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Keith's Visual Activity, Falling Man

Falling Man dramatizes 9/11’s psychological impact on a family living in New York.  I will closely examine a scene from Chapter Five (“He began…Justin said,” 65-66), in which the narrator describes Keith’s habits and routines, as he adjusts to life after 9/11.  The scene begins with a description of Keith’s visual activity:  “He began to see what he was doing.  He noticed things, all the small lost strokes of a day or a minute, how he licked his thumb and used it to lift a bread crumb off the plate and put it idly in his mouth” (65).  Here, DeLillo describes watchfulness, replicating the many scenes in which Lianne beholds art.  Like Lianne, who patiently stands before the Georgio Morandi still lifes, trying to decipher a message in the obscure brushstrokes, Keith closely attends to the visual details of daily living.  The passage contains numerous references to sight: things are “clearer to the eye,” he “began to see what he was doing,” “it was different now because he was watching” (65).  Importantly, DeLillo suggests, such visual revelations correspond with cognitive revelations. When Keith begins to see things anew, he begins to think anew.  His habits, once be begins to notice them, are not “so idle anymore” (65).  Keith senses a change in the atmosphere: “Nothing seemed familiar, . . . he felt strange to himself” (65). 

Belaboring the connection between visual and cognitive processes, DeLillo suggests that visual interruption is a mechanism to counter terror.  Terror, whether practiced by religious extremists or the state, incorporates thought.  It insists on a single narrative.  (DeLillo emphasizes terror’s homogenization of thought when he declares that all of life has been rendered public after 9/11 (“In the Ruins of the Future”).  Such mechanization of thought depends upon a mechanization of vision, since terror, whether at home or abroad, depends for its efficacy on spectacle.  Thus, to resist the incorporation of thought, the individual has to re-train sight.

To see anew, as this scene suggests, requires the individual to wait.  Such vigilance is, for DeLillo, an ethical act.  It requires piety and discipline, as does Justin’s speaking in monosyllables (a moment of the scene that I will more closely analyze in short).  Keith keeps vigil from his apartment window.  “He stands at the window and sees what’s happening in the street.  Something is always happening, even on the quietest days and deep into the night, if you stand a while and look” (66).  This scene again recalls the numerous scenes in which Lianne keeps vigil in front of the Morandi paintings, waiting for some message or meaning to present itself.  Watching the street below, Keith stills life.  In such moments of stillness, conscious thought is arrested.  Personal insights emerge to counter the collective consciousness that pervades.  Removed from “routine stimulus, all the streaming forms of office discourse” (65), Keith becomes more critically aware.  Even mundane activities—licking his thumb, lifting bread crumbs to his mouth—become meaningful when he pauses to contemplate them. 

Importantly, by presenting stillness as ethical and by associating stillness with epiphany, DeLillo critiques terror’s relation to speed.  Analyzing Falling Man, James Gourley argues that DeLillo associates terror with the accelerated time of modernity (59).  Thus, to decelerate or suspend time is to counter terror.  This is so because DeLillo identifies a relationship between speed and representation.  Marco Abel argues such in his analysis of images in “In the Ruins of the Future.” Abel explains how deceleration renders visible visual process:

For DeLillo the problem with representation is a matter of speed: representation is always too fast, positioning itself as a cause when it is merely an effect of a series of forces acting on one another. Representations are apparatuses of capture that assign sense to an event in accordance with the type of forces that produce these representations. Consequently, for DeLillo . . . the critical task is to render visible the acts of seeing that generate specific representations, not to declare, mourn, deny, or judge the (im)possibility of representing or attaining the real. (1239)

 The frozen image, Abel argues, reveals the forces that produce representation (1239).  Thus, the frozen image counters terror by exposing terror as a mechanism of representation.  (Though, it could also be argued that representation is a mechanism of terror, since it, too, is a homogenizing force.)   Keith fixes his attention on frozen images—his thumb, the bread crumbs—and these frozen images transform experience.  He does not experience terror, but “contained elation” (66).  By decelerating time, he imprints his own consciousness on the world.  In suspended moments, Keith recognizes “whisper[s] of self-disclosure” (66).  In this scene, DeLillo also associates stillness with interiority.  This association is especially apparent when the narrator observes that Keith “was going slow, easing inward” (66).  This scene vividly contrasts with Falling Man’s opening scene, which depicts Keith amidst a crowd, a disorienting mob that he walks out of and into at the same time.  The opening scene depicts how public life consumes.  Keith is assimilated by the crowd even as he tries desperately to escape it.  But when he deliberately pauses thought and happening, Keith transcends collective consciousness and “drift[s] into spells of reflection” (66).  Justin, as well, suggests the relation between deceleration and interiority.  He speaks in monosyllables in order to decelerate the processes of thought—he explains that he wants to “go slow when [he] think[s]” (66).  Lianne dismisses Justin’s practice as “totalitarian” (66).  But by correlating deceleration with interiority, the narrative suggests that Justin’s practice, like Keith’s watchfulness, is actually a mechanism to challenge totalitarian forms of thought.  To slow down thought is to arrest the cognitive processes that have been incorporated by public life and, thus, to allow for singularities. 

It is worth observing in this scene that DeLillo’s prose, as well, slows down. DeLillo enacts a kind of “fictional stillness” by forsaking plot and action for detail and description. So, even on the level of his prose, DeLillo reinforces stillness’ capacity to undermine traditional forms of representation. In moments of stillness, Keith is disoriented.  He perceives details not noticed before, but he loses the certainty of perception. “Things seemed clearer . . . oddly, in ways he didn’t understand” (65).  Again, for DeLillo, representation depends on speed.  Narratives of terror depend on swiftness—the hasty transformation of the event into spectacle, the haste with which the “official story” is constructed. DeLillo decelerates his prose to demonstrate stillness’ capacity to problematize representation by exposing it as a cause, rather than as an effect.

Importantly, as this same scene shows, representation yields to material and affective forms of experience.  In moments of trance, Keith indulges thoughts and feelings beneath the level of consciousness. Such non-conscious cognition—cognition that occurs outside conscious thought—disrupts conscious thought, and so liberates the individual from the collective psyche. 

Keith lets his thoughts wander as he walks his son to and from school.  “There was a contained elation in these times, a feeling that was nearly hidden, something he knew but only barely” (66, emphasis mine).  The narrator explains that Keith once desired “to fly out of self-awareness” (66).  But “now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection, thinking not in clear units, hard and linked, but only absorbing what comes” (66).  DeLillo reiterates the notion of absorption a moment later, when Keith reflects on the term “organic shrapnel.”  This term, introduced earlier, denotes material debris that is absorbed by the body and turned into tissue.  Interestingly, the very term “organic shrapnel” exceeds conscious representation.  It “felt familiar but meant nothing to [Keith]” (66, emphasis mine).  Moments of stillness arrest conscious thought by appealing to material experience.  For DeLillo, material experience reflects a paradox of 9/11—the event consumes us, be we also consume the event.[1]  DeLillo suggests that the only meaning to be made of the event is constructed from material experience, since material experience cannot be rationalized and, in turn, incorporated.  The body becomes a site for counter-narrative.  This scene depicts that in those rare moments when he pauses to absorb and assimilate the world, Keith is able to make private his experience of the event.  His literal internalizations make possible his “easing inward” (66).  And it is only when he “eas[es] inward” that he is able to access the personal memories with which he can begin to construct a counter-narrative.  


Abel, Marco.  “‘In the Ruins of the Future’: Literature, Images, and the Rhetoric of Seeing.” PMLA 18.5 (2003): 1236-1250.

DeLillo, Don.  Falling Man.  New York: Scribner, 2007.

DeLillo, Don.  “In the Ruins of the Future.”  The Guardian 21 December 2001: 33-40.



[1] DeLillo conveys this idea in “Ruins,” writing, “What has happened is sufficient to affect the air around us, psychologically.  We are all breathing the fumes of lower Manhattan, where traces of the dead are everywhere, in the soft breeze off the river, on rooftops and windows, in our hair and on our clothes” (39).