There exists an event in each of our pasts that haunts all of our potential futures. "Falling Man" explores one such event that we are all connected to, some directly (like those in the Towers or in NYC or DC or in an airport, etc.) and others who experienced it on television, in the papers, on the radio. We all have individual memories of what happened, where we were, how it affected us. Yet we continually share the experience repetitively through a collective memory comprised of images on TV, photographs of the planes striking the towers, overheard conversations in restaurants or subways, images of the pristine towers in a longshot from an older movie or television program, etc. In some ways the events of 9/11 define us as individuals and in some ways the events define us all.
This book made me think about myself in ways that few books do. I didn't so much imagine "walking in the shoes" of the characters so much as I thoughtfully considered their actions and reactions in search of some understanding, or empathy. Actions and behaviors that would otherwise appear selfish, Delillo exposes as superficial manifestations of penetrating emotional wounds. It is not always our actions that define who we "are," but rather the events in our lives that shape the consciousness and identity from which our actions result. In "Falling Man", Lianne is not obsessed with the degradation of her own memories (or potential onset of Alzheimer's) as one could conclude. Instead, Delillo gives us the opportunity to see Lianne as a woman traumatized by her father's suicide, which had been prompted by a seemingly rapid onset of Alzheimer's while Lianne was in college. Likewise, Keith's experience of having been in the South Tower when it was first struck altered his sense of self and the life he was choosing to live. Delillo allows for no moral judgments to be made against his characters, or against us by proxy. Instead we delicately observe the frailty of the human condition. Delillo shows that at our best, we are all simply walking on a path, unable to know if it is the right one. There is no proof of salvation, just a set of possible outcomes, some expected and foreseeable, and others that are not.
Other reviewers have wondered why the plot seemed to be missing from this novel (not an ignorant question on its face). To those with similarly open questions I ask this, if someone was writing the story of your life or mine, what would the plot be? In this novel the plot is of little significance. What is important are the themes and how they are interwoven, like memories forming a consciousness. Delillo explores the subtleties between understanding and faith, memory and history, realities and fictions, and how there are few, if any, certainties.
Reality and fiction, history and memory, the differences between each is a matter of perspective. How is it that two people witnessing the same event often present completely different versions of what happened, yet genuinely believe they are themselves correct? Just as many believe accepting Christ is the path to salvation, the Koran professes that it is the one book of truth. These issues are irresolvable; it is impossible to know in this life which, if any path, is correct.
Again, in this life we are all looking for "the" right path, at least those of us with a choice. Just like the people in the Towers when they were attacked, those lucky enough to try an escape could have either walked up or down the stairs, a choice that ended up being one of life and one of death. Others, trapped above the fires, faced a much deeper dilemma and had to choose between two types of death. Those who survived are left with ever-fading memories and the burden of knowing that it was nothing more than chance that kept them alive; except for those who attribute their survival to some divine intervention without explaining why others were then "selected" to die.
There is no way to understand how another would feel after making a choice that ends up being, in hindsight, one between life and death. Even more impossible would be to predict how someone should react in the aftermath. Delillo captures the essence of these experiences, both the personal experience and the one that we all share. In the end we are left with a beautiful story which reflects our own set of moral and spiritual ambiguities, our lost and faded memories, and our shared version of these events that altered the course of history.