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The Dominance of Games and the Robotic Nature of People in Don Delillo's 'Falling Man'

Cyrus Oliver By Cyrus Oliver Published on October 15, 2016

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In Delillo's Falling Man the characters contend with the shape of the world after the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York. They are dwarfed by the power of technology and has the effect of forcing them to become ever more robotic in their reactions. The characters, it could be argued, show signs of an unknowing transhumanism, as they retreat into robotic repetitions and card games, instead of engaging with the nature of the new world.

In the aftermath of the attacks on the Twin Towers many of the characters in the novel, from the youngest to the oldest, are awed and overcome by the power of the events which they have witnessed. This is manifested early on in the behaviour of Justin's friends, 'The Siblings', who communicate in conspiratorial whispers and speak in code. They are fascinated by the attacks on the towers but unable to speak about their feelings. Justin's parents say that “they're at the window talking in this sort of code”, (Delillo 17), they are standing at the window looking at the sky, where the towers used to be. In order too deal with the sense of loss engendered by the collapse of the towers they retreat into a non-emotional jargon. They also confusedly make reference to contemporary events without understanding the significance of them. As they say:

“It has something to do with this man”

“What man?”

“This name. You've heard it.”

“This name,” Lianne said” (Delillo 17)

The name they are referencing is Osama Bin Laden. Yet neither the adults nor the children are able to say the name out loud. They speak in clipped and simplistic terms, repeating short phrases and avoiding the emotional power of their words. They cannot even bring themselves to say the name of the man most responsible for this act. They instead speak indirectly and, rather than discussing the troubles of either their children or themselves, they become obsessed about playing simple games instead.

In a study about communication between robots it is said that:

The robots do not speak a language like English. Rather, they speak a computer language that allows them to receive and transmit commands. For example, they can coordinate their timing when completing a task that they need to do together, or tell each other what actions need to be done (Peterson 314)

This method of transmitting information is similar to the way in which many of the figures in the novel address one another. They do all speak English unlike the robots, and they do not need to complete simple tasks with one another's help, yet their often lifeless tones have the sound of near – robotic speech. When the characters discuss their actions and their lives they also seem to do so without much feeling or sense of purpose. For example when Florence asks Keith what he has done in his life at one point he says, “Went to law school.”, (Delillo 89), and when Florence asks him why he simply says, “Where else? What else?”, (Delillo 89). This is often the way that characters talk to one another in the novel, when they talk at all. There is no sense given that going to law school is something which Keith feels engaged by or interested in. He seems to simply go through the motions of being a person. He suffers from a complete lack of imagination, and seems to have no active interest in anything. He is suffering from the same sense of trauma that the other characters seem to share after the attacks - yet none of them discuss it or face it.

The characters seem to retreat into a simplistic personhood based on repeated tasks and easily assigned roles. This is shown most clearly by the card games that the men play together. In these games the speech is reported but never shown, and everyone involved is intensely focused. The characters never equal the level of intensity and focus they show as they play cards. It is said that “They played each hand in a glazed frenzy”, (Delillo 97), and the manner in which the games are described is reminiscent of descriptions of machines performing tasks. A glazed frenzy does not seem to be the right way in which to describe a person's behaviour. Frenzied actions are more traditionally undertaken out of desperation or excitement or some sense of necessity. There is no sense of this given.

The life in their speech is robbed of any sense of human connection by the way that it is imparted to the reader. Delillo writes that, “The banning of certain games started as a joke in the name of tradition and self-discipline but became effective over time, with arguments made against the shabbier aberrations”, (Delillo 96), and the reader is not shown these arguments directly. The fact that the joke is reported rather than told makes it a particularly unfunny kind of joke. The banning of games and the odd seriousness which everyone displays when they talk about the superiority of certain games over others is a matter not of enjoyment but self-discipline. The group also seems to act as one mass and to forget a sense of personhood as it subsumes itself into the collective.

This sense of a loss of personhood is discussed by Theodor Adorno in his work on The Jargon of Authenticity, which deals, in part, with the way in which people willingly give away their personhood to mundane tasks and work. Playing card games should be a release from the difficulties and stresses of the rest of life, but Adorno claims that when someone gives everything to a task unthinkingly they derive no real reward from it. The men treat these games with a great deal of seriousness and so lose track of what should be genuine and serious in their lives. Adorno states that, “Each function within the person, once firmly defined, negates the person's total principle. The person becomes simply the sum of his functions”, (Adorno 54), which is particularly relevant to the characters in Falling Man. As they play the characters are only slightly individually defined, they lose their individuality because they deliberately become part of a conscious collective. This is no different, in many ways, from the behaviour of unfeeling robots.

In the shadow of the huge events of September 11th 2001 the characters of the novel are all lost and descending into their own place of safety and comfort. Their awe at the power of technology and their tiny stature in comparison to it lead them to a position where they need some sense of control. They find this in their card games because they are aware of how insignificant they have become as people. As Adorno writes, “This powerlessness and nothingness of man is coming close it its realization in present society. Such a historical state of affairs is then transposed into the pure essence of Man. It becomes affirmed and internalized at the same time” (Adorno 52), which is the position of the men who are playing cards with such intensity. They are powerless in the face of the immense forces of history which have overtaken them. They do not fight against this and instead become increasingly unimportant and inhuman. Their robotic actions and movements are their purest essence and so they have no higher point to aspire to. They have internalized their own defeat and so they play games without thought in order to pass the time.

At one point Lianne, one of the characters, also watches a poker game and shares in the warm emptiness of the game. It is said that “She looked at the screen, faces in close-up. The game itself faded into anaesthesia, the tedium of a hundred thousand dollars won or lost on the flip of a card. It meant nothing.” (Delillo 117), and there is, again, this sense that nothing is important in the world as they all lose their own identity to the anaesthetic glow of the card game. There is, noticeably, no description of the faces in close-up, they are just faces; one seemingly indistinguishable from the next. The huge amounts of money which the players lose and gain also mean little, they are little more than machines, seemingly gaining as much joy from winning as they do from losing.


DeLillo, D. (2007) Falling man: A novel. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Adult Publishing Group.

Adorno, T.W. (2002) The jargon of authenticity. London, United Kingdom: Routledge.
Seaton, J.X. (2015) ‘Robots that communicate with each other | JSTOR daily’, Bytes on Bots, .

British but living in the far East and hope to continue to do so for a long time. I want to continue living in my corner of the world and watch the chaos unfold from a distance. It feels like ... Show More

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