping her, the way he eased up and around, the way she gripped his wrist .(8)

The need for intimacy is made clear in the third chapter of the novel, between two paragraphs concerning the aftermath of the attacks: one paragraph concerts the children, which are acting weirdly as they “talk in code” and “spend a lot of time at the window” (DeLillo 19); the other paragraph concerns Keith’s radiology session. The placement of the intimate paragraph seems to lack correlation; it seems to be a piece of their lives that is the same as any other, simply a part of the aftermath. The desire for intimacy is described as the following, “she liked having him here next to her”, but on the other hand a distance is still between them as “she didn’t need to know a man’s feeling about everything, not anymore and not this man. She liked the spaces he made” (DeLillo 21). The part leading up to intercourse is described as “she knew the time was coming when he’d press her to the wall before she finished dressing. He’d get out of bed and look at her and she’d stop what she was doing and wait for him to come and press her to the wall” (21). Later in the novel, after having sexual intercourse, Lianne decides to cool down her body against a mirror; in other words she presses her body against the image of herself. She feels the need come to her senses and back to herself. In fact, “The only moment of true intimacy occurs when the spouses jointly watch a rerun of the events of September 11 on television” (Versluys 24). This shows that they can only connect through 9/11, through the collective trauma. However, at the end of the novel, they do not find recover through the trauma together.

The dialogue between Keith and Lianne is often not actual interactions with each other, but it seems like they talk at cross purposes:

“You’re one of those madwomen running in the street. Run around the reservoir.”
“You think we look crazier than men.”
“Only in the streets.”
“I like the streets. This time of morning, there’s something about the city, down by the river streets nearly empty, cars blasting by on the Drive.”
“Breathe deeply.”
“I like running alongside the cars on the Drive.”
“Take deep breaths,” he said. “Let the fumes swirl into your lungs.”
“I like the fumes. I like the breeze from the river.”
“Run naked,” he said. (DeLillo 90).

Here it seems that Keith is trying to initiate or hint at sex, but Lianne is seemingly oblivious to this. They often speak at crossed purposes, or without interest for each other. Their relationship is purely sexual, despite needing intimacy in their trauma. In this case, Keith’s short answers create a white space on the pages that emphasises the distance between the characters. This point is also made by Versluys and he refers to James Wood to make this point: “it is certainly the case that the novel is riddled with interruptions” and that, as a result, the reader ends up feeling, in the words of James Wood again, “a lot of white space on the page is glaring at him [the reader] beseechingly” (Wood qtd. in Versluys 40). While the technique is not apparent, the effect is implied. The short dialogues and the white space combined emphasise the fast pace and distance of the dialogues. On pages 156 and 157 there is a dialogue that spans exactly two pages, with so much white space on the pages that it seems as if there are two towers. While this seems farfetched, Kavadlo shares a similar view on Keith and Lianne, “here, as always in DeLillo’s work, the towers are a marriage, two functioning as one” (51) and “despite their, admittedly muted, efforts to rekindle conjugal intimacy they drift further apart in the following months” (Randal 121). While the narrative itself describes the inevitable parting in their relationship, the distance in their relationship is emphasised by use of dialogue and white space.

edward-fine-covering-his-mouth-as-he-walks-through-the-debris-after-the-collapse-of-one-of-the-world-trade-center-towers-pic-afp-830362614Further study of these devices will reveal more about the trauma portrayal in Falling Man; for example by going into the relationship of Keith and Florence, discussing Lianne in more depth, or by going into the reliving of the trauma of Justin. Furthermore, several characters who have not been introduced in this thesis could also be discussed due the scope of the thesis. This chapter has shown that the use of literary devices in Falling Man is used to emphasise the dismal 9/11 trauma, while also representing the unspeakable aspect of the trauma. This is done through use of the novel’s structure, which is unchrological. The trauma is relived throughout the novel and in the conclusion of the novel. This implies that the trauma is unrecoverable, as it is relived until the end. It also follows the trauma theory of Caruth, based on Freud, that the trauma is latent, which means that the trauma symptoms and the trauma itself become evident much later in the victim’s life. Furthermore, the use of pronouns strips the main characters from their characterizations and identity, while also countering the heroic narrative of the American government and media by presenting this identity-less victim as severely traumatised. The technique of stream-of-consciousness and poetic passages emphasises traumatic dissociation instead of revealing more interiority. Another device is the use of dialogue, which creates white space and implies distance between the characters by presenting this distance in literary form to the reader. Therefore, Falling Man provides a view on the traumatic as disruption of the self that disorients and destroys the victim.

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