Stock Characters in 9/11 Fiction

Homosociality and Nihilist Performance

by Sandra Singer (Author)
©2019 Monographs X, 154 Pages


Stock Characters in 9/11 Fiction considers fictional work of the time subsequent to the attacks. The book develops and investigates models of stock characters in 9/11 fiction who promote the trauma meme within a narrative arc of tragedy; the conceptual evolution of trauma and media as thematic arcs is interpreted within specific 9/11 novels and in correspondence with other terrorist fiction. The almost exclusively male stock character protagonists include the male homosocial perpetrator and the tightrope walker. Among the more recent authors discussed are Amy Waldman and Thomas Pynchon, whose novels illustrate the way characters inhabit media models, rather than, as previously thought, using media for disseminating terrorist events and messaging. Other featured writers include Bernhard Schlink, Don DeLillo, Claire Messud, Ian McEwan, Joseph O’Neill, and Colum McCann. Stock Characters in 9/11 Fiction is a valuable text for scholars of 9/11 fiction, as well as for professors and university students studying contemporary literature.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Homosocial Character Dynamics in Bernhard Schlink’s The Weekend
  • Chapter 2. Revisiting the Image of the Falling Man in Novels, Television and Film
  • Chapter 3. Self-subtraction from the System: The Sleeper Cell in Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children
  • Chapter 4. Limitations of the Hyper-rationalist in Ian McEwan’s Saturday
  • Chapter 5. Gambling and Postcolonial Games of Risk in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland
  • Chapter 6. From Modernism to Postmodernism: The Trauma Meme Transformed in Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin
  • Chapter 7. Media Defining Terrorism in Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Assignment, Amy Waldman’s The Submission and Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge
  • Index

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My thanks go to Meagan Simpson, editor at Peter Lang Publishing, for her enthusiasm for the project and helpful guidance along the way. Emily Carlisle, research assistant, provided an initial literature review. My deepest gratitude is to Daniel Singer for his humor, steadfastness and loving support.

Although no chapter in this book is a simple reprint of a previously published essay, some chapters contain material that has appeared elsewhere. I am grateful to reprint from “Cultural and Historical Memory in English and German Discursive Responses to 9/11,” 9/11 in European Literature: Negotiating Identities Against the Attacks and What Followed, edited by Svenja Frank, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pp. 131–157 with the permission of Springer Nature; “The Image of the Falling Man Revisited,” Silence and the Silenced: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, edited by Leslie Boldt, Corrado Federici, and Ernesto Virgulti, Peter Lang, 2013, pp. 127–142 with the permission of Peter Lang; “Fiction and Historical Memory: Negotiating the Traumatizing Image of the Falling Man,” Ethics and Poetics: Ethical Recognitions and Social Reconfigurations in Modern Narratives, edited by Margrét Gunnarsdóttir Champion and Irina Rasmussen Goloubeva, Cambridge Scholars, 2014, pp. 229–249 with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing; “Transcultural Friendship Mediating the 9/11 Disaster in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland,” Reflecting 9/11: ← ix | x → New Narratives in Literature, Television, Film and Theatre, edited by Heather E. Pope and Victoria M. Bryan, Cambridge Scholars, 2016, pp. 111–126 with the permission of Cambridge Scholars Publishing. An earlier version of chapter six appeared as “The Slow Demise of Modernism, Aleatory Keepsakes, ’70s Trauma and Looking through the Glass Darkly in Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin,” Image & Narrative, vol. 13, no. 4, 2012, pp. 206–220.

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Stock Characters in 9/11 Fiction is interested in constructing the types of prevalent characters to see what kinds of revealing stories authors narrate about terrorism after 9/11. Typically a reader of fiction relates to principal characters as they develop and mature through the unfolding storyworld of space and time. 9/11 fiction writers disabuse these normative readerly expectations of literary characterization and recast them, thus rethinking convention. Whereas Great Expectations, the realist novel of Dickens, propels Pip, a round character, into a full social fabric, 9/11 fiction deploys flat, symptomatic characters into a tableau of post-11 September existence. According to E. M. Forster, Dickens also successfully employs flat characters. Gradgrind (Hard Times) or the Artful Dodger (Oliver Twist) among many others easily come to mind. “Part of the genius of Dickens is that he does use types and caricatures, people whom we recognize the instant they re-enter, and yet achieves effects that are not mechanical and a vision of humanity that is not shallow” (Forster 109). Protagonists in 9/11 novels are not only flat—or “constructed round a single idea or quality”—in the way E. M. Forster describes “flat characters” (103–104); they are stock characters, meaning they are both identifiable and repeated types in the 9/11 oeuvre. Literary encounters with these seemingly understandable and predictable character types appeals by offering an established vantage to a ← 1 | 2 → contemporary postmodern sensibility of global uncertainty. At the same time, the reader’s relationship with stock characters instructively bears out the limits of engaging with global terrorism through the narrow, isolationist, Western individualist perspective of the stock characters themselves.

Considering this privileging of realist stock characters, these flat, almost exclusively male 9/11 protagonists include the male homosocial perpetrator, the tightrope walker—a foil for the Twin Towers jumpers, the sleeper from a terrorist cell, the hyper-rationalist individual committed to an alienated form of Western reason, and the money gambler. These normatively configured traumatized and traumatizing figures function in relationship to the contemporary mediatized world. While mass media has always been a modus operandi of terrorist action, the way media in contemporary novels not only conveys political violence but constitutes the models of existential reality is new, and featured in 9/11 fiction of the second decade after the attacks: for example, in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge (2013). The insight that 9/11 novels structure readers’ engagement with types in narrative arcs, according to trauma memes, enacted through media, sheds light on the explanatory role these high-brow, politically ambivalent but culturally complex works perform. Through fiction related to stock characters who are traumatized or traumatizing to a greater or lesser degree, Western readers safely encounter the terrorist Other from a position of distance and judgment. 9/11 fiction’s stock characters act primarily in relationship or reaction to domestic situations, through which readers find their bearings in the wider, post-11 September world.

A book about characters in 9/11 fiction would be incomplete without considering, if only briefly, the role of film in the formulation of contemporary culture. Since the advent of Hollywood, contemporary novels are often written from the point of creation with a view to potential revenue by selling film rights. Film theorist David Bordwell distinguishes the work a traditional novel performs as different from a film’s operations. For Bordwell, movies apply human psychology to create the storyworld, without any inherent concern about ontological truth. As well, movies use primarily a visual format, which encourages readers to make inferences about social character first from visual impressions: for example, facial characteristics, body types, body language or material possessions. According to Bordwell, this character template is then compared with other character templates to create a “hierarchy of characters” (114) based on complexity of effects from the bottom-up at the get-go. For example, concerning a figure in the 2004 American action crime thriller, Cellular, ← 2 | 3 →

The 9/11 novels I investigate with their stock character types may not always easily translate to film script, but these novels do conform to cultural expectations through their efficient stereotyping. Here, I am arguing that it is important to see the production of the 9/11 novel within a contextualizing frame of cultural capital and profit to fully judge their worth, whether as a film producer buying rights, as a book editor, or more generally as a reading consumer.

My study generates and investigates unexplored archetypes in the 9/11 novel. Specific texts highlighted in each chapter emerged as central to my argument about stock characters while I was initially concerned about other, especially ethical features impacting reception of those works. For example, contributors to Ethics and Poetics: Ethical Recognitions and Social Reconfigurations in Modern Narratives (2014), including me, investigate modalities of recognition and social regeneration through literary language, which effects transmission, reweighting and reconfiguration of values. Modalities of recognition in contemporary literature act on and potentially regenerate social spaces (Singer, “Fiction and Historical Memory”). My current work specifically addresses the operations of stock characters in this dialogic process. In writing that anticipates my discussion in this volume, I investigated the theme of transnational friendship in Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2008) using the lens developed by Margaret Scanlan, who composed the timely 2001 analysis of the long history of terrorism in fiction, Plotting Terror: Novelists and Terrorists in Contemporary Fiction (Singer, “Transcultural Friendship”). What interested me further was her 2010 analysis of Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007), among two other texts, as postcolonial terrorist fiction that engages the terrorist Other (in “Migrating from Terror: The Postcolonial Novel after September 11”). In my current study of Netherland in chapter five, I construct and pursue the archetype of the gambler, seeing this recurrent trope of risk taking by characters in American fiction and film (Smith 178–179) as intrinsic to capitalism, which the Twin Towers emblemized.

The argument for the five stock characters considers their narratological aspects that are grounded on a folk psychology of “introducing characters so ← 3 | 4 → that their essential traits pop out clearly” (Bordwell 88) and especially that their ideological implications engage the status quo. My entry into the field of 9/11 fiction studies began by my fascination with Richard Drew’s Falling Man photographic image that was shared widely in media on 12 September, 2001. As much as the sublime image captivated me, what held my interest, and still does, was its and the towers jumpers’ immediate redaction for several years after 11 September. I am puzzled by the apparent inadmissibility of the literal record the photograph imparts. 9/11 fiction is consistently faithful to the memory of the jumpers. “[W]ithin the broader context of author-audience relationships,” rhetorical narratology informs my exploring the sociocultural work stock characters like the jumper perform in the structure of address of 9/11 fiction to a Western audience (Phelan, Somebody x). Stock Characters in 9/11 Fiction critically extends the narrative analysis of terrorist fiction by Scanlan and rhetorical analysis of character in fiction by James Phelan and Peter J. Rabinowitz, among others.

Although its potential for considering terrorist fiction has not yet been explored, Phelan’s scrutiny of how character operates in fiction, in Living to Tell about It: A Rhetoric and Ethics of Character Narration (2005), for example, is especially instructive for interpreting 9/11 fiction. Phelan starts from the rhetorical understanding of fiction, which is captured by the description of “somebody telling somebody else, on some occasion, and for some purposes, that something happened to someone or something” (Herman 3). In Living to Tell about It, he describes specific aspects of character narration that bear, in my project, especially on works such as Netherland and The Reluctant Fundamentalist that pursue the terrorist Other using homodiegetic narration. Homodiegesis in these novels brings the complexity of the terrorist character to the fore and serves to challenge the two-dimensional frameworks stock characters apprise. Phelan’s analysis applies of course also to first-person narration included in heterodiegetic fiction, such as John Updike’s Terrorist (2006) that includes conversation and focalized narration from New Jersey teen Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy who is being groomed as a homegrown terrorist, or the media-inscribed Muslim American architect Mohammad Khan who is suspected of having terrorist sympathies in Amy Waldman’s The Submission (2011). As much as rhetorical narratology informs my analysis of fiction (most pointedly in chapter one), its premises are a “‘default’ situation” (Phelan, Somebody 5), which offers a vocabulary for interpreting cultural responses to 11 September that employ “the resources of narrative in order to accomplish certain purposes in relation to certain audiences” (x). ← 4 | 5 →


X, 154
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (June)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Vienna, Oxford, Wien, 2019. X, 154 pp.

Biographical notes

Sandra Singer (Author)

Sandra Singer (PhD, Cambridge) is Associate Professor in the School of English and Theatre Studies, University of Guelph, Canada. Her previous publications include the co-edited collections Doris Lessing: Interrogating the Times and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook After Fifty, as well as the edited J. J. Steinfeld: Essays on His Works.


Title: Stock Characters in 9/11 Fiction
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166 pages