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date: 15 June 2024

Delillo, Donfree

Delillo, Donfree

  • Joseph Dewey


  • North American Literatures

There is something coolly inaccessible about the fiction—and the person—of Don DeLillo. By any measure—productivity, longevity, influence, scope—a dominant novelist of his era, DeLillo nevertheless resists the expectations of celebrity: public appearances, promotional Web sites, prestigious university appointments, conference readings, talk-show blitzes; even his interviews can be dense and forbidding. In an era of tell-all glamour, what little DeLillo, born on 20 November 1936, has offered of his autobiography rarely figures in his fiction—his Italian immigrant family; his love of the street life of his native Bronx; his fascination with the ritual theater of his Catholicism; his indifference toward his own formal education (he “slept through” high school and “didn't study much of anything” while earning a 1958 communication arts degree from Fordham); his initial experience of serious literature—Faulkner and then gloriously Joyce—while, at age eighteen, killing time as a summer playground attendant; his five-year stint as copywriter for the Manhattan advertising firm of Ogilvie and Mather; his 1964 decision to quit, not to write (although he had published two stories) but rather to abandon work he found unfulfilling; his long struggle to write his first novel, which would not be published until his mid-thirties. Since then he has maintained a spectacularly low-key lifestyle. Since his marriage in 1975 to designer Barbara Bennett, DeLillo has lived in the suburbs of New York City and traveled some, but mostly he has written, a dozen novels as well as a scattering of essays, stories, and experimental plays.

The novels themselves, unapologetically difficult, resist the comforting intimacy of other narratives: no clear plot lines compelled by suspense and offering convenient symbols to interpret on the way to tidy closure and a handy theme, all staged within a recognizable geography peopled by recognizable characters who, in the familiar sound of colloquial chat, fret over love and death, family and work. DeLillo even resists a defining genre: novel to novel, he has experimented with and skewed Westerns, science fiction, murder mysteries, spy thrillers, the nonfiction novel, metafiction, disaster novels, the romance, sports stories, even ghost stories. Like Saul Bellow a generation earlier, DeLillo writes novels of ideas, less stories than episodic meditations, unsettling and provocative. Indeed, DeLillo disdains other sorts of fiction—“around-the-house-and-in-the-yard” realism, as he terms them—for their diminished scope. Not surprisingly, DeLillo has never produced a character embraced by the American imagination—no Huck or Holden or Gatsby. His characters are uncharismatic, aloof and unapproachable, witty and talky, and often distant from the action within their own narratives. His works have sustained critical dissection and have garnered accolades: the 1985 National Book Award for White Noise; the 2000 William Dean Howells Award, presented every five years for the most distinguished work in American fiction, for Underworld; the 1992 PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II; the 1999 Jerusalem Prize for a body of work centered on the freedom of the individual—the first American to win it. But save for Libra, a best-seller largely because of its creative appropriation of the Kennedy assassination, his novels have generated only modest sales. Indeed, DeLillo is famously indifferent to the pressure of having an audience—he is a consummate stylist, engaged by his own admission in mastering the technology of language itself, experimenting with the sonic dimension of his sentences, testing their syllable beat for harmony. He even works on a manual typewriter, relishing the physical imposition of ink onto paper and the accumulating drift of drafts.

Finding pedestrian the anxieties of the heart, the hidden poetry of small lives, DeLillo binds his characters to their larger cultural moment. He tests nothing less than the viability, indeed the relevancy, of the self in late-twentieth-century America. What is the effect, DeLillo asks, of the unprecedented reach of electronic media? The problem, as he articulates it across four decades of fiction, is the loss of the authentic self after a half-century's assault of images from film, television, tabloids, and advertising that have produced a shallow culture too enamored of simulations, unable to respond to authentic emotional moments without recourse to media models, staring (like voyeurs) at a complex of screens, dislocated from history but enthralled by the news, and taught by an onslaught of commercials not to dream—that, after all, is a complex expression of the individual—but rather to want, part of the collective herd that mass media inevitably fashions. Whatever poignancy DeLillo's characters manage comes when they demand the privilege of a self to explore, fearing in their darker moments that it is simply not there. With such a provocative focus, DeLillo has emerged as a most articulate anatomist of fin-de-millennium America—but not a particularly comforting writer. As cultural anatomist, he confronts his age with an unblinking eye and an intimidating intelligence; he has tackled the difficult implications of popular culture, high and low. His topics have ranged from nuclear apocalypse to rock music, the Kennedy assassination to the porn industry, astrophysics to college football, terrorism to baseball memorabilia, environmental holocaust to garbage management. In conducting this wide-ranging cultural dissection, DeLillo has maintained two thermal settings simultaneously: the caustic cool of a satirist, full of insult and indictment; and the white-hot fury of a latter-day prophet, full of discontent and desperation. As authorial postures, both are necessarily aloof, unforgiving, and predisposed to seeing a culture in permanent crisis, thus resisting easy intimacy with a reader bound, unaware, within the same troubling cultural matrix.

Problems/Solutions of a Cultural Anatomist

If DeLillo's focus is on the heroic struggle to salvage the self in the late twentieth century, what has so threatened the individual? DeLillo centers on three specific cultural pressures: the intoxicating melodrama of the Cold War, the 1963 assassination of John Kennedy, and the irresistible pressure of electronic media.

For more than a generation, the Cold War provided the appeal of coherence, squaring a fractious world into manageable clarity by the ruthless imposition of order. Its embracing schema could account for every news event; there was no surprise, only the comforting certainty of paranoia, the easy spell of manageable intricacy, a perfect rendering of post-Hiroshima anxieties into plot. The eccentric logic of such tidiness is evident throughout DeLillo's canon: in terrorists and religious cultists; FBI agents and corporate wheeler-dealers; fascists and Catholics; spies and counterspies; mathematicians and football coaches. How greedily, DeLillo cautions, we accept the elegant simplicity of explanations that insulate us from anxiety over the freefall pitch into pure contingency. That freefall was perhaps best defined by the ambush of Kennedy in Dealey Plaza, which DeLillo has described as a generational trauma, the blunt intrusion of crude mortality that revealed not only the eggshell fragility of the human form but, absent a motive, left a culture forever suspended between explanation and mystery, between scripted terrorism and random madness. Despite a hillside of eyewitnesses and the unblinking testimony of twenty-two cameras, the Dallas shooting has never revealed itself. As such, DeLillo sees the assassination as the birth of the video age—of television news and the rush to pitch disaster into living rooms where stark images nevertheless frustrate revelation. Here, DeLillo sees, a culture began its addiction to spectacle violence, the itch for more graphic filmed sequences, that thrill inevitably deadening the ability to react with appropriate sensitivity to suddenly quaint notions of the sacramental dimension of life and the private privilege of death. From the Vietnam War fought on television to the trailing bone-white clouds of the space shuttle Challenger, from the street beating of Rodney King to the shootings of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan, from the made-for-television Gulf War to that lone aircraft flying eerily, unerringly into the south tower of the World Trade Center, a culture has come to crave the image: faddish reality television programming, omnipresent surveillance cameras, the endless roll of amateur video cameras, news crews in a frenzy to entertain with catastrophe as violence and death have become as routine as mouthwash commercials.

DeLillo's dominant concern, perhaps from his brief career in advertising, is just this unprecedented reach of electronic media, not merely the news but advertising, films, television, the screech of tabloids, the faux intimacy of pornography, the enclosing artifice of the World Wide Web, the bang and sizzle of home entertainment technologies, even the wonderland labyrinths of theme parks. These relentless forces have created a virtual reality, an electronic mediascape of composed images and enhanced projections that did not exist fifty years ago. Such invasive technologies, DeLillo argues, create a narcotic addiction for the larger-than-life and thus anesthetize hapless consumers, film-fed and image-fat, to the apparently unspectacular life immediately about them. Indeed the real becomes distant, even terrifying, or simply irrelevant.

The solutions DeLillo offers are strikingly traditional but appear provocative largely because they are asserted in an era—and within narratives—where they can appear ironic. Relax, DeLillo counsels his era, into wonder, relish the thrust and drag of the immediate, accept its unpredictability and your vulnerability, step away from the protective bunker of depthless images and lifeless words and approach each moment for what it is, an imperfect respite from what the human creature alone understands is inevitable: closure. Those able to do so are rare in DeLillo's fictions. They come to embrace the horizontal plane: they accept the body as a living organism measured in time, subject to the persuasive itch of passion and inevitably succumbing to deterioration. They turn to the immediate world, often for DeLillo an urban geography, that once lovingly detailed is suddenly shot through with unsuspected radiance, the heft and press of an ordinary city block—its color, its jazzy welter of voices, its harshness, and its beauty—becoming jarringly real. DeLillo offers reconnection—joy, terror, and wonder—as remedy for the stifling ennui of the late century. But it is not enough to tap such immediacy. DeLillo has come to valorize the exertion of articulation that encodes such awareness into words, the act of writing itself that confers a kind of permanence to such moments and in the process creates the accidental community of reader and writer. He understands how the media age has threatened language itself, cheapened it into power clichés, advertising slogans, political spin-doctoring, techno-jargon, and the thick insulation of legalese. The writer, engaged in observation, reclaims language, constructs a massively subjective system of representation—called a novel—that (unlike photographs or music scores or films) contains, rather than freezes, the contradictory impulses of experience. In the act of recording, the transient becomes stable; the inconsequential, significant; the neglected, the examined.

Consider DeLillo's influences. Although he has recognized the tectonic impact of Faulkner and Joyce and of his contemporaries William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, DeLillo more often acknowledges three influences that in the 1950s shaped his evolving aesthetic sensibility: the driving hard bop of improv jazz, the avant-garde revolution in abstract expressionist painting, and the New Wave European filmmakers, particularly Jean-Luc Godard. Like DeLillo's novels, each challenges rather than invites. Much as DeLillo minimizes character and action as elements of narrative, each aesthetic expression discarded its traditional elements (bop dispensed with melody, abstract expressionism with representation, and Godard's films with story and character). Thus, like DeLillo's novels, each expression ultimately foregrounds its own medium and compels the participatory audience to acknowledge the artifact as just that, a marvelously engineered form. Indeed, as DeLillo will come to argue, the sole energy able to un-violate the self, to reanimate the self in the electronic age, is language itself within the precise engineering of prose—the writer as a culture's last hero.

Narratives of Retreat

DeLillo's four earliest works offer a quartet of shallow characters each trying to undergo a convincing spiritual crisis but just not entirely sure how. They elect flight, a problematic retreat from the implications of their cultural moment and seek in that doomed gesture to recover a self worth preserving.

Television executive David Bell (Americana, 1971) finds success a tedious round of office realpolitik and bored adulteries. More distressing, at age twenty-eight, he has lost any notion of an authentic self. He is a performance: a collage of film recollections (particularly Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas) and advertising promotions (his father, an advertising executive, had subjected him as a child to hours of test commercials in the basement). Determined to reclaim a self, he accepts an assignment to oversee a documentary on the Navajos out west. But he abandons that assignment in the Midwest to pursue a conceptual autobiographical film. To discover who he is, he scripts critical memories of his life into third-person monologues and films ordinary people from a small town reading the recollections, which center on a problematic relationship with his domineering father and confused attractions for his mother. The film project fails—the fragmentary ruminations cannot cohere. Determined then to dispense with the self entirely, David heads west alone to the desert wastes, traditional site of spiritual cleansing. What he finds rather is a Dante-esque inferno of debauchery in a commune and is nearly raped by a gay hitchhiker. In the end, David exiles himself to a nameless island where he watches the unfinished film of his own life, coolly sustained by its depthless images.

Like David Bell, Gary Harkness (End Zone, 1972), a talented halfback, struggles within a spiritual crisis. He has gone through four prestigious college programs, plagued by spiritual malaise and dealing with his part in a brutal tackle in which an opposing player died. Terrified by the vulnerability of the puny self amid blind chance, he retreats to tiny Logos College in the West Texas wastes. There he plays for an authoritarian coach, a control freak who motivates with power clichés, who defines every turn of a game within the iron logic of his playbook, and who will provide Harkness the protective system he so desperately seeks. But DeLillo sees the price for such retreat. He renders the big game between Logos and its cross-state rival in thirty pages of x's and o's, inaccessible playbook jargon, every moment drained of the emotional texture of spontaneity and passion. When an ROTC professor of military strategy argues the inevitability of nuclear holocaust, Harkness relishes the tidiness of self-inflicted apocalypse. Like football (and, as DeLillo suggests, like theology), nuclear war charms brutality into an uncomplicated exercise in control, a perfect closed system in which the individual exercises no responsibility and which, theoretically, resolves the death anxiety entirely. But Harkness finds no protective end zone from death or absurdity. The team is shaken by two deaths—a young coach commits suicide, a player dies in a car accident—and Harkness (like David Bell) takes to long excursions into the desert. When, during a meaningless late-season game, Harkness smokes a joint and actually walks off, he is surprised that not only is he not disciplined but he is made co-captain for the next season. Feeling the enclosing pressure of an absurd world, Harkness opts for a ruinous fast, yet another gesture of control and retreat that DeLillo rejects: the novel ends with the weakened Harkness being taken to the campus infirmary.

When burned-out rock star Bucky Wunderlick (Great Jones Street, 1973) abandons his celebrity lifestyle and retreats, like some latter-day Thoreau, to a spartan Manhattan apartment to find a self just by simplifying its context, DeLillo readers expect such a gesture to fail of its own irony. Distressed by the directionless violence his concerts excite and disillusioned by the inefficacy of his early protest songs, Bucky retreats to recover a self. But his exile is regularly violated by worried record executives, eccentric neighbors, a drug-smuggling girlfriend, and ex-band members. In addition, he becomes entangled in a bizarre theft of a government test-drug. A bundled sample of the drug, which destroys language skills and was intended to (literally) silence political dissenters in the aftermath of the 1960s, is left at Bucky's apartment, where members of a sinister underground hippie cult, ironically named the Happy Valley Farm Commune, plot to secure it for their own testing. In another similarly bundled package is the sole copy of Bucky's latest recordings, impromptu songs about his spiritual agonies, which he taped while alone in the mountains. When the commune destroys the tapes, Bucky spirals into hopelessness. After commune thugs inject him with the experimental drug, he finds his ability to speak entirely short-circuited. Wordlessly he tours the Bowery neighborhoods and witnesses firsthand its brutal splendor. It is a cathartic moment of promising engagement. But Bucky closes the novel, the drug just wearing off, content to sustain the charade of muteness, thus accepting only private restoration, a disturbing variation on exile.

But engagement does not simply enthrall. Ratner's Star (1976), for all its eccentric allegorical plots and fantastic asides, its sheer encyclopedic command of arcane mathematics and its impenetrable vocabulary, its extravagant sci-fi speculations and its careful emulation of mathematical architectures, cautions that engaging the freewheeling ad lib of the immediate can terrify as well. Science, DeLillo argues, has provided twentieth-century culture with a smug certainty that the universe simply awaits mapping—it is, like the football games at Logos College, a closed exercise in predictability, cozily immune to the shell shock of surprise. The premise here is tantalizing: Are pulsations that are being picked up from deep space a message? Billy Twillig, a brilliant fourteen-year-old mathematician called in to help decode the message, is taken, Alicelike, into a think-tank wonderland where a gallery of self-absorbed oddball scientists, Swiftian cartoons, pursue without irony eccentric projects radically disconnected from any real-world application. Billy himself will be involved in an absurd project to create a language based on numbers, thus dispensing with the inelegant imprecision of words.

When Billy decodes the signal as a message actually sent from an ancient Earth civilization that correctly predicts an imminent unscheduled solar eclipse, the realization that science had somehow “missed” that otherwise predictable phenomenon shakes the think tank. Billy, however, resists panic—he is more adaptive (as children in DeLillo often are). Indeed, at the threshold of adolescence, Billy has started to register the first complex urges of his maturing body, confusions over sexuality and aging and death, and has intuited that science can do little but simplify such rich confusions. He is last seen madly pedaling a child's tricycle into the very shadow bands of the approaching eclipse, ringing the bike's tinny bell, a sound that signals as much joy as alarm. Like Bucky, he makes peace with nature's elaborate chaos. But, as a mathematician, Billy long ago dismissed words as unreliable and thus is shut off from the technology of language that could share such intuition with a needful community.

Narratives of Failed Engagement

Finding retreat unworkable, DeLillo would explore in his next two novels the implications of Billy's impromptu gesture of engagement. But because characters in these works engage the stunning unpredictability and death-haunted chaos of the real world without the requisite awe that makes that gesture rewarding, they are left—emotionally or physically—dead.

When Wall Street stockbroker Lyle Wynant (Players, 1977) witnesses a terrorist shooting on the floor of the Exchange, he glimpses the unbearable slightness of his ordered life: the mercenary rituals of his professional success, the interminable evenings channel-surfing with the sound off, the bored friction that passes for lovemaking with his wife, a thin life DeLillo underscores with a stark minimalist prose line and by his refusal to provide any background or interior shadings to Lyle. Curious about adventure, Lyle pursues an attractive secretary and, in the course of a predictable affair (the sex is less than incendiary), becomes enmeshed in the underground world of urban terrorists bent on shaking the foundations of the capitalist system by bombing Wall Street itself. Fascinated by the intrigue but ultimately unable to commit to its fanatic agenda, Lyle plays double agent and feeds information to federal investigators. He cannot even sustain the raw heat of a heady fling with one of the terrorists and returns to the relative safety of his cliché affair with the secretary, its lack of authenticity underscored by her use of a strap-on dildo to spice up what has already staled into routine. Lyle closes the narrative in a Canadian hotel, waiting for a phone call from one side or the other, watching television and fantasizing about being a spy: suspended from authenticity, rootless, playacting.

In alternating chapters, DeLillo tracks Pammy, Lyle's wife, who, as a grief counselor entowered within the World Trade Center, professionally mollifies her clients' authentic expression of emotion with colorful brochures and easy platitudes. Like Lyle, Pammy will also test passion—she will journey with two gay friends to the Maine backwoods to engage the tonic natural world. There she will share an unexpectedly passionate moment under the stars with one of the men who, she never cares to suspect, is painfully suspended between sexual identities and who, when they return to the city, immolates himself in a desperate gesture of suicide. After coolly studying the charred stump, Pammy retreats to her apartment and watches television to obliterate the possibility of awareness. Later, on a walk through her neighborhood, she studies a flophouse marquee that reads “TRANSIENTS”—a word that is terrifying to those who genuinely engage the reality of death but, to one so casually playing at life, is reduced to simple noise (Pammy actually sounds it out).

Glen Selvy (Running Dog, 1978) is also a player, serving on the staff of a prominent U.S. senator (his unofficial job is to secure pornography for the senator's private collection) and as a mole for a shadowy military-industrial conglomerate, Radial Matrix, which is eager to get dirt on the senator to head off congressional investigations into its covert paramilitary operations to “manage” domestic dissent. Unencumbered by authentic convictions (his code name, Running Dog, suggests an unflattering penchant for obedience), he maintains a spare rented apartment and indulges in only anonymous sexual encounters rather than risk love. Selvy becomes entangled in an international black market intrigue to secure the sole copy of a pornographic home movie supposedly made in the last hours in Hitler's Berlin bunker. When the shadowy Kurtzlike head of Radial Matrix suspects that Selvy may be less than committed to acquiring the film, he assigns a hit squad to eliminate Selvy. Unable to accept the complicated reality implied by his own side gunning for him even after its first attempt fails, Selvy heads for the West, a landscape, in cinematic lore, marked clearly by white hats and black hats. He travels to an abandoned government training facility in the wastes of Texas where he had been first indoctrinated into the simplified universe of recognizable good and identifiable evil. But DeLillo deliberately undercuts the possibility of Selvy's spiritual reclamation. Selvy's death is inglorious: he is indecorously decapitated by the hit squad (at the moment of death, Selvy longs only for a drink). A comrade wants to give the body a traditional Native American “air burial,” elevating it and offering it to buzzards, thus achieving an ennobling transcendence. But the ritual is unworkable as it requires strands of hair, and Selvy's head is missing. Even the black market film proves a telling disappointment: in it, a playful Hitler cavorts, mimicking Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator, for the delight of a group of children, the twentieth century's darkest monster a sad little clown—an intolerable ambiguity for a character like Selvy, so needful of simplification.

Narratives of Recovery

Intolerant of the ad-lib openness of the real world, destroyed by a brush with its passion, potent surprise, and knotty contradictions, the Wynants and Glen Selvy brought DeLillo, artistically, to something of an impasse. After all, withdrawal and engagement had both failed. Four years would pass before DeLillo would publish again. Not to tie DeLillo's evolution as a writer to autobiography, but there is a marked change in the novels after DeLillo spent three years in the late 1970s on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Greece and the Middle East, where, by his own account, he was reintroduced to the stunning power of language itself. Indeed, the two novels that followed his return are clearly touched by an expansive generosity absent in his earlier works: two alienated (and terrified) central characters (James Axton and Jack Gladney) move hesitatingly toward authenticity and community by embracing the complicated mystery of the late-century world.

James Axton (The Names, 1982) begins a familiar DeLillo character: an overseas-insurance risk analyst for corporations concerned over terrorist attacks, he is a tourist in his own life, aloof, mild-mannered, emotionless, shallow, overanalytical, insulated from both his own heart (his sole affair was a tepid interlude) and from the real; the data he gathers immure him from the bloody rage of the terrorists he studies. For the first time, however, DeLillo foregrounds language. Although the narrative teems with students of language, none taps its enriching power to connect to the immediate. Conversations are maddeningly indirect and disjointed. The archaeologist Owen Brademas forsakes a promising local dig to pore over stone inscriptions, language reduced to meaningless glyphs; Tap, James's precocious nine-year-old, lovingly writes a novel but in a made-up, private language; an ancient mountain cult kills according to the alphabet, selecting victims whose initials correspond to the initials of the murder site, an enslavement to language as a rigid (and entirely arbitrary) ordering system; a visiting filmmaker wants to shoot a documentary on the cult entirely without a script, dispensing with language entirely. It is Axton alone who comes to reject such insulating strategies. At novel's end, when he discovers he has been an unwitting dupe for the CIA, he abandons insurance to return to freelance writing, language implicitly tied to audience. Before he departs Greece, he visits the Acropolis, a site he had long avoided as too imposing, and there communes with the tonic chaos of the noisy street crowd (he does not speak Greek) and feels a vibrant community animated by the intricate webbing of the brimming jazz of conversation. It is language alive and spontaneous, kinetic and connective. But language can do more than stir such epiphanies. The novel ends with a chapter from Tap's novel that recounts a midwestern boy's nightmarish experience of a prairie religious revival in which frenzied members of the congregation suddenly speak in tongues (an episode that counterpoints Axton's epiphany amid the babble at the Acropolis)—but even the terror of that experience is redeemed within the freewheeling music of Tap's audacious language.

In White Noise (1985), DeLillo directly confronts what had long haunted his late-century world: the fear of death. Professor Jack Gladney, at midlife, enjoys the trappings of middle-class success—a home, his health, a family, a career—and yet he cannot sleep at night; he is certain something nameless and terrifying lives in his basement. He clings to crowds—his lecture hall, the local malls, the grocery store—certain that they keep out death; he specializes in Hitler studies, mesmerized by a personage who trafficked in death with cool confidence and brutal efficiency. Unable to accept the vulnerability implicit in mortality, gratefully accepting the insulation of domesticity, Gladney is seduced by his sense of invincibility (he parades about campus in full academic regalia and dark glasses) and hides within a comfy bunker of middle-class plenty, mesmerized by the distracting noise of the television news and its nightly barrage of catastrophe that cheapens mortality by making it generic.

When a nearby train accident releases a massive toxic cloud, the Gladneys must evacuate their home. When they stop for gas, Gladney steps out of the car and confronts the approaching churning chemical cloud. He understands that here, at this bald moment, mortality has entered him. Terrified, he turns to an experimental drug advertised in a tabloid, Dylar, designed to short-circuit that part of the brain where death-anxiety lurks. His wife, he learns, had secured a test sample after sleeping with a drug company representative. When the drug fails, he implements a crude Hitleresque end run: master death by killing (suggested by a sinister colleague who convinces Gladney that death necessarily cheapens every experience). He tracks down the drug company representative to shoot him. When that plan goes absurdly wrong and Gladney himself ends up with a gunshot wound in his wrist, he matures into acceptance: death cannot be graphed, understood, tamed, ignored, survived, or beaten (each a strategy undertaken by characters in the novel). Thermos in hand, he joins the crowds who gather each evening at a highway overpass to watch the ringing bronze of the evening sunset, made spectacular by lingering toxins, a luminous metaphor for accommodating the natural inevitability of the human sunset that is both ordinary and stunning, generic and magnificent. But DeLillo cautions against simple optimism: in the novel's two closing scenes, Gladney's youngest son pedals his tricycle furiously out into the highway, a terrifying image of vulnerability without awareness. And when the Gladneys visit the local market they are momentarily bewildered by the store's reorganized shelves, a reminder of a universe shot through with wonder but that nevertheless refuses stasis.

Narratives of Redemption

Axton at the Acropolis and Gladney at the overpass both undergo a quasi-religious awakening that comes from embracing community and accepting uncertainty in a universe that science and television, despite their smug efforts, cannot diminish into predictability. But DeLillo as artist understands that such moments cannot suffice. Passion is not in the experience of the immediate. Rather, passion is in the work of shaping that experience into language, sharing that experience with an unnamable but real audience using the aesthetic technologies of narrative: observation, pattern making, plot shaping, and invention. The spell must be spelled out or it is a pointless ecstasy, a momentary intensity cooling into private recollection. Thus, in the confident voice of his most accomplished novels, DeLillo focuses on narration itself, specifically the role of the writer in the electronic age who sets the brutal wonder of experience to the available music of language.

In any narrative that configures a plausible reading of the Kennedy assassination, the narrative center would appear to belong to Lee Harvey Oswald, the ur-loner, the alienated nobody fed on the tough-guy fantasies of television, spy novels, and war movies and determined to become an event, a domestic terrorist fueled not so much by fanaticism as by the hunger to be known. In Libra (1988), DeLillo meticulously re-creates a plausible Oswald, coaxing the paradox of Oswald's commitments to both the Left and Right, to the Soviet Union and the marines, to Marxism and the American Dream (Oswald's astrological sign, Libra, indicates this struggle for balance) into a compelling arc that leads to the Texas School Book Depository. In turn, Oswald is a perfect dupe, the credible lone gunman necessary for a complex intrigue fashioned by CIA renegades from the Bay of Pigs debacle who believe a near-miss of the American president blamed on Cuba would ignite a genuine effort to overthrow the dictator, a charade that, even as it is planned, evolves into the very real execution in Dealey Plaza.

Although the play between the conspirators and the unsuspecting Oswald is mesmerizing (indeed, initial critical response blasted DeLillo for irresponsibly confecting history), a plausible reading of the Kennedy shooting is clearly not DeLillo's aim. It is more about writing such a plausible reading. This is a novel that foregrounds its own presence. DeLillo invents a third narrative element, a retired CIA analyst named Nicholas Branch, hired by the Agency long after Dallas to write the definitive history of the shooting, who is entombed for fifteen years in a fireproof basement teeming with binders of testimony and boxes of physical evidence. As historian, Branch is eventually overwhelmed by its plotlessness. He concedes that shaping such material into coherence will always be preliminary and lamely concludes that the shooting succeeded because of luck: coincidental encounters among the principles, the arbitrary choice of a motorcade route, and even the Dallas weather. Yet even as the historian despairs (or fashions towering improbabilities such as the twenty-six volumes of the Warren Commission report), DeLillo, as novelist, subverts such inevitability like a terrorist in the works and provides the same events with the richness of plot and the reward of an ordering that accepts itself as provisional. Thus, narrative redeems history and at the same time refuses to accept its own patternings as final. Certain, yet flexible; clear, yet ambiguous, narrative stabilizes the difficult onrush of circumstances into a manageable line, content to recover a serviceable, rather than inviolable, truth.

From the failure of the historian who attempts to shape a narrative, DeLillo tracks the failure of the novelist who attempts to engage the brutal onrush of pure event. Bill Gray, the recluse-author in Mao II (1991), is restless with his elected life of radical withdrawal. In hiding from the reach of the world, endlessly revising a novel-in-progress that molders in scribbled drafts in stacked boxes, Bill Gray suggests the fragile integrity of the individual voice within the era of electronic herdspeak, a culture's addiction to conformity suggested here by the Sun Hyung Moon cult, the Chinese Communist crackdown at Tiananmen Square, the Iranian cult of Ayatollah Khomeini, hooded Middle Eastern terrorists, and, most disturbingly, by Andy Warhol's vision of the artist as pop commodity. When Gray reasons that withdrawal has, in fact, simply made him more of a celebrity, he decides to reengage the world. He first agrees to sit for a photo portrait and then, more dramatically, to assist in an international campaign to free a Swiss diplomat and poet taken hostage in Beirut. But when he participates in a public reading in London, he realizes the event will be used by his publishers to promote his long-awaited new work and, worse, will actually help the terrorists by according them media attention. Determined to engage events firsthand, he heads on his own to the Middle East to offer himself as a swap to the terrorists, only to be struck by a careening taxi in Athens and then to die days later from unsuspected internal injuries on a ferry to Beirut, ingloriously and anonymously—his ID documents are stolen even as he dies. Writers, DeLillo cautions, deal with ideas and design and exist within invention and expression; they execute formidable structures that are themselves guerrilla gestures of organization in a world that dismisses the very viability of order. But the writer cannot compete with the brutal force of violence and fanaticism, suggested here by the shadowy figure of the terrorist. Indeed, the novel closes with the photographer sent originally to take Gray's portrait abandoning writers as subjects and turning rather to photographing terrorists—the image displacing the word even as the terrorist displaces the writer.

What then is the writer to do? Can a writer, in fact, matter? In DeLillo's masterwork, Underworld (1997), he redeems the failures of both Nicholas Branch and Bill Gray. A nameless narrator, a felt rather than heard presence, boldly stage-manages a massive cultural history of America's Cold War era by ostensibly tracking the intricate (and entirely invented) movements of the home run ball Bobby Thomson launched on 3 October 1951 to give the New York Giants an improbable National League pennant. Juxtaposed against that trajectory is a portrait of Nick Shay, a successful executive in waste management who comes to own the ball and who, past midlife, has decided to make peace with his own history, specifically a difficult adolescence that included a runaway father, an incendiary affair with a teacher's wife, and the accidental shooting of a neighborhood heroin addict. What stuns first is the scope of the novel, comprising more than 800 pages and dozens of characters, historical and invented, with a mesh of crossing plot lines, historical and invented. In the process, the narrator deftly shifts voice like a master ventriloquist: the prose line is at turns deadpan, jazzy, jargon-ridden, witty, spare, or deliciously detailed—the sheer delight of a sonic complex. The construction itself is unconventional. While sections on Nick Shay move backward from the 1990s, chapters on the baseball move forward from the 1950s—the intricate crossings of temporal lines maintained by the confident architecture of the controlling narrator. Along the way, careful rereaders discover a trove of suggestive patternings—striking coincidences (both actual and invented), a recurring system of numerology (centering on the number thirteen), recurring symbols, repeated names, the multiple changes on the idea of “waste”—that can sustain illimitable analyses as the reader can construct viable contradictory readings.

It is a stunning demonstration of what DeLillo has been arguing is the necessary role of the writer in the late twentieth century: the architect of imposing artifacts that resist the contemporary surrender to disorder and fragmentation and the presumption of chaos. The narrative is replete with artists struggling to fashion such artifices, determined to produce the something that does not hiss into chaos, does not diminish over time. The narrative is itself a heroic act of waste management, recycling bits of recollection, narrative, history, cultural flotsam, and striking imagery into a vast interlocking system that conjoins the writer and the reader in an accidental conspiracy, a cooperation of effort to vitalize this private, fluid textual space, a shared authority that celebrates the imaginative energies of both writer and reader.

Appropriately, DeLillo followed such a maximalist achievement that so confidently championed the muscle of the narrative art with a fragile parable of the artist abruptly dislocated from that shaping strength. In The Body Artist (2001), Lauren Hartke is a successful performance artist whose consummate confidence as artist is shaken by the suicide of her filmmaker husband. Stunned by the vulnerability that comes from any encounter with mortality, Lauren is suddenly compelled into time, the heavy horizontal plane of experience. In a familiar DeLillo-esque gesture of retreat (she has withdrawn to a rented ocean cottage), Lauren encounters a mysterious presence in the cottage's upper floors, a strange man of indeterminate age, who speaks in a fractured babble that appears to suggest more than it says, who appears able to predict approaching events, and who mimics the voices of her and her dead husband like some creepy tape recorder. He never identifies himself or justifies why he is in the house, and after a time simply disappears. Although Lauren considers explanations (an autistic former boarder, an alien, an angel, a muse, a schizophrenic drifter, a ghost, a grief hallucination), we learn only that Lauren has returned to her work—we read a glowing review of her latest performance piece in which she also channels others' voices in an extended artistic interpretation that seeks to slow down time itself, to master what has so terrorized her.

Mr. Tuttle (the stranger reminds her of a long-ago science teacher) thus can be seen as the artistic energy itself, temporarily dislocated: there is his protean physical form, his lack of identity, his ability to mimic voices, his disregard for the usual measures of time, and his evident love of language, his cryptic monologues. But without the tie to the flesh-and-blood experience of time, such a presence is disembodied and distant. Lauren struggles to adjust to the anxious reality that all artists must confront (even the narrator of the towering edifice of Underworld): language must exist within time, must coexist with experience, imperfect and bruising; the artist must inhabit an imperfect physical form. Lauren recovers her art only by recommitting to that physical form, suggested in DeLillo's graceful, near-poetic prose that infuses with nuance the simplest objects—garden butterflies, orange juice in a frosty glass, the slow music of the wind. In the closing, a recovered Lauren, at a window overlooking the ocean, relishes the tangy breeze, her artistic sensibility salvaged, at peace within the roiling flux of the immediate (suggested by the sea itself). This position of awareness, unlike similar reclamations achieved by Axton and Gladney, is done in the contemplative cool of isolation, the self repaired on its own, its healing shared with the intimate community of committed readers by the conjuring power of DeLillo's prose.

DeLillo then affirms the writer as the last, best vestige of voice and individuality in the electronic age, the instrument of engaged resistance to the cultural pull toward conformity and indifference. The narrative, he argues, is that rare aesthetic system that permits, indeed factors in, ambiguity and flux, and it embraces, much like the universe itself, both order and mystery, where coherence does not mean clarity and patterns do not imply meaning. It gives form to chance, design to chaos, and wonder to a world that can appear fearful. Thus DeLillo's fictions, despite their apparent inaccessibility, succeed only by provoking the deepest sort of intimacy: diligent writer and committed reader who meet, two lonely figures in separate rooms, and engage each other in the sustained imaginative act of reading itself, a heroic process necessarily flawed as it can be undertaken only by those aware of its fragility.


  • Americana (1971)
  • End Zone (1972)
  • Great Jones Street (1973)
  • Ratner's Star (1976)
  • Players (1977)
  • Running Dog (1978)
  • Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman to Play in the National Hockey League. Credited to DeLillo; published under the name Cleo Birdwell (1980)
  • The Names (1982)
  • White Noise (1985)
  • Libra (1988)
  • Mao II (1991)
  • Underworld (1997)
  • The Body Artist (2001)

Further Reading

  • Cowart, David. Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language. Athens, Ga., 2002. Articulate examination of DeLillo's evolving interest in language and the role of the novelist in the media age.
  • Keesey, Douglas. Don DeLillo. New York, 1993. Excellent, accessible introduction that focuses, book by book, on the theme of the impoverished individual in the media age.
  • Leclair, Tom. In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel. Urbana, Ill., 1987. Drawing on complex language and information theories, a dense but often penetrating look at DeLillo's novels as systems of information processing. An early proponent of DeLillo.
  • Lentricchia, Frank, ed. Introducing Don DeLillo. Durham, N.C., 1991. Valuable introductory collection of previously published essays along with an engrossing interview.
  • Osteen, Mark. American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo's Dialogue with Culture. Philadelphia, 2000. Erudite, wide-ranging study that sees the prototypical DeLillo character as alienated within a stifling consumer culture and suspended between quasi-religious consolations and anxiety over their inaccessibility.
  • Ruppersburg, Hugh, and Tim Engles. Critical Essays on Don DeLillo. New York, 2000. Helpful gathering of initial reviews of DeLillo's novels as well as critical analyses of nine of his novels. The introduction is a particularly strong overview.