In the days following the 9/11 attacks, the young son of Keith and Lianne—the to-all-appearances typical New York couple at the center of Don DeLillo's 9/11-themed novel Falling Man—keeps watching the sky. With a pair of friends he trains a pair of binoculars on the skyline watching for something. He's coy about what, and when he offers an explanation it doesn't make much sense. It's a small detail that captures much about the terrifying times rendered in the cool, unsparing light of DeLillo's prose in a novel whose central event, however unwelcomingly familiar, presents as many challenges as capturing—as DeLillo did in Underworld—the whole back-half of the 20th century.
"Keith stopped shaving for a time, whatever that means. Everything seemed to mean something. Their lives were in transition and she looked for signs," DeLillo writes from Lianne's perspective. A freelance editor, Lianne leads a writing class for Alzheimer's patients whose grasping, poignant narratives perfectly echo her own inability to sort out the world around her. When her husband walks from the collapsing World Trade Center back to their apartment, they attempt to patch together a failing marriage. But Keith soon strays after returning a briefcase to a fellow survivor of the attacks, embarking on an affair driven as much by their inexplicable shared experience as any kind of passion.
It's not the time for passion. It's a time for portents to break through the variety of modern stultification that no one renders quite so well as DeLillo. Falling Man takes its title from a famed Associated Press photograph of a suit-clad man jumping from the World Trade Center, a sight recreated throughout the novel by a performance artist who offers no explanation to his meaning or motives. As the novel progresses—digressing from moving forward in time to recount a 9/11 hijacker's progress from German student life to American flight school to terrorism—the protagonists don't so much assign meaning to what's happened as devise strategies to seal off the void opened by the towers' collapse. Falling Man closes with a harrowing description of the attacks, but DeLillo's true subject is the world that's arisen from the rubble.