The Falling Man to whom the title of Don DeLillo’s latest novel refers isn’t the man himself—a Windows on the World employee named Jonathan Briley, by most accounts—whose plunge from the north tower of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, yielded one of the day’s most haunting images, but to a New York performance artist who, in the aftermath of the event, jumps from overpasses and building ledges wearing a safety harness and, with a bent knee, invokes the pose of the man in the famous photograph who is called by the same name. DeLillo does not explain the motives behind this public performance, though by the end of the book the man has died—though not in one of his “falls”—and his brother has provided some information about him, including an eerie note that his last performance would not have involved a harness.
There is certainly nothing new or surprising about the attempt to transmute mass tragedy into art. When the first 9/11 novels began to appear a few years ago, we were perhaps caught off guard, perhaps offended by the suspicion that they were exploitative or that any fictional attempt to encompass and understand the event was inherently futile. Yet it didn’t take long for what’s presumed to be the enlightened perspective to take hold—that it is right for art to engage the raw material of history, that if writers shrank from events such as 9/11 then they might as well pack it in and head back to the classroom or the bar stool. Since then, the novels have come fast and furious, as have the critical efforts to tell us exactly why it is they’re here.
But what view of 9/11 do these recent novels take? Are they works that seek, whatever story they have to tell, to present a reality beyond the collective experience of the attacks? This was, after all, the most documented disaster in history, unfolding at the center of America’s most populous city, in front of hundreds of thousands of eyewitnesses, along with millions, if not billions, of others watching on television or listening on the radio. Inherent in the event was its documentation—this was, in fact, part of its point.
Yet for survivors of traumatic incidents, psychologists and researchers since Freud have noted the connection between the inability to construct a narrative of the traumatic event and psychological distress:
Traumatic memories come back as emotional and sensory states, with limited capacity for verbal representation. . . . this failure to process information on a symbolic level, which is essential for proper categorization and integration with other experiences, is at the very core of the pathology of PTSD.
A man falls to his death in a photograph. This photograph is seen around the country and around the world on one day, and is then removed from most future media accounts. A reporter, hoping to identify the man in the photograph, brings the picture to the daughter of a man who died during the attacks. “That piece of shit is not my father,” the daughter says. In the same vein, Erich Fischl’s sculpture Tumbling Woman is withdrawn from exhibition at Rockefeller Center after a week. “That image is not my father,” he is told. “How dare you try telling me how I feel about my father?” There is a difference, in other words, between what is documented and the narrative that tells us what it means.
Couple this with our primal, self-protective urge to look away, to deny things happened. Some deep-seated instinct tells us that it is not right for us to see human bodies broken and blown apart, and knows that such sights are harmful to our minds. We bury the dead in peaceful poses or scatter their ashes in remote or tranquil places, to protect them from further harm. Asserting our control over the dead gives us a sense of power over death. Not being able to fulfill our role in this process can deepen and complicate our grief, making us sense more fully how vulnerable we actually are.
If this is the case for individuals, then what happens when we remember—and relive—a collective trauma? The problem with images of people falling from the World Trade Center is that, though they conjure the same experience that we first had upon seeing them, they simultaneously provoke our inability to process or integrate that experience. And it is precisely because of the resistance of these images to verbal and narrative methods of understanding (a paradoxical, disturbing opacity that lies behind the standard reason—respect for the individuals pictured—they have been declared taboo) that they recur in a number of recent novels about the attacks, producing, in many cases, the central symbolic figure of the story.
The narrative itself might take the form of an evasion: what the author looks away from or intends to evoke out of an absence. Or the narrative might describe the evasions people enact when confronted with what they cannot face. Yet if fiction needs to look in order to fulfill its Conradian sense of purpose—“. . . to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see”—then an attachment to the very scenes we would like to look away from becomes necessary not only for the construction of narrative, but also for an authorial claim to the moral value of art.
In Helen Schulman’s A Day at the Beach, the collapsing marriage of Suzannah and Gerhard Falktopf is exposed in all of its intricate failure when the couple flees their downtown loft on 9/11 for a house in East Hampton. The already strained relationship between Suzannah, a former dancer, and Gerhard, a pompous choreographer, cracks under the pressure of the events. A witness to the attacks, Suzannah watches from the window of her apartment as a man falls from the towers, and not long after, the Falktopfs, with their son Nikolai, a difficult child Suzannah suspects of being autistic, leave the city. The image of the falling man stays with her, recurring in an associative pattern throughout the book. By degrees her imaginative sympathy reaches out to the man, and she forms a kind of bond with him in her mind. You must change your life, a disembodied voice tells her when the image flashes in her thoughts, as if the dead man were speaking in the voice of Rilke’s Apollo, whose “archaic torso” presents another image of a broken body:
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit.
The perfection of Rilke’s statue is so complete and omnipresent that it now gazes out instead of being gazed upon:
. . . for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
In Schulman’s book, the body of the falling man obtains a similar power, not from formal perfection, but from what its very brokenness says about our profound vulnerability as human beings: if this could happen, then we all must change. A Day at the Beach captures those moments of hope for renewal and unity that many briefly experienced after 9/11, made even more poignant by how brief we now know that time to have been.
Over the course of the novel, the falling man also becomes Suzannah’s companion in defeat. After Gerhard ignores her for a Frenchwoman he rescues off the streets of Manhattan, Suzannah must literally stand in the middle of the room and scream to get his attention. From there the fight deepens, and in her moment of breakdown she escapes out to the beach, where she thinks of the man she watched die as “her man,” as she now calls him, taking his hand and stepping out into space:
I am defeated, Suzannah thought. I have lost.
We are defeated, he said to her as they fell, hand in hand now, in tandem. We are defeated and we are lost.
That this unfortunate soul becomes Suzannah’s protector and comforter is a tricky maneuver on Schulman’s part, and it is difficult to know what she intends this transfiguration to herald. The psychological focus of the book might suggest that Suzannah’s imaginative act is an extension not only of her innate human sympathy but also of her naivete, yet this forced equation of unequal fates leads us to suspect that these qualities might extend here to the author as well.
Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is similarly divided between paralysis and redemption. The novel, which follows the adventures of nine-year-old Oskar Schell, who has lost his father in the World Trade Center, places the attacks on a continuum with other modern atrocities—the destruction of Hiroshima and the firebombing of Dresden. Foer uses the two events (the first told through the account of a Hiroshima survivor and the second through the memories of Oskar’s grandfather) as key devices in the plot. The book alternates between Oskar’s search for clues to the meaning of a key he has found in his father’s room after his death and the story of his grandparents, whose life is defined by the trenchant grief born out of the Dresden bombings. The grandfather had loved the grandmother’s sister, but when she dies in the firestorm, he marries Oskar’s grandmother instead—out of the need for comfort and continuity. Yet he eventually leaves her, only returning 40 years later after hearing of their son’s death in the towers.
The “experimental” techniques Foer uses are meant to represent a sense of the violence done to our capacity for language, communication, and meaning, yet the literary and typographical choices he makes are desperately cutesy. The grandfather, who has been mute since Dresden, writes in a little notebook whose simulated entries fill entire pages of the novel (“Do you know what time it is?” “Let me take you home,” etc.), while the grandmother agrees to write out her life story, but goes in the back room to type and only uses the space bar, leading the grandfather, as he reads the blank pages, to think her eyesight has gone bad and therefore to fake his reactions to the supposed passages. Yet these elements—and countless others throughout the book—are only the set-up for the device employed in the last fifteen pages of the novel, which form a flip-book of a man falling (don’t look) from one of the towers of the World Trade Center, except the image order is presented in reverse, so the figure rises as the pages are flipped. In the passage that precedes this grand finale, Oskar imagines that time itself has reversed, and with it the whole sequence of the tragedy: “And if I’d had more pictures, he would’ve flown through a window, back into the building, and the smoke would’ve poured into the hole that the plane was about to come out of.”
Besides the fact that Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow has already used this technique to write chillingly about the Holocaust, this vision of transcendence offers exactly the kind of cheap consolation that actual trauma so deeply resists. That these images are the culmination of a child’s grief-filled musings certainly makes sense as an expression of both childhood fantasy—the whole disaster putting itself back together—and the methods we use to sanitize death, particularly for children. Foer, though, doesn’t want this vision to comment back on the blind, clumsy ways we handle our grief, but actually to perform the very service the backward scene enacts, to return us to a kind of innocence, to restore meaning and wholeness to a fallen world. Yet what meaning does this reversal carry? We can flip these pages backward and forward (just as we could see them playing out over and over again were we to glance up from the book to watch the same scene on television), but this only represents another version of turning away. Foer makes us look for fifteen pages, but doesn’t tell us what we’re seeing—or make us ask this of ourselves. This is the child’s evasion, and, sadly, the novelist’s as well. The falling man again becomes a symbolic figure in a narrative of personal crisis, holding out the possibility of deliverance in his suffering form.
DeLillo’s Falling Man is about a survivor of the attacks, Keith Neudecker, who was separated from his wife Lianne but returns to her after barely escaping the towers with his life. Repressed and angry before, he remains in a state of psychic burial, yet he also begins to experience a type of post-attack openness, starting an affair with a fellow survivor named Florence. It becomes apparent, though, that the new openness points toward something much darker and more empty. Here is Keith talking to his wife:
“Here’s my question,” she said. “Is it possible you and I are done with conflict? . . . We don’t need this anymore. We can live without it. Am I right?”
“We’re ready to sink into our little lives,” he said.
Keith detaches. The obsession of poker tournaments takes over his life, keeping his buried thoughts from rising to the surface. This is a deeply sympathetic portrait that traces the transition from one form of desolation to another. During his separation before the attacks, Keith exists in a kind of numbing routine—he lives minutes from his office, eats take-out, watches DVDs, and plays in a weekly poker game that serves as a bulwark against total solitude—but in the aftermath of 9/11, in which two players from his game die and another is injured, the blankness of his life represents something else altogether: an emptiness that is spirit-haunted, impossibly dense, an apparent vacancy that is only the sign that a point has been reached in the psyche beyond which nothing is familiar or explanable.
The book ends with a description of what Keith experienced in the moments after the attacks. As he tries that morning to save his poker-playing friend Rumsey, which he fails to do, we are not only shown what Keith has lived through, but are also given the full picture of what was unleashed within his thoughts, the very thing he has been burrowing away from, trying to avoid:
Only it didn’t look like Rumsey. He sat in his chair, head to one side. He’d been hit by something large and hard when the ceiling caved or even before, in the first spasm. His face was pressed into his shoulder, some blood, not much . . . He looked like someone paralyzed for life, born this way, head twisted into his shoulder, living in a chair day and night.
The habitual, the repetitive, the obsessive, the ornate—these are mechanisms that lull the mind, to allow an avoidance of pain, a way of turning aside from what cannot be directly endured. DeLillo’s novel sketches out the contours of this process, refusing to take Keith back inside the towers until the very end, but circling around the moment of trauma in every detail, in every sentence. This reminds me of the ways that Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 also keeps circling the same moment, which, as Yossarian treats the mortally wounded Snowden, is finally laid bare at the end. Yossarian has bandaged Snowden’s thigh, but the man keeps insisting, “I’m cold, I’m cold.” Then Yossarian sees the real wound:
A chunk of flak more than three inches big had shot into his other side just underneath the arm and blasted all the way through, drawing whole mottled quarts of Snowden along with it through the gigantic hole in his ribs it made as it blasted out. . . . [Yossarian] gazed down despondently at the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor. It was easy to read the message in his entrails. Man was matter, that was Snowden’s secret. Drop him out a window and he’ll fall. Set fire to him and he’ll burn. Bury him and he’ll rot, like other kinds of garbage. The spirit gone, man is garbage. That was Snowden’s secret.
After a prolonged view of its quiet disarray, Keith’s life only makes sense when we see the moment that exploded it, through which it began to unravel. This is Keith’s secret. A traumatic memory can become a free radical of the mind, unusually reactive, breaking down other elements of the self as it comes into contact with them, refusing to be taken in. As if the body itself were saying, this could not have happened. Though the performer called the Falling Man is a recurrent signal of the indelible event, the terrible image that won’t go away, Keith and Lianne each see him only once. Whatever his purpose, whatever he intends to reveal through his art, he is, in the end, a feint, a misdirection: the real falling man is Keith. When he flees the towers, both at the beginning of the book and again at the end, when the narrative has circled back to the first moments after the attacks, Keith sees what is described only as a falling shirt—possibly empty, possibly not. If there is a falling man, he can’t be rendered, since he is at once empty and not, existing both in the world and outside of our comprehension:
Then he saw a shirt come down out of the sky. He walked and saw it fall, arms waving like nothing in this life.
 “Falling Man,” Tom Junod, Esquire, September 2003.
 See, for example, Daniel Mendelsohn’s brilliant essay on the films United 93 and World Trade Center, “September 11 at the Movies,” New York Review of Books, September 21, 2006.
 Bessel A. van der Kolk, James W. Hopper, and Janet E. Osterman, “Exploring the Nature of Traumatic Memory: Combining Clinical Knowledge with Laboratory Methods,” in Trauma and Cognitive Science, edited by Jennifer J. Freyd and Anne P. DePrince (Binghamton, N.Y.: The Haworth Press, 2001).
 “Falling Man,” Junod.
 According to “Desperation forced a horrific decision,” Dennis Cauchon and Martha Moore, USA Today, September 2, 2002, the New York medical examiner's office says it does not classify the people who fell to their deaths on 9/11 as “jumpers”: “A ‘jumper’ is somebody who goes to the office in the morning knowing that they will commit suicide,” says Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for the medical examiner's office. “These people were forced out by the smoke and flames or blown out.”
 Time’s Arrow, published in 1991, narrates the life of a Nazi death camp doctor entirely in reverse. The book’s description of a backward Auschwitz only works because it is so daring. The same could be said of Amis’s 2006 story “The Last Days of Mohammed Atta.”
 Joseph Heller, Catch-22 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1961).