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British Association for American Studies


Issue 12, Spring 2008: Article 2


Issue 12, Spring 2008: Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 12, Spring 2008

‘Heartless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror’? Don DeLillo’s Mao II, Falling Man, and Making Art from Terror

Robin Whear
© Robin Whear. All Rights Reserved

There is a book within DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007) that is everything the novel itself is not: a manuscript that, awaiting an editor, appears to predict the attacks of September 11th, 2001. It is, DeLillo writes,

a rushed project, timely, newsworthy, even visionary, at least in the publisher’s planned catalog copy—a book detailing a series of interlocking global forces that appeared to converge at an explosive point in time and space that might be said to represent the locus of Boston, New York and Washington on a late-summer morning early in the 21st century.[1]

In this minor facet of the novel, DeLillo acknowledges what many commentators have remarked about his unique qualifications for writing a literary response to 9/11. In The American Prospect, Laura Frost declared that ‘no living American writer seems as qualified to deliver the Great American 9/11 Novel’, while Toby Litt wrote in The Guardian that, ‘even as news of those attacks was received, DeLillo’s was the name that came to mind’.[2] Indeed, the event seemed culmination of themes that had pervaded DeLillo’s fiction for 25 years. As long ago as his 1977 novel Players, DeLillo had written of terrorist attack on the New York Stock Exchange implicating workers from the World Trade Centre. More pertinently still, Mao II (1991) offers a model of the complex relationship between American capital and global fundamentalist terrorism.[3] In the wake of the 9/11, it has been hailed as a prescient, even visionary, text that can assist our understanding of terrorism in postmodern times.[4]

If the presence of this unnamed but legendary text in Falling Man is an ironic reference to DeLillo’s previous work, it is also an acknowledgement that DeLillo’s fictional response to 9/11 is not what many had expected, or had hoped for. There is no great effort, usually characteristic of DeLillo’s work, to contextualise the event, to chart the political, social and historical factors that brought it about. In a sense, perhaps, he had already written that novel, Mao II, some ten years before the attacks.

There is a further self-reference in the figure of the Falling Man. The novel’s title will remind us of Richard Drew’s Associated Press photograph of a white-shirted man falling from the towers, an image that was largely removed from circulation the day after the attacks. The Falling Man of the novel, though, is an artist who, supported by a harness, stages falls that recall the infamous photograph. In the novel, crowds gather around his impromptu performances, and witnesses react with fascination and repulsion—many are ‘outraged at the spectacle’ (33). An academic discussion panel casts the Falling Man ‘as Heartless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror’ (220). The metaphor could hardly be clearer: in writing his response to 9/11, can DeLillo steer clear of exhibitionism, of appropriating the deaths of strangers for the purposes of fiction? The Falling Man stands, in part, as a symbol for the pitfalls of making art from terror.

In this paper I will argue that while DeLillo strenuously avoids indulging in anything that might have him accused of ‘Heartless Exhibitionism’, Falling Man is not a novel that can genuinely be said to chronicle a new ‘Age of Terror’. The logic of DeLillo’s approach, I believe, has its roots back in Mao II’s declaration that ‘what terrorists gain, novelists lose’.[5] It is best understood, therefore, as an attempt to offer what DeLillo terms a ‘counter-narrative’ to terror, one that frames the event in terms of the myriad personal stories that it created. To this end, DeLillo takes up the taboo figure of the ‘Falling Man’, representative of many stories that have seldom been celebrated in public discourse, to stand as both an emblem of this ‘counternarrative’ and as an archetype of the fall from grace that New York suffered on 9/11.

It is the protagonist of Mao II, the reclusive author Bill Grey, who posits a ‘curious knot’ binding novelists and terrorists:

In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence…Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have that territory. They made raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.[6]

‘News of disaster is the only narrative people need’, he adds, and this narrative of terror is sustained by acts of spectacular televisual violence that resist incorporation into what DeLillo terms the ‘blur and glut’ of the postmodern mediascape. For Grey, the spectacle of terroristic violence has erased the possibility of art that might impact upon a cultural consciousness: ‘Beckett is the last major writer to shape the way we think and see’, he laments, adding, ‘[a]fter him, the major work involves midair explosions and crumbled buildings’.[7]

DeLillo returned to these ideas in an essay entitled ‘In the Ruins of the Future’, written soon after the attacks. In it he declared that the world is divided between two forces: on the one hand the modern democratic and technological movement, on the other a ‘global theocratic state…so obsolete it must depend on suicidal fervour to gain its aims’. DeLillo characterises these movements, respectively, as the forces of the future and past. Throughout the 1990s, he writes, the logic of cyber-capital dominated discourse, but this all changed on 9/11. Now the balance of power has shifted from the forces of the future to those of the past, and ‘the world narrative belongs to terrorists’.[8]

The novelist’s responsibility, DeLillo goes on, is ‘to create the counternarrative…to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space’.[9] The task is problematic, though, because of the nature of 9/11 as an event. It has ‘no purchase on the mercies of analogy and simile’, he says, resisting ‘every basis for comparison’. In acknowledging that 9/11 was, in Jean Baudrillard’s words, ‘irreducible, singular’, DeLillo’s essay begs the question: how does the fiction writer respond to 9/11 without simply perpetuating the narrative of terror upon which his story is based?[10] When he admits that ‘[i]t sounded exactly like what it was—a tall tower collapsing’, we might wonder what sort of literary account of 9/11 avoids being completely overshadowed by the event itself.[11]

DeLillo’s response is to foreground the effect that the attacks have had on American domestic life:

This catastrophic event changes the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come, and steely years. Our world, parts of our world, have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage.[12]

We might say that the DeLillo’s attention thus return him to a previous strategy of charting the lives of individuals caught up in real events, as in his novel Libra, which deals with the Kennedy assassination.[13]

Accordingly, the characters of Falling Man are people for whom, as DeLillo wrote in ‘Ruins’, ‘the event has changed the grain of the most routine moment’. The novel begins in the moments after the collapse of one of the towers, with protagonist Keith Neudecker having escaped with minor injuries. Dazed in the aftermath of the attack, he heads to his estranged wife, Lianne, who takes him in. The couple resume some halting form of domestic life with their young son Justin who, deeply affected having seen the first plane hit the towers, spends the novel searching the sky for an airborne terrorist whose name he phonetically approximates as ‘Bill Lawton’. In the main the narrative is shared between Lianne and Keith, but it is punctuated by three sections that follow the path of Hammad, a fictional terrorist, as he takes part in the plot against the World Trade Centre. The stories merge at the close of the novel, as Hammad’s hijacked plane collides with the tower where Keith works. Aside from these three sections, the entire novel details the efforts of its characters to regain some form of normalcy after their traumatic experiences.

In the daily lives DeLillo depicts, fear is never far the surface. Lianne tells of her fear at ‘[u]nattended packages…or the menace of lunch in a paper bag, or the subway at rush hour, down there, in sealed boxes’ (127). Even when three years have passed, she ‘stayed away from the subway, still, and never stopped noticing the concrete bulwarks outside train stations and other possible targets’ (235). Meanwhile, every time Keith boards a flight, ‘he glanced at faces on both sides of the aisle, trying to spot the man or men who might be a danger to them all’ (198).

Formally, the novel enacts the splintered identity and sense of dislocation of the survivors with deliberately vague pronoun references that compel the reader to search for his or her footing during the first few sentences of each section. The frequent shifts in focalisation between Keith, Lianne and Hammad thus have a destabilising effect. The narrative is also temporally fragmented, enacting the rupture of reality experienced by the novel’s victims. It jumps forward and back in time, starting in the ash-filled streets at Ground Zero but ending in the towers themselves as the attack begins. Against this alienating backdrop, DeLillo foregrounds the physic necessity of self-narration. The resumption of Keith’s family life proves to be short-lived, as enters an affair with fellow survivor Florence after returning to her the briefcase he had picked up during his confused escape. Together Keith and Florence embark on a mutual healing process that centres largely on the act of narrating their experiences of the attacks. Keith realises that, like him, Florence has been unable to speak in detail about her experiences escaping the tower, but that ‘[s]he wanted to tell him everything’ (55).

Scenes between the Keith and Florence have a counterpoint in Lianne’s work with a group of Alzheimer patients, whose increasing difficulties with self-expression mirror that of the survivors. In Lianne’s session, the group find some comfort in their halting attempts at self-narration and find that they, too, want to write ‘about the planes’ (51). Lianne, meanwhile, is taken by the necessity of ritually honouring every narrative from the attacks:

She read the newspaper profiles of the dead, every one that was printed. Not to read them, every one, was an offense, a violation of responsibility and trust. But she also read them because she had to, out of some need she did not try to interpret. (106)

The novel is populated, then, with human stories of tragedy that await narration, a central part of DeLillo’s notion of a ‘counternarrative’ to terror. In his invocation of the Falling Man photograph, DeLillo draws upon a multitude of stories that were, at least in America, largely excluded from public discourse. USA Today estimated that 200 people fell from the towers on 9/11.[14] They have been commonly known as the ‘jumpers’, though official sources have been reticent to use the term. ‘A ‘jumper’ is somebody who goes to the office in the morning knowing that they will commit suicide’ said a spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office, ‘these people were forced out by the smoke and flames or blown out’.[15] In ‘Ruins’, DeLillo first sought to break the taboo and rehabilitate this story as a redemptive image of the attacks:

People falling from the towers hand in hand. This is part of the counternarrative, hands and spirits joining, human beauty in the crush of meshed steel. [16]

For DeLillo, then, inherent in the act of jumping from the towers was a riposte to the attack, a act of self-determination, perhaps, that opposed the narrative of terror with one of ‘human beauty’.

Richard Drew’s photograph was not the only depiction of the ‘jumpers’ which fell foul of censorship. Eric Fischl’s statue ‘Tumbling Woman’, displayed at the Rockefeller Centre to commemorate the first anniversary of the attacks, portrayed a naked female figure falling headfirst through space. It was removed from view after a week because of complaints from the public. Fischl’s intentions in the piece, and the controversy that it caused might help us understand why the Associated Press image of the ‘Falling Man’ was so taboo. Slavoj Žižek has said that the media coverage of 9/11 was marked by what he calls a ‘derealization’ of the horror:

While the number of victims—3000—is repeated all the time, it is surprising how little of the actual carnage we see—no dismembered bodies, no blood, no desperate faces of dying people.[17]

Fischl had a similar response, saying that, ‘removing the body from the experience means we can’t empathise’.[18] It is perhaps in part this return of the body, of visible human suffering, to 9/11 that made Richard Drew’s image so taboo, and why DeLillo might chose to invoke the image to court empathy from his readers. In The Spirit of Terrorism, Jean Baudrillard argued that the symbolic impact of 9/11 came from the introduction of radical sacrifice (the suicide of the bombers) into a system which works upon the ideal of zero deaths and ‘has erased [death] from its own culture’.[19] At the same time as the depiction of the ‘jumpers’ returns the body to the event, it thus mirrors the act of suicide that were central to the symbolic logic of the attack.

In one vital way, the Falling Man of the novel differs from that of the Associated Press photograph. Lianne discovers after the death of the artist that the performance pieces ‘were not designed to be recorded by a photographer’ (220), and that the artist ‘had no comments to make to the media on any subject’ (222). This development from an infamous media image to an artist who eschews media exposure is indicative of DeLillo’s approach in the novel. Normally so central to DeLillo’s work, the media are largely absent from Falling Man, despite the clear impact that television and the Internet has had on shaping the public perception of 9/11. Indeed, in his attempts to break from the central narrative of the attacks, he goes as far as to expunge every reference to the ‘World Trade Centre’ and ‘9/11’ in his novel, instead using the simple, more everyday phrases ‘the towers’ and ‘the planes’. Though many theorists have argued the inseparability of the event from its mediation (Baudrillard called it an ‘image-event’, while Žižek described the attack as ‘a fantasmatic screen apparition’ that ‘entered our reality’), DeLillo experienced it differently.[20] In ‘Ruins’, he wrote that ‘the raw event was one thing, the coverage another’. Perhaps, as a resident of Brooklyn with family near to the World Trade Centre complex, it was DeLillo’s proximity to the attacks that allowed him to separate coverage and event. The model of postmodern terrorism that DeLillo offered in Mao II, moreover, showed that coverage of spectacular terrorism in Western media is inseparable from the notion of terrorism as a world narrative. It is therefore unsurprising that, in attempting to craft a ‘counternarrative’, DeLillo turned away from the media coverage to depict the survivors’ stories more directly.

The invention of a performance artist that refuses mediation allows DeLillo to draw upon the image of the ‘Falling Man’ as both an archetype and an emblem of the attacks. Lianne ‘thought it could be the name of a trump card in a tarot deck, Falling Man, name in gothic type, the figure twisting down in a stormy night sky’. In her adaptation of a half-remembered haiku (‘even in New York…I long for New York’, 34) Lianne mourns a lost New York that disappeared on 9/11. The city they are left with, thinks Keith is indelibly affected by its past: ‘The dead were everywhere, in the air, in the rubble, on rooftops nearby, in the breezes that carried from the river’ (25). DeLillo takes up the figure of the Falling Man as a symbol of his characters’ fall from a supposed prelapsarian state, a state to which the they long to return.

If the disappearance of the media is a surprise in a DeLillo novel, he also dispenses with much of the philosophising on terror that so marked Mao II. While that novel considered the notion that postmodern terrorism is indicative of, in Baudrillard’s terms, ‘triumphant globalization battling against itself’, any such political or historical context is largely suppressed in Falling Man.[21] Martin does express a reading of the attacks that might be seen as critical of American power, but his opinions are largely rendered in summary. We are told, for instance, that ‘He spoke about lost lands, failed states, foreign intervention, money, empire, oil, the narcissistic heart of the West’ (113). Martin is, notably, the only European in the novel, and admits links with left-wing terrorist groups in the 1970s. Lianne and Nina harbour vague suspicions that he may have been involved in violence or even murder and we learn that he goes under an assumed name. All of this works to marginalise Martin’s voice and cloud any notion that his concerns, which appear similar to those over the body of DeLillo’s work, in fact carry any authorial seal of approval.

There is perhaps a political reality behind DeLillo’s decision to draw on such readings only fleetingly. We might remember the outcry against those who suggested American foreign policy might have been implicated in 9/11. DeLillo’s re-imagining of the Kennedy assassination came a full twenty-five years after the event, but even then he was accused of ‘bad citizenship’ by George Wills in The Washington Post because of Libra’s scepticism of the official explanation. Falling Man is a novel distracted by delicacy of its material, and all too keenly aware of the potential to cause great offence. Even with all its care, the novel has caused one reviewer to balk at the idea of America’s ‘wry metaphysician’ dealing with the nation’s largest collective wound. The parallels DeLillo draws between Keith and Hammad, victim and perpetrator of the attacks, was said to ‘open up DeLillo to accusations of moral relativism and insufficient outrage about mass murder’.[22]

This identification, however, is a central piece of DeLillo’s effort to create a ‘counternarrative’ to terror. In these ambiguous portraits DeLillo seems directly to contradict the glib dichotomy between ‘past and future’ that he put forward in ‘Ruins’. Hammad and the small organisation of which he is part display very much the same familiarity with Western technology that we might expect of the 9/11 bombers. They are keenly aware of the state technology that might threaten their security, with Hammad worrying about ‘photo reconnaissance that takes a picture of a dung beetle from one hundred kilometres up’ (81). Hammad’s integration into Western society, though, seems to go further than the pragmatic use of Western technology against its subjects. When we learn that ‘They had simulator software. They played flight-simulator games on their computer’, the contradiction is all the more notable because Hammad had just only pondered whether ‘a man [has] to kill himself in order to accomplish something in the world’ (174).

Indeed, the combination of his integration into American life and fundamentalist Islamism, Hammad appears to embody something akin to what Sayyid Qutb described as a ‘hideous schizophrenia’. He experiences the benefits of an affluent Western lifestyle; ‘He had his Visa card, his frequent-flyer number. He had the use of the Mitsubishi’ (171). He displays an incongruous desire to ingratiate himself with one of the few ordinary Americans he meets—the supermarket check-out girl: she ‘rolls the soup can over the scanner and he thinks of something funny he can say, saying it internally first to get the word order right’ (178). Though he revels in his anonymity and the secrets it hides, bodily pleasures are never completely expunged from his mind. Thus he feels a certain gratification on receiving a smile from the check-out girl, and a girlfriend has him ‘feeling like a footballer running across a field after scoring a goal, all-world, his arms flung wide’ (82). Though Hammad is a purely fictional character, DeLillo depicts Mohamed Atta as the organising ‘genius’ of the group. Atta, or Amir as he is more commonly known, rebukes him for his too-Western lifestyle and girlfriend, asking, ‘What is the difference between you and all the others, outside our space?’ (83).

Indeed, the novel works not only to complicate our notion of the terrorist’s relation to the West, but also to depict similarities between Hammad and Keith. There is, for instance, an ironic point of contact between Hammad’s religious observance and Keith’s poker game, an obsession that he enjoyed through a weekly game with friends before the attacks, and which eventually grows to such proportions as to threaten his domestic life. The game is commonly described as providing Keith with a structure of rules and self-denial within which he feels comfortable. In their regular meetings before the attacks, Keith and his friends take pleasure in ritually purifying their experience, first by restricting their competition to a single set of rules: ‘The banning of certain games started as a joke in the name of tradition and self-discipline’ (96). Gradually, though, the group begin arbitrarily to outlaw anything superfluous to the game—first certain drinks, then topic of conversation, then food altogether. With two members of the group killed and one badly injured in the attacks, Keith suffers from the withdrawal of this weekly ritual. He feels the need for ‘an offsetting discipline, a form of controlled behaviour, voluntary, that kept him from shambling into the house hating everybody’ (143). In this respect, Keith responds to order and arbitrary self-discipline in a similar way to Hammad, who is brought into line by Atta and largely succeeds in keeping his vanity at bay: ‘The beard would look better if he trimmed it. But there were rules now and he was determined to follow them. His life had structure. Things were clearly defined’ (83). Keith’s remembrance of his card game is set in dramatic and militaristic terms that could just as easily apply to Hammad and his group in their plot against the World Trade Centre: They used intuition and cold-war risk analysis. They used cunning and blind luck. They waited for the prescient moment (97). Equally, ‘the needless utterance of a few archaic words’ (99) that introduces each new round of five-card stud could stand as an ironic reference to Hammad’s five prayers of the day.

There is a further parallel drawn between the two men in the homo-social alliances they rely on. As Nina once said of Keith:

There’s a certain man, an archetype, he’s a model of dependability for his male friends, all the things a friend should be, an ally and confidant, lends money, gives advice, loyal and so on, but sheer hell on women…The closer a woman gets, the clearer it becomes to him that she is not one of his male friends. And the more awful it becomes for her. (59)

Hammad, meanwhile, recalls an imperative that binds together his group together: ‘[s]hed everything but the men you are with. Become each other’s running blood’ (83). Keith’s obsession with poker eventually leads to his withdrawal from domestic life with Lianne as he spends increasingly lengthy periods playing the professional circuit away from home. In the aggression he feels towards fellow players, we see the most overt identification between the two men. ‘Make them bleed’, Keith thinks, ‘[m]ake them spill their precious losers’ blood’ (230).

In summary, then, we might say that DeLillo retracts from an attempt to chronicle the new ‘Age of Terror’ because, while he was uniquely placed to write about the attacks, he was also uniquely hamstrung. Few writers can match his creativity and authority on the themes of terror, consumerism, global capital, technology, paranoia and media saturation, concerns that dominate global discourse in the wake of September 11th. The nature of the event, however, made his talents as much a curse as a blessing. Partly, perhaps, that is because DeLillo, as a native New Yorker, is too close to the sense of loss and confusion to approach the subject with his usual distance, and keenly aware of the potential insensitivity of doing so. There is more to DeLillo’s strategy, though, than an acknowledgement of the sensitivity of his material. In a sense there is no space to bring his particular study of paranoia, of underlying currents and causes, to bear on this subject. The darkest fears of DeLillo’s fiction became true, and the writer must realign himself accordingly. As Nina says in Falling Man, ‘[e]ight years ago they planted a bomb in one of the towers. Nobody said what’s next. This was next. The time to be afraid is when there’s no reason to be afraid’ (10). Furthermore, there is a sense that to depict the event as the confluence of perceptible global currents is in some way dishonest. If the manuscript in Falling Man that supposedly predicted the attacks is an ironic reference to the reception Mao II, it also serves another purpose. Its publisher describes it was ‘so demanding, so incredibly tedious…deeply and enormously boring’ (138-9). Its ‘statistical tables, corporate reports…facts, maps and schedules’ are an implicit acknowledgement by DeLillo that, in its great global complexity, the geopolitical and historical truth of September 11th cannot be glibly reduced into a novelistic account of perceptible and predictable forces leading up to that day. To cut the event from the shock, from its singularity, is to change its nature. Lianne, upon first seeing the Falling Man about to jump, finds herself hoping that she is witnessing ‘an absurdist drama that provokes onlookers to share a comic understanding of what is irrational in the great schemes of being or in the next small footstep’ (163). In DeLillo’s conception, the events of September 11th will, at least for now, resist complete understanding, and in response he keeps the irrational and unknowable nature of the event at the centre of his novel.

So DeLillo turns his attention to the domestic, in an attempt to craft a counter to the world narrative of terror. In the figure of the ‘Falling Man’, DeLillo does obliquely tackle one of the few themes of 9/11 that has remained taboo. The ‘Falling Man’ figure serves a series of purposes in the text: to foreground the inherent dangers in making art from terror; to allegorise the fall from a prelapsarian New York; and stand for the absurd, fractured condition of those struggling to realign themselves after the shock of the attack. In an image that was, for many, the most disturbing of all recorded that day, DeLillo thus finds a redemptive icon, a ‘falling angel’ (218) upon which to build his response.

University of Sheffield


[1] Don DeLillo, Falling Man (London: Picador, 2007), p. 139. Subsequent references to this edition are included within the body of the text.

[2] Laura Frost, ‘Falling Man’s Precarious Balance’, The American Prospect, 11 May 2007 [accessed 17 February 2008]; Toby Litt, ‘The Trembling Air’, The Guardian, 26 May, 2007,,2088344,00.html [accessed 17 February 2008].

[3] Don DeLillo, Players (London: Vintage, 1977); Mao II (London: Vintage, 1992).

[4] See, for example, John Carlos Rowe, ‘Mao II and the War on Terrorism’, South Atlantic Quarterly, 103 (2004), 21-43.

[5] DeLillo, Mao II, p. 157.

[6] Ibid., p. 41.

[7] Ibid., p. 157.

[8] Don DeLillo, ‘In the Ruins of the Future’, The Guardian, 22 December 2001,,623732,00.html [accessed 27 March 2008] (para. 2 of 81).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jean Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism (London: Verso, 2002).

[11] DeLillo, ‘Ruins’ (para. 35 of 81).

[12] Ibid. (para. 3 of 81).

[13] Don DeLillo, Libra (New York: Viking, 1988).

[14] Dennis Cauchon and Martha Moore, ‘Desperation Forced a Horrific Decision’, USA Today [accessed 17 March 2008].

[15] Ibid.

[16] DeLillo, ‘Ruins’ (para. 67 of 81).

[17] Slavoj Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real (London: Verso, 2002), p. 13.

[18] Mark Vallen, ‘Eric Fischl and the ‘Death of Painting’, 20 April 2006 [accessed 27 March 2008].

[19] Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, p. 15.

[20] Ibid., p. 27; Žižek, Welcome to the Desert of the Real, p. 16.

[21] Baudrillard, The Spirit of Terrorism, p. 11.

[22] Sam Anderson, ‘Code Red’, New York Magazine, 7 May 2007, <> [accessed 27 March 2008].