Stories can be a consolation – at least in theory. The novelist can try to leap across the barrier of fact and the reader is willing to take that leap with him as long as there’s a kind of redemptive truth waiting on the other side, a sense that we’ve arrived at a resolution.
— Don DeLillo
What’s Here, and What’s Coming
Don Dellilo is the most underrated novelist of the 20th century. I don’t care if he’s received the National Book Award, or the PEN/Faulkner medal, or other honorifics from the academy. Nobody knows what those are. I don’t know why PEN is capitalized; I don’t think anyone else does either! Allow me to get a little closer to the ground (that is, mass culture) with my reasoning here.
Peruse the syllabi from my alma mater’s English department. Our man Don is entirely absent, glaringly so when it comes to courses that explore topics like the self, freedom of expression and globalization. I definitely was not assigned a Don DeLillo book when I was at UVA. And I don’t recall anyone who was. Within my Distinguished Majors cohort, where we would often pass the time by arguing about which English lectures and courses had been the most edifying, his name never entered the discussion.
In terms of secondary criticism, we can consult some quick searches on JSTOR. Pynchon outstrips DeLillo 2 to 1; Nabokov bests him 3 to 1; criticism about David Foster Wallace, ruler of them all, dwarfs DeLillo at a rate of 10 to 1. There are 19 results on Etsy when you search for DeLillo. Meanwhile, run a search for Kurt Vonnegut and 812 results (with Ads!) flood your screen. Also, you need a magnifying glass to find his name mentioned on the Postmodern literature Wikipedia entry.
DeLillo suffers from a major issue with what in the web development industry call “Search Engine Optimization” (SEO) – how you get your brand name stuck at the top of Google. Consider these blog entries my humble attempt to reinject DeLillo into The Discourse by closely examining his strengths as a writer and novelist. The sequence will unfold like so:
This post begins with how I learned about DeLillo’s writing. Then, I’ll present my initial impressions with his catalog. First comes White Noise, his mass-appeal masterpiece about a small-college town experiencing an ecological meltdown whose residents can’t distinguish truth from fiction (oddly prescient, that). Next, his debut, Americana, which makes up for its lack of notoriety with stunning prose and rich meditations on relationships, digitization and the shifting landscape of American culture.
The second post will zoom out on DeLillo’s catalog and explore some of the broad themes that recur throughout his novels: technology, language, world-building, and happenstance. I’ll connect these themes with relevant examples in other mediums, such as the ludicrous radio broadcasts from Dr. Jacoby in Twin Peaks: The Return and the surprisingly haunting lyrics of Talking Heads.
The third post will describe the digital modes of study I’m applying to DeLillo’s fiction. I’ll start with the type of data-munging that formed the backbone of my thesis in the hopes of establish a “DDDB”: Don DeLillo Database.
The fourth and final post will discuss what it’s like to read DeLillo in an today’s world.
When It Started
I first heard of Don DeLillo in an Introduction to Literary Criticism course taught by the imitable Rita Felski. Professor Felski stated that White Noise, DeLillo’s breakout novel published in 1985, remains one of her favorite novels. I took everything Professor Felski recommended to heart; her insight into literature and art more broadly is staggering. In fact, the conceit of my thesis – focusing on one word, “lyrical” – was heavily influenced by her collection of phenomenological essays, Uses of Literature, in which Felski bridges the gap between the every day experience of reading and the critical planks that inhere books and our responses to them.
Now, that was 2018. Here I was, in the Spring of 2020, sorting out my roadmap for what the next nine or so months of my life would entail … until, of course, everything turned on it’s head with the global pandemic. Now, I had always intended to return to graduate school after a year or two of working, but the early days of lockdown made it difficult to think that any plans I created in, say, April would even be possible come June, September, etc.
The world felt scary. There was a palpable anxiety whenever I checked in with colleagues or friends from college (via Zoom, of course). The news trended, inexorably, in a negative direction, and I was extremely worried about my parents, with whom I lived up until this June.
So where exactly does DeLillo fit into this constellation? He’s never written a book, explicitly, about a pandemic, mega-virus, etc. That’s territory typically reserved for stalwart sci-fi writers, or their progenitors, like Mary Shelley’s The Last Man or Stephen King’s The Stand.
White Noise, though, with it’s ruminations on death and a rapidly shifting society aligns with many of the aspects of current historical moment. Much like the gold standard for post-modernism, Pale Fire, whose shadow looms over DeLillo’s ouevre, White Noise sweeps us away to a quaint college town. The book follows Jack Gladney, a professor at the forefront of the “Hitler studies” field. Jack (along with his wife, Babette) obsesses with death. Now on the one hand, a constant grappling with mortality is to be expected from a professor of “Hitler studies.” However, the town’s exposure to a hazardous chemical agent in what DeLillo calls “The Airborne Toxic Event” engenders a frenzy for all parties involved.
Babette embroils herself in a tryst with a pharmaceutical salesman who pushes her to try “Dylar,” a pill purporting to assuage death-terror. Jack, meanwhile, faces exposure to the chemical, and his mental state similarly deteriorates. Towards the work’s close, he remarks to a colleague, “I’m just going through the motions of living. I’m technically dead.” And in an aleatory society built upon exploitation and swindle, who isn’t?
Overall, reading White Noise left me disoriented. It’s a challenging read, certainly, both in form and subject matter. At multiple points, I felt as if I had been teleported back to my “Freud and Literature” course, learning about the concept of the “death drive”. DeLillo is eminently perspicacious. Almost to a fault. But he imbues a remarkable liquidity into his paragraphs. The descriptions of the vagaries of everyday life the shopping cart, the syndicated television program, the college curriculum – drop the reader into an environment rife with stagnation, futility and charmlessness. A melancholy undergirds the entire work; life lacks coherence or direction.
White Noise, then, is not why I’m enamored with DeLillo’s ideas, characters and prose. I moved onto other books (for example all of April and May, it was my GRE math prep book). It wouldn’t be until later in the year I fully immersed myself in DeLillo’s writing after I read Americana.
I spent the summer adjusting to life during lockdown. I picked up science fiction stories by Philip K. Dick and Ray Bradbury. I also enjoyed a mini-survey of Thomas Pynchon (perusing Inherent Vice and The Crying of Lot 49). I devoured Lot 49, as it seemed picture-perfect for our conspiracy-laden historical moment. Dovetailing this, podcast episodes featuring Michael Judge were instrumental in cohering many of the threads that appear in Pynchon’s fiction. I was excited to accompany a proper reading of Pynchon’s masterwork, Gravity’s Rainbow, with Judge’s exploration on his own podcast, “Death is Just Around The Corner.” Prior to starting, though, a tweet from Judge sent me back down a DeLillo rabbit-hole:
"Death Is Just Around the Corner" is the name of a late-night radio show hosted by a ranting insane autodidact freak in Don DeLillo's first novel, AMERICANA. The parallels were too obvious to pass up— ★ (@corpseinorbit) August 14, 2020
This anecdote amused me, and spurred me to take a second pass at DeLillo’s fiction. I set Gravity’s Rainbow aside, ordered Americana, and was on my way.
Published in 1971, Americana presents its audience with a (somewhat) played out premise: chic business executive David Bell, disillusioned with pencil-pushing and elbow-rubbing in Manhattan’s gauche advertising world, goes AWOL to pursue his passions. You can think of David as a Bohemian Don Draper: same vanity and inattention to personal relationships and ethical norms, but imbued with a greater introspective capacity as well as a definitive reverence to the arts. An early self-assessment – “I was blue-eyed David Bell. Obviously my life depended on this fact” (11) – cements expectations for the reader that this rosier-than-thou conception will necessarily be complicated.
DeLillo uses this fairly ordinary premise as a set-piece of sorts.Americana’s familiar foreground allows DeLillo to meditate on complex topics like language and sexuality.
In one aside, Bell notes that he’s grown weary with merely making love to his wife, leaning on seduction to exact sexual pleasure. Benign as that may seem, his source of choice for that seduction is, interestingly enough, cinema. Much like the characters in White Noise, the world of Americana features people trapped in relationships that are mediated through external forms of media.
And, New York City, the epicenter of neoliberal financialization, Bell experiences the mutations of language unfolding within and without the confines of his bespoke Madison Avenue office. His colleagues convey ideas through an increasingly complex series of symbols. They use machines that may or may create value. Executives produce less than their secretaries. Innovation wasn’t predicated on generating new ideas but rather upon squeezing all that was left of the old ones. As Bell puts it, “Words and meanings were at odds. Words did not say what was being said nor even its reverse” (36).
Importantly, from a stylistic perspective, DeLillo develops key aspects of his idiolect. Chief among these is what I refer to as the “block-thought.” DeLillo begins a paragraph with an easy-to-digest action; a character prepares their dinner or turns on a movie. From there, though, unrelated thoughts populate the paragraph, only to be capped off with a final sentence that refers back to the first sentence, thus “closing” the block so to speak. It’s almost mathematical; you have to balance both your ledger when you do your algebra.
I went into the bathroom, took off my shirt and began shaving my chest with an electric razor. It was a ritual cleansing of the body, a prelude to the sacred journey. The rain had stopped. I was happy. Through the bathroom window, as I shaved, I could see most of the town of Millsgate, white houses massed in a jest of innocence, fresh sunlight on the steeple. A girl went along the street skipping rope, head back, eyes seeking the break in the clouds; two white sloops, heeling severely, played at the mouth of the bay. I tried to imagine, to remember really, what it was like to live without the terminal fears of the city, for I had loved a town once without knowing it, and the love would note release me. There was a vein of murder snaking across the continent beneath highways, smokestacks, oilrigs and gasworks, a casual savagery fed by the mute cities, and I wondered what impossible distance must be traveled to get from there to here, what language must be crossed, how many levels of being. My hair went willingly in the fish-mouth of the razor. (124)
The encapsulated-meandering in this paragraph manifests in almost all of DeLillo’s works. (As an aside, you can’t read a paragraph like this without thinking of the opening sequence of Ulysses, a massive influence for DeLillo’s canon.)
I’m excited to study, on a macro and micro level, this and other aspects of DeLillo’s style in Part 3 of this series. Prior to that, I’ll devote time in the next post to connections to DeLillo’s works in other forms of media.