Bill Lawton by Any Other Name: Language Games and Terror in Falling Man




narratology, perception, terror, DeLillo

How to Cite

Kaspi, N. (2012). Bill Lawton by Any Other Name: Language Games and Terror in <i>Falling Man</i>. M/C Journal, 15(1).
Vol. 15 No. 1 (2012): suspicion
Published 2012-03-14

“Language is inseparable from the world that provokes it”
-- Don DeLillo, “In the Ruins of the Future”

The attacks of 9/11 generated a public discourse of suspicion, with Osama bin Laden occupying the role of the quintessential “most wanted” for nearly a decade, before being captured and killed in May 2011. In the novel, Falling Man (DeLillo), set shortly after the attacks of September 11, Justin, the protagonist’s son, and his friends, the two Siblings, spend much of their time at the window of the Siblings’ New York apartment, “searching the skies for Bill Lawton” (74). Mishearing bin Laden’s name on the news, Robert, the younger of the Siblings, has “never adjusted his original sense of what he was hearing” (73), and so the “myth of Bill Lawton” (74) is created.

In this paper, I draw on postclassical, cognitive narratology to “defamiliarise” processes undertaken by both narrator and reader (Palmer 28) in order to explore how narrative elements impact on readers’ and characters’ perceptions of the terrorist. My focus on select episodes within the novel “pursue[s] the author’s means of controlling his reader” (Booth i), and I refer to a generic reader to identify a certain intuitive reaction to the text. Assuming that “the written text imposes certain limits on its unwritten implications” (Iser 281), I trace a path from the uttered or printed word, through the reading act, to the process of meaning-making. I demonstrate how renaming the terrorist, and other language games, challenge the notion that terror can be synonymous with a locatable, destructible source by activating a suspicion towards the text in particular, and towards language in general.

Falling Man tells the story of Keith who, after surviving the attacks on the World Trade Centre, shows up injured and disoriented at the apartment of his estranged wife, Lianne, and their son, Justin. The narrative, set at different periods between the day of the attacks and three years later, focuses on Keith’s and Lianne’s lives as they attempt to deal, in their own ways, with the trauma of the attacks and with the unexpected reunion of their small family. Keith disappears into games of poker and has a brief relationship with another survivor, while Lianne searches for answers in the writings of Alzheimer sufferers, in places of worship, and in conversations with her mother, Nina, and her mother’s partner, Martin, a German art-dealer with a questionable past. Each of the novel’s three parts also contains a short narrative from the perspective of Hammad, a fictional terrorist, starting with his early days in a European cell under the leadership of the real terrorist, Mohamed Atta, through the group’s activities in Florida, to his final moments aboard the plane that crashes into the World Trade Centre.

DeLillo’s work is noted for treating language as central to society and culture (Weinstein). In this personalised narrative of post-9/11, DeLillo’s choices reflect his “refusal to reproduce the mass media’s representations of 9/11 the reader is used to” (Grossinger 85). This refusal is manifest not so much in an absence of well-known, mediated images or concepts, but in the reshaping and re-presenting of these images so that they appear unexpected, new, and personal (Apitzch). A notable example of such re-presentation is the Falling Man of the title, who is introduced, surprisingly, not as the man depicted in the famous photograph by Richard Drew (Leps), but a performance artist who uses the name Falling Man when staging his falls from various New York buildings. Not until the final two sentences of the novel does DeLillo fully admit the image into the narrative, and even then only as Keith’s private vision from the Tower: “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).

The bin Laden/Bill Lawton substitution shows a similar rejection of recycled concepts and enables a renewed perspective towards the idea of bin Laden. Bill Lawton is first introduced as an anonymous “man” (17), later to be named Bill Lawton (73), and later still to be revealed as bin Laden mispronounced (73). The reader first learns of Bill Lawton in a conversation between Lianne and the Siblings’ mother, Isabel, who is worried about the children’s preoccupation at the window:

“It has something to do with this man.”

“What man?”

“This name. You’ve heard it.”

“This name,” Lianne said.

“Isn’t this the name they sort of mumble back and forth? My kids totally don’t want to discuss the matter. Katie enforces the thing. She basically inspires fear in her brother. I thought maybe you would know something.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Like Justin says nothing about any of this?”

“No. What man?”

“What man? Exactly,” Isabel said. (17)

If “the piling up of data [...] fulfils a function in the construction of an image” (Bal 85), a delayed unravelling of the bin Laden identity distorts this data-piling so that by the time the reader learns of the Bill Lawton/bin Laden link, an image of a man is already established as separate from, and potentially exclusive of, his historical identity. The segment beginning immediately after Isabel’s comment, “What man? Exactly” (17), refers to another, unidentified man with the pronoun “he” (18), as if to further sway the reader’s attention from the subject of that man’s identity.

Fludernik notes that “language games” are a key feature of the postmodern text (Towards 221), adding that “techniques of linguistic emasculation serve implicitly to question a simple and naive view of the representational potential of language” (225). I propose that, in Falling Man, bin Laden is emasculated by the Bill Lawton misnomer, and is thereby conceptualised as two entities, one historical and one fictional. The name-switch activates what psychologists refer to as a “dual-process,” conscious and unconscious, that forms the reader’s experience of the narrative (Gerrig 37), creating a cognitive dissonance between the two. Much like Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit drawing, bin Laden and Bill Lawton exist as two separate entities, occupying the same space of the idea of bin Laden, but demanding to be viewed singularly for the process of recognition to take place. Such distortion of a well-known figure conveys the sense that, in this novel, “all identities are either confused [...] or double [...] or merging [...] or failing” (Kauffman 371), or, occasionally, doing all these things simultaneously.

A similar cognitive process is triggered by the introduction of aliases for all three characters that head each of the novel’s three parts. Ernst Hechinger is revealed as Martin Ridnour’s former, ‘terrorist’ identity (DeLillo, Falling 86), and performance artist David Janiak (180) as the Falling Man’s everyday name. But the bin Laden/Bill Lawton switch offers an overt juxtaposition of the historical with the fictional or, as Žižek would have it, “the Raw real” with the “virtual” (387), and allows the mutated bin Laden/Bill Lawton figure to shift, in the mind of the reader, between the two worlds, as well as form a new, blended entity.

At this point, it is important to notice that two, interconnected, forms of suspicion exist in the novel. The first is invoked in the story-level towards various terrorist-characters such as Bill Lawton, Hammad, and Martin. The second form is activated when various elements within the narrative prompt the reader to treat the text itself as suspicious, triggering in the reader a cognitive reaction that mirrors that of the narrated character. One example is the “halting process” (Leps) that is forced on the reader when attempting to manoeuvre through the narrative’s anachronical arrangement that mirrors Keith’s mental perception of time and memory. Another such narrative device is the use of “unheralded pronouns” (Gerrig 50), when ‘he’ or ‘she’ is used ambiguously, often at the beginning of a chapter or segment. The use of pronouns in narrative must adhere to strict grammatical rules (Fludernik, Introduction) and when these rules are ignored, the reading pattern is affected. First, the reader of Falling Man is immersed within an element in the story, then becomes puzzled about the identity of a character, and finally re-reads the passage to gain clarity. The reader, after a while, distances somewhat from the text, scanning for alternative possibilities and approaching interpretation with a tentative sense of doubt.

The conversation between the two mothers, the Bill Lawton/bin Laden split, and the use of unheralded pronouns also destabilises the relationship between person and name, and appears to create a world in which “personality has disintegrated into a mere semiotic mark” (Versluys 21). Keith’s obsession with correcting the spelling of his surname, Neudecker, “because it wasn’t him, with the name misspelled” (DeLillo, Falling 31), Lianne’s fondness of the philosopher Kierkegaard, “right down to the spelling of his name. The hard Scandian k’s and lovely doubled a” (118), her consideration of “Marko [...] with a k, whatever that might signify” (119), and Rumsey, who is told that “everything in his life would be different [...] if one letter in his name was different” (149), are a few examples of the text’s semiotic emphasis. But, while Versluys sees this tendency as emblematic of the novel’s portrayal of a decline in humanity, I suggest that the text’s preoccupation with the shape and constitution of words may work to “de-automatise” (Margolin 66) the relationship between sign and perception, rather than to denigrate the signified human. With the renamed terrorist, the reader comes to doubt not only the printed text, but also his or her automatic response to “bin Laden” as a “brand, a sort of logo which identifies and personalises the evil” (Chomsky, September 36).

Bill Lawton, according to Justin, speaks in monosyllables (102), a language Justin chooses, for a time, for his own speech (66), and this also contributes to the de-automatisation of the text. The language game, in which a speaker must only use words with one syllable, began as a classroom activity “designed to teach the children something about the structure of words and the discipline required to frame clear thoughts” (66). The game also gives players, and readers, an embodied understanding of what Genette calls the gap between “being and saying” (93) that is inevitable in the production of language and narrative. Justin, who continues to play the game outside the classroom, because “it helps [him] go slow when [he] thinks” (66), finds comfort in the silent pauses that are afforded by widening the gap between thought and utterance.

History in Falling Man is a collection of the private narratives of survivors, families, terrorists, artists, and the host of people that are affected by the attacks of 9/11. Justin’s character, with the linguistic and psychic code of a child, represents the way in which all participants, to some extent, choose their own antagonist, language, plot, and sequence to personalise this mega-public event. He insists that the towers did not collapse (72), but that they will, “this time coming” (102); Bill Lawton, for Justin, “has a long beard [...] speaks thirteen languages but not English except to his wives [and] has the power to poison what we eat” (74). Despite being confronted with the factual inaccuracies of his narrative, Justin resists editing his version precisely because these inaccuracies form his own, non-mediated, authentic account. They are, in a sense, a work of fiction and, paradoxically, more ‘real’ because of that. “We want to pass beyond the limits of safe understandings”, thinks Lianne, “and what better way to do it than through make-believe” (63).

I have so far shown how narrative elements create a suspicion in the way characters operate within their surrounding universe, in the reader’s attitude towards the text, and, more implicitly, in the power of language to accurately represent a personal reality. Within the context of the novel’s historical setting—the period following the 9/11 attacks—the narration of the terrorist figure, as represented in Bill Lawton, Hammad, Martin, and others, may function as a response to the “binarism” of Bush’s proposal (Butler 2), epitomised in his “either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” (Silberstein 14) approach. Within the novel’s universe, its narration of terrorist-characters works to free discourse from superficial categorisations and to provide “a counterdiscourse to the prevailing nationalistic interpretations” (Versluys 23) of the events of 9/11 by de-automatising a response to “us” and “them.”

In his essay published shortly after the attacks, DeLillo notes that “the sense of disarticulation we hear in the term ‘Us and Them’ has never been so striking, at either end” (“Ruins”), and while he draws distinctions, in the same essay, with technology on ‘our’ side and religious fanaticism on ‘their’ side, I believe that the novel is less settled on the subject. The Anglicisation of bin Laden’s name, for example, suggests that Bush’s either-or-ism is, at least partially, an arbitrary linguistic construct. At a time when some social commentators have highlighted the similarity in the definitions of “terror” and “counter terror” (Chomsky, “Commentary” 610), the Bill Lawton ‘error’ works to illustrate how easily language can destabilise our perception of what is familiar/strange, us/them, terror/counter-terror, victim/perpetrator. In the renaming of the notorious terrorist, “the familiar name is transposed on the mass murderer, but in return the attributes of the mass murderer are transposed on one very like us” (Conte 570), and this reciprocal relationship forms an imagined evil that is no longer so easily locatable within the prevailing political discourse. As the novel contextualises 9/11 within a greater historical narrative (Leps), in which characters like Martin represent “our” form of militant activism (Duvall), we are invited to perceive a possibility that the terrorist could be, like Martin, “one of ours […] godless, Western, white” (DeLillo, Falling 195).

Further, the idea that the suspect exists, almost literally, within ‘us’, the victims, is reflected in the structure of the narrative itself. This suggests a more fluid relationship between terrorist and victim than is offered by common categorisations that, for some, “mislead and confuse the mind, which is trying to make sense of a disorderly reality” (Said 12). Hammad is visited in three short separate sections; “on Marienstrasse” (77-83), “in Nokomis” (171-178), and “the Hudson corridor” (237-239), at the end of each of the novel’s three parts. Hammad’s narrative is segmented within Keith’s and Lianne’s tale like an invisible yet pervasive reminder that the terrorist is inseparable from the lives of the victims, habituating the same terrains, and crafted by the same omniscient powers that compose the victims’ narrative.

The penetration of the terrorist into ‘our’ narrative is also perceptible in the physical osmosis between terrorist and victim, as the body of the injured victim hosts fragments of the dead terrorist’s flesh. The portrayal of the body, in some post 9/11 novels, as “a vulnerable site of trauma” (Bird, 561), is evident in the following passage, where a physician explains to Keith the post-bombing condition termed “organic shrapnel”:

The bomber is blown to bits, literally bits and pieces, and fragments of flesh and bone come flying outwards with such force and velocity that they get wedged, they get trapped in the body of anyone who’s in striking range...A student is sitting in a cafe. She survives the attack. Then, months later, they find these little, like, pellets of flesh, human flesh that got driven into the skin. (16)

For Keith, the dead terrorist’s flesh, lodged under living human skin, confirms the malignancy of his emotional and physical injury, and suggests a “consciousness occupied by terror” (Apitzch 95), not unlike Justin’s consciousness, occupied from within by the “secret” (DeLillo, Falling 101) of Bill Lawton.

The macabre bond between terrorist and victim is fully realised in the novel’s final pages, when Hammad’s death intersects, temporally, with the beginning of Keith’s story, and the two bodies almost literally collide as Hammad’s jet crashes into Keith’s office building. Unlike Hammad’s earlier and clearly framed narratives, his final interruption dissolves into Keith’s story with such cinematic seamlessness as to make the two narratives almost indistinguishable from one another. Hammad’s perspective concludes on board the jet, as “something fell off the counter in the galley. He fastened his seatbelt” (239), followed immediately by “a bottle fell off the counter in the galley, on the other side of the aisle, and he watched it roll this way and that” (239). The ambiguous use of the pronoun “he,” once again, and the twin bottles in the galleys create a moment of confusion and force a re-reading to establish that, in fact, there are two different bottles, in two galleys; one on board the plane and the other inside the World Trade Centre. Victim and terrorist, then, share a common fate as acting agents in a single governing narrative that implicates both lives.

Finally, Žižek warns that “whenever we encounter such a purely evil on the Outside, [...] we should recognise the distilled version of our own self” (387). DeLillo assimilates this proposition into the fabric of Falling Man by crafting a language that renegotiates the division between ‘out’ and ‘in,’ creating a fictional antagonist in Bill Lawton that continues to lurk outside the symbolic window long after the demise of his historical double. Some have read this novel as offering a more relative perspective on terrorism (Duvall). However, like Leps, I find that DeLillo here tries to “provoke thoughtful stillness rather than secure truths” (185), and this stillness is conveyed in a language that meditates, with the reader, on its own role in constructing precarious concepts such as ‘us’ and ‘them.’ When proposing that terror, in Falling Man, can be found within ‘us,’ linguistically, historically, and even physically, I must also add that DeLillo’s ‘us’ is an imagined sphere that stands in opposition to a ‘them’ world in which “things [are] clearly defined” (DeLillo, Falling 83). Within this sphere, where “total silence” is seen as a form of spiritual progress (101), one is reminded to approach narrative and, by implication, life, with a sense of mindful attention; “to hear”, like Keith, “what is always there” (225), and to look, as Nina does, for “something deeper than things or shapes of things” (111).


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Author Biography

Niva Kaspi, University of Western Australia

Niva Kaspi is a PhD Candidate in English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her research interests include narratology, fictional communities, and novels published after 9/11.