Falling Men in the Post-9/11 Novel

Master's Thesis 2014 58 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Out of the Blue - Trauma
2.1. “There is no Next” – Melancholia in DeLillo’s Falling Man
2.2. “Wearing Heavy Boots” – Mourning in Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

3. “You Know How it Ends; Everybody Dies” - Beigbeder’s Windows on the World
3.1. Describing the Indescribable
3.2. “Some Seconds are Longer Than Others” - Timeline of a Catastrophe
3.3. The Higher You Build, The Lower You Fall

4. Falling Men – Images of a National Trauma
4.1. Identity in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man
4.2. “The Photosensitive Surface” – Witnessing the Falling Man

5. The Other
5.1. “Us vs. Them” Display of “the Other” in DeLillo’s Falling Man
5.2. Connecting to the Other in a Post-9/11 World
5.3. Playing Poker

6. Conclusion

Deutsche Zusammenfassung

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Since September 11, 2011, reality has not only outstripped fiction, it’s destroying it. It’s impossible to write about this subject, and yet impossible to write about anything else. Nothing else touches us. (Beigbeder 8)

On an early and sunny Tuesday morning in September 2001 the unimaginable happened, 2973 people were killed in an attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. Within 15 minutes two airplanes hit the Twin Towers and heralded a new age; “the age of terror”. The trauma begins at 8:46 AM local time with the crashing of the first plane into The North Tower. The tower will collapse 102 minutes later. These 102 minutes show images of crashing planes, burning and collapsing towers and people jumping from windows. These images spread around the world and were repeated endlessly, “framing them in the discourses of heroism, patriotism, innocence and trauma” (Däwes 2). The images of 9/11 burned themselves into the memories of contemporary witnesses. On this Tuesday the World Trade Center literally becomes the center of the world. What is happening inside the burning towers remains invisible. Everyone who is located above the crashed planes is left with the choice to burn or to jump. About 200 people throw themselves out of the windows.

The most known and also discussed photography featuring jumping people was taken by Associated Press photographer Richard Drew: “The Falling Man”. The very nature of “photographs [as] a way of imprisoning reality” (Sontag cited by Frost 180) is key to trauma theory, since trauma itself is the interruption of time. Photographs allow us to interrupt time and capture one split second for eternity. Drew’s image of “The Falling Man” belongs to the catastrophe as much as the images of the hitting planes and collapsing towers. Nevertheless it was found to be too intimate and scabrous. This thesis does not balk. It focuses on even those people, the human aspect of the 9/11-trauma; the Falling Men. And it will prove that looking at them is essential in coping with the trauma of a post-9/11 world. Whether you look at the images of the collapsing towers or the ones featuring jumping people, they all show the same truth: nearly 3000 people were killed in the attacks. September 11, 2001 “was a day of unprecented shock and suffering in the history of the United States” (Kean cited by Däwes 2) and left America with a national trauma and haunting images for years to come. The attacks shook America to its very foundation. “Good weather [was] no longer synonymous with peace” (Beigbeder 198) and within 102 minutes an allegory of progress collapsed. The towers fulfilled two roles, a literal and a figurative. “As two of the tallest buildings in the world, the towers also stood for American power and commerce, and for capitalism more generally” (Keniston 1). Their destruction was unimaginable and therefore dramatic. “It was an event which was unforeseeable because it was impossible. It is, quite literally, incomprehensible, by which I mean it passes human understanding” (Beigbeder 268). The 9/11 attacks traumatized an entire nation. And this national trauma will be the main focus of this thesis. In Caruth’s definition “trauma describes an overwhelming experience of sudden or catastrophic events in which the response to the event occurs in the often delayed, uncontrolled repetitive appearance of hallucinations and other intrusive phenomena” (11). Not only does the illusion of indestructibility collapse along with the towers, but also “ordinary language” (Versluys 42). In order for a victim to cope with his or her trauma, it is necessary to integrate the traumatic event within one’s own mental framework. Although the images of the crashing planes and the collapsing towers spread around the world, it was impossible to grasp the event, to understand and describe it. This is where literature comes in; “the role of books is to record what cannot be seen on television” (Beigbeder 86). Nevertheless,

[t]he vast majority of representations have resisted the urge to, as it were, ‘go inside’ the burning towers. This may well be due to certain factors: taste – the sense that people’s experiences within the towers, whether victims who perished or people that survived, are sacrosanct and that fictionalizing necessarily trivializes or misrepresents real traumatic experiences; impossibility – the sense in which these experiences are ‘unimaginable’ and therefore not available to language or written word. (Randall 70)

This thesis will focus on three post-9/11 novels that try to imagine the unimaginable and give it a place within their story. “Of course, certain themes and motifs are to be expected in 9/11 novels, such as the planes and their impact, the burning World Trade Center, and the people falling or jumping from the towers” (Däwes 23). Frédéric Beigbeder‘s Windows on the World (2004) however, offers an unconventional perspective. He chooses a Falling Man as his protagonist and thereby tries to imagine the unimaginable, identify (with) him, force the reader to witness his death and hence traumatizes his readers. In that he recalls “perhaps one of the most taboo images from 9/11, that of people jumping/falling from the towers” (Randall 75).

Trauma theorists distinguish two ways of coping with trauma; melancholia (acting out) and mourning (working through). Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) tells the story of the nine-year-old Oskar Schell who loses his father in the attacks and who, by the end of the novel, is able to place this tragedy within his own story and thereby becomes a mourner. Whereas both, Foer and Beigbeder, include a timeline in their novels to “wishfully [suggest] the measurability of the Real” (Däwes 406), Don DeLillo’s Falling Man (2007), depicts a very depressing post-9/11 world that his melancholic protagonist Keith Neudecker has to face. “The dead were everywhere, in the air, in the rubble, in the breezes that carried from the river. They were settled in ash and drizzled on windows all along the streets, in his hair and his clothes” (DeLillo 25). Melancholia leaves a lingering presence in this novel. The interruption of time by the attacks is omnipresent: “These are the days after. Everything now is measured by after” (138). The role of literature in the aftermath of 9/11 is essential: trying to grasp the inaccessible, to integrate the horrors of that day into one’s own story. “The writer begins in the towers […] trying to imagine the moment, desperately. Before politics, before history, and religion, there is the primal terror. People falling from the towers […] The writer tries to give memory, tenderness and meaning to all that howling space” (DeLillo cited by Green-Lewis 23). These three post-9/11 novels emphasize “the traumatic impact of 9/11 on individual lives” (Däwes 22) but differ in their individual solutions to this trauma. This thesis will focus on how the trauma is portrayed and coped with in the post-9/11 novel. It is inevitable to deal with the catastrophe in order to move past it. A key to the trauma as well as its solution are the Falling Men, the human aspect of the catastrophe.

In chapter two I will closely analyze the two aspects of trauma theory: melancholia and mourning using the example of Foer’s and DeLillo’s novel. Beigbeder’s unconventional approach of portraying the 9/11 tragedy will be dealt with in chapter three. Unlike the other two novels he goes inside the towers and gives a face to the jumpers and thereby takes a major step towards unlocking the trauma. 9/11 is a story of images; this imagery will be the main focus in chapter four. Drew’s famous photography “The Falling Man” will be analyzed. Furthermore the subchapters will be devoted to the identity of the Falling Man and his impact on witnesses in Don DeLillo’s novel. The post-9/11 world is marked by the distinction of us vs. them. The importance of the Other will be looked at more closely in chapter five. DeLillo’s protagonists are stigmatized by their trauma and barely able to move past it. Nevertheless they make several attempts to regain a sense of self by gambling and connecting to the other. The examples of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Windows on the World and Falling Man provide a broad range of post-9/11 fiction. Using these examples this thesis analyzes how the trauma of September 11, and its human aspect; the Falling Men, are dealt with in post-9/11 fiction. Frédéric Beigbeder, Jonathan Safran Foer and Don DeLillo oppose the conventions of media broadcasting and devote their novels to the most disturbing and yet human aspect of the trauma; the Falling Men, and by that take a further step towards coping with the national trauma.

2. Out of the Blue - Trauma

If I live to be a hundred I’ll still be on the stairs. (DeLillo 57)

The word “trauma” originates in Greek and translates into “wound”, referring to the “physical wounding of an individual” (Däwes 63). In Freud’s texts, “the term trauma is [furthermore] understood as a wound inflicted not upon the body but upon the mind” (Caruth 3, emphasis original). However,[the] wound of the mind […] is not, like the wound of the body, a simple and healable event, but rather an event that […] is experienced too soon, too unexpectedly, to be fully known and is therefore not available to consciousness until it imposes itself again, repeatedly, in the nightmares and repetitive actions of the survivor. (4)

The attacks of 9/11 fulfill all aspects mentioned in this definition. The unexpectedness of that Tuesday morning in September 2001, the reoccurring images of the planes hitting the towers, the towers collapsing and the people jumping all resulted in a national trauma. A major aspect in the definition of trauma is the interruption of time, the delay of realization. Trauma victims suffer from flashbacks and returning images. They are forced to relive their personal trauma over and over again.

For what returns to haunt the trauma victim […] is not just any event but, significantly, the shocking and unexpected occurrence of an accident. […] The accident […] does not simply represent the violence of a collision but also conveys the impact of its very incomprehensibility. What returns to haunt the victim, […] is not only the reality of the violent event but also the reality of the way that its violence has not yet been fully known. (6)

Not just those immediately affected by the attack, but rather all of the United States as well as people all around the world have been traumatized by 9/11. The events and images have burnt themselves into our memories. Most people are able to recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the attacks. 9/11 was a “mind-blowing experience that [destroyed] conventional mind set” (Farrell cited by Gray 27). It is a story of images, a trauma of images, images which were burnt unto our retinas. Like the definition of trauma suggests, the event was overwhelming, impossible to be “fully assimilated as it occurs” (Caruth 5) and therefore haunted their trauma victims for years to come. The first 9/11 novels were published years after the attacks. This is a perfect prove for the definition of trauma as an event, that cannot fully be grasped as it occurs.

Beigbeder’s Windows on the World was one of the earlier (and also foreign) novels published in 2004; Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from 2005 and DeLillo’s Falling Man from 2007 each have different approaches to cope with this trauma. Also all of these novels had to face the accusation of dealing with 9/11 too early. Three to six years had passed between the events and the publishing of these books, and still people found it offensive to write about them. Although in fact years had passed, people felt that the distance between September 11 and writing about it was too little. This is due to the fact that “trauma is described as the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur, but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares, and other repetitive phenomena” (91).Traumatic flashbacks haunt the victims only months or even years after the actual traumatic event occurred.

Freud distinguished two forms of dealing with trauma, which he refers to as melancholia and mourning. Whereas mourning is the “active working through of a traumatic loss” (Versluys 20), melancholia “is characterized by inertia and self-hatred” (20). Both forms will be considered more closely in the following subchapters by focusing on Foer’s protagonist Oskar Shell and DeLillo’s protagonist Keith Neudecker. The famous American writer DeLillo referred to the events of 9/11 as “so vast and terrible that it was outside imagining…We could not catch up to it” (cited by Gray 33). But how is it possible to express the inexpressible, to imagine the unimaginable and to translate it into narration? This is the great challenge of the writer. As Bragard, Dony and Rosenberg observe “[c]ommentators or artists attempting to represent traumatic events […] struggle to create meaning and achieve closure in the face of such powerful experiences. [Trauma] imposes a barrier between the imaginable and the expressible” (1). Nevertheless the author’s task is to manage the unmanageable. As the French author Beigbeder writes in his 9/11 novel Windows on the World “Nowadays, books must go where the television does not. Show the invisible, speak the unspeakable. It may be impossible, but that is its raison d’être. Literature is a ‘mission impossible’” (301, emphasis original). Coming back to the definition of trauma as the mental wound, Caruth draws a connection between trauma and the narrative:

[T]rauma seems to be much more than a pathology, or the simple illness of a wounded psyche: it is always the story of a wound that cries out, that addresses us in the attempt to tell us of a reality or truth that is not otherwise available. This truth, in its delayed appearance and its belayed address, cannot be linked only to what is known, but also to what remains unknown in our very actions and our language. (4)

This thesis will have a closer look at three different 9/11 novels by Beigbeder, DeLillo and Foer, their protagonists and their individual way of coping with the post-9/11 trauma. The story of 9/11 is not only a story of individual trauma but rather a story of collective trauma as well. Because “personal and cultural trauma are so intertwined post-9/11 […] the events of 9/11 produced such ‘complex interactions between individual and cultural trauma’ that ‘where the self’ begins and the cultural reactions end may seem impossible to determine’” (Michael 76). Collective trauma meets the definition of trauma in general as it is “a disruption so serious that it threatens our existence, shaking the foundation of who we are […] It makes us face our basic helplessness and mortality. Trauma confronts us with the reality of death […] and our monumental denial of death” (Versluys 23). 9/11 was an event that fit in nowhere, that overwhelmed society and embodied “an experience of collective massive psychic trauma” (Däwes 62). In Erikson’s definition “collective trauma works its way slowly and insidiously into the awareness of those who suffer it [but] it is a form of shock all the same, a gradual realization that the community no longer exists as an effective source of support” (cited by Däwes 63). Either way, as an individual or collective trauma, “the story of trauma [is] the narrative of a belated experience” (Caruth 7). Each author has his own way of bridging the “tension between the inherent unspeakability of trauma and its narrative translation” (Däwes 65). The main difference being the different approaches to coping with trauma: melancholia and mourning.

2.1. “There is no Next” – Melancholia in DeLillo’s Falling Man

Falling Man takes on the daunting task of attempting to represent the seemingly unpresentable and traumatic 9/11 terrorist destruction with airplanes turned into bombs of the twin towers in Manhattan, events that remain relatively close in time, space and memory to most Americans and thus make representing them all the more difficult. (Michael 73)

In his 2007 novel Falling Man Don DeLillo tells the story of Keith Neudecker, a white middle class man who lives and works in New York and who barely escaped the North Tower on September 11, 2001. The book title derives from the performance artist known as the “Falling Man”, who will be the main focus in chapter 4.1. Identity in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man. Although Keith and his wife had been separated before the days of the attacks, he returns to Lianne and his son Justin right afterwards. From the towers Keith brings a briefcase with him, which he later on decides to return to its rightful owner. That is when he meets Florence Givens, whom he starts having an affair with. Their relationship will be examined more closely later on in this thesis (see 5.2. Connecting to the Other in a Post-9/11 World), as it is essential to Keith’s trauma. Within trauma theory Freud differentiates between mourning (working through) and melancholia (acting out). Falling Man and its protagonist Keith clearly articulate “the condition of melancholia” (Gray 28).

Acting out or melancholia is a state of mind in which the victim’s notion of tenses […] implodes. […] [T]he melancholic finds himself trapped in an endless reliving of his traumatic past while acting that past out in a post-traumatic present. By compulsively holding on to the past, the victim smothers every possibility of moving towards a liveable future. (LaCarpa 21, emphasis original)

Although Keith survives the attacks, he is trapped in this traumatic experience. Despite being physically alive, he remains numb almost death on a psychological level. 9/11 had such an impact on his being, that he measures time as “before” or “after the planes”. Everything seems to be meaningless: “This was all, a lost moment on the Friday of that lifelong week, three days after the planes” (DeLillo 8). The disruptive quality of trauma is omnipresent in this novel: “Nothing is next. There is no next” (10). The novel is narrated in a melancholic tone. “The characters are minimally alive in that they are numbed and they labor under the shadow of an overwhelming sadness that they cannot throw off” (Versluys 23). Keith is a perfect example of a melancholic as he is “apathetic … incapable of love and achievement” (Freud cited by Versluys 20).

Trauma is not only noticeable in the characters but moreover in the textual structuring of Falling Man and therefore in the reading experience. “First of all, the chapters are not arranged in a strictly chronological order. The plot progresses so that the reading experience itself mimics the violent lurching back and forth between the […] present and (the vividly relived) past, which is typical of traumatic memory” (40). A perfect counterexample of this unarranged structure is provided by Beigbeder’s Windows on the World, which will be dealt with in chapter 3.2. “Some Seconds are Longer Than Others” - Timeline of a Catastrophe. In DeLillo’s novel however, “trauma is not healed; it spreads like a contagious disease. No aspect of life remains untouched by melancholia” (30). Keith’s relationships are dominated by this melancholia, the inability to love. Although he intends to work things out with his wife, he cheats on her with Florence. His weekly poker games abruptly end when some of the players were killed within the towers. The friction within his psyche is obvious. Although he eventually decides to end his affair with Florence in order to “stop being double in himself” (DeLillo 161), Keith never escapes his own trauma. Whereas in other post-9/11 novels the protagonists are able to turn their acting out into mourning (like Oskar Schell in Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (see 2.2. “Wearing Heavy Boots” – Mourning in Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), “effecting the switch from melancholia to mourning is almost an impossibility in the narrative [of Falling Man]. The character’s efforts at working through remain either ineffective or riddled with traces of indelible acedia” (Versluys 34). DeLillo opens his novel right in the middle of the rubble: “The world was this as well, figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel and fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air […] and he walked away from it and into it at the same time” (4). To prove the reoccurring, almost haunting, features of trauma he ends his novel within the same scenery: “That’s where everything was, all around him, falling away, street signs, people, things he could not name. Then he saw a shirt come down out of the sky. He walked and saw it fall, arms waving like nothing in this life” (246). DeLillo opens and ends his novel with the images of falling men. These traumatic images have burnt themselves into his novel, instead of providing a glimpse of hope the author “implies a version of internal repetition that may be even more disturbing” (Däwes 281). This scene “opens and closes the novel and thus highlights the continuing traumatic presence of the event for both Keith and Americans in general” (Michael 77). Falling Man’s protagonist Keith is unable to move past his trauma, the entire novel proves him to be a melancholic in the Freudian sense. The “novel is dedicated to the portrayal of enduring loneliness and unresolved melancholy” (Versluys 38).

[Falling Man] describes trauma with no exit, a drift toward death with hardly a glimpse of redemption. […] In psychoanalytical terms, it describes pure melancholia without the possibility of mourning. The endless reenactment of trauma presented in Falling Man allows for no accommodation or resolution. (20)

2.2. “Wearing Heavy Boots” – Mourning in Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (for shortening reasons from now on referred to as EL&IC) deals with several trauma victims and their different approaches of coping with trauma. On the one hand there are Oskar Shell’s grandparents, who both survived the Dresden bombings and are traumatized by this event, as well as the loss of their son Thomas Jr. in the 9/11 attacks. Both characters deal with their trauma differently. Whereas Thomas Sr. (Oskar’s grandfather) is struck by aphasia and therefore incapable or unwilling of speaking, his wife (by Foer only referred to as “grandma” (69, 73, 100…)) has suicidal thoughts and suffers from her constant self-underestimation. In their inability to work through and leave their trauma behind, Oskar’s grandparents represent melancholics. The different forms of trauma represented by the grandparents, as well as Oskar, are dealt with more closely in my work Wearing Heavy Boots -Trauma in Jonathan Safran Foer's ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’. This chapter will focus solely on Oskar Shell as a mourner in the book, as well as the representation of his trauma in the 2011 movie directed by Stephen Daldry.

The nine-year-old Oskar Shell lives in New York City and loses his father on September 11, 2001 in the attacked World Trade Center. When he is sent home from school earlier, because of the attacks, he becomes a witness of his father’s death, by listening to the messages on the answering machine. His father leaves 5 messages on the machine, and tries calling again when Oskar is already home. He, however, is unable to pick up the phone and talk to his father. Instead Thomas Jr. leaves a sixth message and Oskar is haunted by this missed opportunity to talk to his father one last time. In the beginning of the novel, Oskar is a clear example of a melancholic. He distances himself from his family and “zip[s] up the sleeping bag of [him]self” (6). He suppresses his feelings and locks himself up and thereby matches the principle of melancholy (Uytterschout 230). In a session with his therapist he admits that “no matter how much I feel, I’m not going to let it out” (203). He refuses to accept his loss, he jokes at his dad’s funeral and at one point even tells his mother that he would have rather seen her die in the towers (171). The clearest example of his melancholic traumatic state is shown in his reaction to the messages his father left on the answering machine:

I took Dad’s emergency money from on top of his dresser, and I went to the Radio Shack on Amsterdam. […] I bought the exact same phone and ran home and recorded our greeting from the first phone onto it. I wrapped up the old phone in the scarf that Grandma was never able to finish because of my privacy, and I put that in a grocery bag, and I put that in a box, and I put that in another box, and I put that under a bunch of stuff in my closet (68)

Oskar puts so much effort into rebuying and reconstructing the old phone, that his urge to suppress the event is blatant. He is obsessed with the idea of undoing this traumatic event. Major symptoms of his obsession are his inventions; they are omnipresent throughout the novel. EL&IC starts off with the invention of a teakettle that would tell Oskar stories in his father’s voice. His inventions become another obsession of his: “I started inventing things, and then I couldn’t stop” (Foer 36). He is not able to accept the loss but rather invents things that would have prevented his father’s death:

All I wanted was to fall asleep that night, but all I could do was invent. […] What about incredibly long ambulances that connected every building to a hospital? What about parachutes in fanny packs? […] What about skyscrapers made with moving parts, so they could rearrange themselves when they had to, and even open holes in their middles for planes to fly through? (258-259)

Oskar is trapped within his traumatic framework; “the death of his father permeates his every thought, and the inventions are proof of a morbid obsession” (Versluys 103). All his inventions would compensate for a lack of safety in a post-9/11 world. As Huehls summarizes: “these inventions preempt future death but preclude him from living his life” (47). But what strains him the most is the uncertainty of his father’s death;

I wanted to stop inventing. If I could know how he died, exactly how he died, I wouldn’t have to invent him dying inside an elevator that was stuck between floors, […] and I wouldn’t have to imagine him trying to crawl down the outside of the building, […] or trying to use a tablecloth as a parachute […] There were so many different ways to die, and I just needed to know which was his. (Foer 257)

This obsession with finding out how his father died is visualized by images of a falling man. He keeps a collage-like collection of images in a notebook he calls Stuff that Happened to Me. In order to find out whether this picture shows his dad jumping, he enlarges it until it is so blurry that it is impossible to tell who that falling man is. The image of the falling man is omnipresent in the novel as well as the movie.

illustration not visible in this excerpt

Fig. 1. screenshot, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Dir. Stephen Daldry. Perf. Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock. (Warner Home Video, 2011. DVD) 01:21:12.

Whereas in the novel, Oskar’s obsession deals solely with the possibility that this image might show his father, he is more empathic in the movie. Here his character, played by Thomas Horn states, “probably the other kids see their dads too” (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close 01:21:28-01:21:32). The movie features reoccurring images of falling men, and thereby resembles trauma. As Caruth points out “to be traumatized is precisely to be possessed by an image or event” (4). The repetition of images of falling men in the movie, emphasize the visual and haunting nature of trauma. The very first scene of the movie features a close-up of a falling man.



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falling post-9/11 novel



Title: Falling Men in the Post-9/11 Novel