Don DeLillo

America's premier novelist of ideas has long anticipated a world in which spectacle and terror would achieve totemic significance in our everyday lives.

Published October 23, 2001 7:33PM (EDT)

It's been said often enough that every age gets the art it deserves. In a memorable editorial lynching of Oliver Stone, Maureen Dowd once castigated the filmmaker's liberties with history, suggesting his popularity must signal something askew in the culture itself. Stone is not so much a savvy critic of our times, Dowd accusingly implied, as a symptom of its myopic shortcomings. Never pick a fight with Maureen Dowd.

Don DeLillo, a novelist who has made American life his explicit subject for over 30 years, has faced similar charges. Like Stone, DeLillo's fascination with conspiratorial themes has drawn no shortage of heated rebukes. His reputation as an unabashedly private and cerebral literary figure, similarly, has not always endeared him to the literary establishment. He figured prominently in an anti-intellectual broadside of so-called serious contemporary fiction this summer in the Atlantic Monthly. Even tributes have tended to diminish DeLillo, as when Martin Amis trivialized him as "the poet of paranoia." Yet his dozen novels -- and handful of plays, stories and essays -- range widely and assuredly across the broad swath of the postwar American experience. They bristle with brainy asides and lyric rhapsodies rare to modern literature. From JFK to rock 'n' roll, from suburbia to the CIA, DeLillo has crafted defining portrayals of many touchstones in the American psyche.

Over the course of time, the dismissive accusations have lost their bite. DeLillo's clearly focused vision of the contemporary landscape -- once so despairing and unlikely -- has become, startlingly, more and more our own. He worried about a world in which spectacle and terror would achieve totemic significance in the everyday lives of Americans. From attacks on American money markets to bioterror in the heartland, DeLillo's work has long anticipated a world in which acts of terror would achieve unprecedented historic consequences. He has also probed deeply the role of Americans and their reputation in the modern world, and worried about the invasiveness of its popular culture. "We're all one beat away from becoming elevator music," he once said.

Sympathetic critics have increasingly suggested that Don DeLillo is probably the best living American writer that living Americans do not read. Today, the growing relevance of his work has him poised to become more than a critics' darling. His literary peer Thomas Pynchon has applauded DeLillo for "a voice as eloquent and morally focused as any in American writing." In light of the events of Sept. 11, Don DeLillo's America may assist many readers in making sense of a newly uncertain world.

Modern American history has proven itself reliably frustrating in the hands of its most capable chroniclers. As Philip Roth, speaking for historians and artists alike, famously observed of the reality of American life, "It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one's own meagre imagination." The pressing need for a broad historical understanding -- while deriving some meaning from the daunting, terrific violence of recent weeks -- is more pronounced than ever.

DeLillo's rejoinder to Roth's shrug can be seen throughout his oeuvre. As he wrote in a 1997 essay, "The sweeping range of American landscape and experience can be a goad, a challenge, an affliction and an inspiration, pretty much in one package." His literary career has taken up this express challenge with remarkable aplomb.

Born in 1936 to Italian immigrants, DeLillo grew up in New York in the Bronx. There he actively played sports among fellow Italian-Americans, harboring no interest in the writing life. A teenage job as parking attendant one summer proved to be a pivotal experience. According to DeLillo, the vast hours spent waiting and watching over vehicles encouraged a reading habit that became, over time, the beginnings of a writer's education. He discovered Faulkner, Joyce, Melville and Hemingway. He attended Fordham University as a self-described listless youth, and over the early '60s toiled discontentedly in advertising. The writing of his first novel, "Americana," would occupy the second half of the '60s, with DeLillo alternating between novel writing and freelance copywriting. In 1975 he married Barbara Bennett, a banker and, later, landscape designer, and they traveled for several years across Greece, the Middle East and India. He has repeatedly remarked on the influence of these travels, as well as his many years in New York. "I think more than writers," he has added, "the major influences on me have been European movies, and jazz, and Abstract Expressionism."

DeLillo's understanding of the world at large stems from his observations of contemporary Western life. His first three novels are a tour de force of the panorama of American pop culture: They examine advertising and film ("Americana"), football and nuclear war ("End Zone") and rock 'n' roll ("Great Jones Street"). The last of those opens with a visionary rant on the rock star that may be the last word on the subject.

Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across grey space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic. Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation. Even if half-mad he is absorbed into the public's total madness; even if fully rational, a bureaucrat in hell, a secret genius of survival, he is sure to be destroyed by the public's contempt for survivors. Fame, this special kind, feeds itself on outrage, on what the counsellors of lesser men would consider bad publicity -- hysteria in limousines, knife fights in the audience, bizarre litigation, treachery, pandemonium and drugs. Perhaps the only natural law attaching to true fame is that the famous man is compelled, eventually, to commit suicide.

Could there be a more evocative apotheosis of Kurt Cobain and his antecedents? Later books contain far-reaching ruminations on pornography and conspiracy ("Running Dog"), the many shades of consumerism and self-medication ("White Noise"), baseball and trash ("Underworld"), as well as the JFK assassination, those "seven seconds that broke the back of the American century" ("Libra"). Appropriately enough, DeLillo's take on the assassination comes from the first-person perspective of Lee Harvey Oswald.

His insights beam throughout. As a former professor of mine once remarked, DeLillo may be the foremost aphorist of our day. Reading him could qualify as a lightning tour of media studies. "'The TV set is a package and it's full of products,'" claims a character in Americana. "'To consume in America is not to buy; it is to dream,'" he adds elsewhere. DeLillo mused about a future of voyeur cams and reality-based entertainment as far back as 1982's "The Names." "'You have to ask yourself if there's anything about us more important than the fact that we're constantly on film, constantly watching ourselves.'" This is an America that "'still lead[s] the world in stimuli,'" one character proudly enthuses in "White Noise." Banality lives large in DeLillo's fiction, whether in the dissolution of the atomic family or the disappearance of old cultural certainties: "'Before pop art, there was such a thing as bad taste. Now there's kitsch, schlock, camp and porn.'"

Long before the World Trade Center attacks, DeLillo understood the profound disconnect between reality and spectacle made possible by modern media. "'For most people there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set,'" one character notes. Of jaded viewers' appetites, he writes, "Only a catastrophe gets our attention. We want them, need them, we depend on them. As long as they happen somewhere else." Indeed.

Several of his novels ("Players," "The Names" and "Mao II" in particular) feature terrorism as a prominent theme. In "Players," terrorists explain their plotting of an attack at the New York Stock Exchange with a symbolic rationale that is chillingly familiar: "'They have money. We have destruction.'" DeLillo sees a direct correlation between ideologically keyed acts of terrorism and an increasingly global economy. The price of oil serves as "an index to the Western world's anxiety," and it also underscores how terrorism can "infiltrate and alter consciousness" in a psychologically deep, globally unprecedented manner. "The Names" features discussions of anti-Americanism, and the antipathies between the fundamentalist Islamist and the American capitalist. "White Noise" examines the hysteria surrounding what DeLillo then referred to, with smirking undertones, as an "airborne toxic event"; today the world knows it simply as bioterror. At his most dystopian, in "Mao II," DeLillo considers forebodingly that, "in a society that's filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption, the act of terror may be the only meaningful act." From the point of view of the fundamentalist terrorist, "'Terror makes the new future possible.'" DeLillo's vision of terrorism implicates both agents of terrorism and the West in a larger web of mutually antagonistic ideologies.

Topicality aside, the broader importance of DeLillo's literary accomplishments can be seen as the continuing evolution of two distinct talents.

He is a passionately cerebral writer, a cultural critic with an insistence on the importance of big ideas. "For me," he once told an interviewer, "writing is a concentrated form of thinking." The literary critic Frank Lentricchia was an early admirer of DeLillo's "perfect weave of novelistic imagination and cultural criticism." From his 1971 debut with "Americana," DeLillo's characters echoed the author's project: "a literary venture, an attempt to find pattern and motive, to make of something wild a squeamish thesis on the essence of the nation's soul."

DeLillo is also quite simply a stunning stylist, a writer whose sentences have been accorded the adoration once reserved for Ernest Hemingway's. The mark of Hemingway, or his writing ethic, can appear strikingly:

"'Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there. On one level this truth is the swing of the sentence, the beat and poise, but down deeper it's the integrity of the writer as he matches with the language. I've always seen myself in sentences ... There's a moral force in a sentence when it comes out right. It speaks the writer's will to live.'"

DeLillo has an unreserved affection for language. It is one of his cornerstone obsessions. A writer figure in "Mao II" conveys this attachment to language in smirking understatement: "'I'm a sentence maker. Like a donut maker, only slower.'"

The marriage of the intellectual and the novelist in Don DeLillo has led to a handful of landmark novels, from "White Noise," "Libra" and "Mao II," to his inspired opus "Underworld." His books have received the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner and various other distinctions internationally, but it may be his influence on future literary generations that produces the surest proof of his achievements. In interview he expresses little concern for his posterity, and he zealously fights his cult fame: public appearances are kept to a bare minimum, he will likely never appear on TV or film and he speaks admiringly of the example set by his enigmatic forbear, Thomas Pynchon. Nonetheless, he remains active today, having released on the heels of 1997's "Underworld" both the play "Valparaiso" and a slim novel, "The Body Artist."

DeLillo is ultimately exceptional for his strident convictions, his unflagging defense of the promise of art in times of conflict or malaise. In the face of all that cheapens human experience, or renders it disempowering, there are availing things that still matter. As a character in "Underworld" ponders, "What's the point of waking up in the morning if you don't try to match the enormousness of the known forces in the world with something powerful in your own life?" Over time his fiction has imbued Pynchon's distraught and fearful proclamation in "Gravity's Rainbow," that "everything is connected" with an unforeseen hopefulness in the connections of language itself. DeLillo's writing produces rare sparks of rapture, such as this passage from "Underworld," in which a character ponders a word that appears on her computer screen -- a word to resonate with the war footing of today.

A single seraphic word. You can examine the word with a click, tracing its origins, development, earliest known use, its passage between languages, and you can summon the word in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and Arabic, in a thousand languages and dialects living and dead, and locate literary citations, and follow the word through the tunnelled underworld of its ancestral roots ...

And you can glance out the window for a moment, distracted by the sound of small kids playing a made-up game in a neighbor's yard, some kind of kickball maybe, and they speak in your voice, or piggy-back races on the weedy lawn, and it's your voice you hear, essentially, under the Glimmerglass sky, and you look at the things in your room, offscreen, unwebbed, the tissued grain of the deskwood alive in light, the thick lived tenor of things, the argument of things to be seen and eaten, the apple core going sepia in the lunch tray, and the dense measure of experience in a random glance, the monk's candle reflected in the slope of the phone, hours marked in Roman numerals, and the glaze of the wax, and the curl of the braided wick, and the chipped rim of the mug that holds your yellow pencils, skewed all crazy, and the plied lives of the simplest surface, the slabbed butter melting on the crumbled bun, and the yellow of the yellow of the pencils, and you try to imagine the word on the screen becoming a thing in the world, taking all its meanings, its sense of serenities and contentments out into the streets somehow, its whisper of reconciliation, a word extending itself ever outward, the tone of agreement or treaty, the tone of repose, the sense of mollifying silence, the tone of hail and farewell, a word that carries the sunlit ardour of an object deep in drenching noon, the argument of binding touch, but it's only a sequence of pulses on a dullish screen and all it can do is make you pensive -- a word that spreads a longing through the raw sprawl of the city and out across the dreaming bourns and orchards to the solitary hills.


Any age, let alone our own turbulent, bewildering times, would count itself fortunate with as prescient, unnerving and sharply attuned a chronicler as Don DeLillo. Although his legacy and influence are increasingly guaranteed in literary circles, his work still eludes the popular following of Roth, or of younger writers with either half DeLillo's stylistic mastery or his enduring grasp of pop culture. His body of work remains unread at our own negligence. We could do worse than begin recognizing that America's premier novelist of ideas deserves, for whatever attention he draws, closer inspection still.

By Jeffrey MacIntyre

Jeffrey MacIntyre has written on culture and media for Canadian newspapers and magazines. He lives in Vancouver.

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