What little there is of traditional narrative structure in a Don DeLillo (1936- ) novel appears to serve principally as a vehicle for introspective meanderings, a thin framework for the knotting together of the author’s preoccupations about life and the world. Thematically, each novel is a profound reworking of the familiar precepts that make up the core of his literary belief system. This basic set of ideas includes the function (misfunction) of language as it relates to being, the absurdity of death and the meaning of apocalypse, the complications and chaotic workings of societies (particularly governments and institutions), the ontological purity of women and children, the notion of sacred spaces, and the interrelatedness of time, history, and myth. DeLillo’s great facility with a language perfectly tuned for irony and satire allows him to range the breadth and depth of these themes.
All these thematic strains are present in Americana. The problem of language and meaning finds a penetrating focus in the conversation between the protagonist, David Bell, a dissatisfied minor network executive who seizes upon a documentary assignment to make a cross-country odyssey of self-discovery, and Carol Deming, a distracted yet aggressive young woman actor who reads a part for David’s film: The encounter is set up to be sexual but proves to be nothing more than a bizarre verbal tryst, a duel of wacky hyperbole laced with sarcasm. Beneath the words fired rapidly back and forth between David and Carol, there are the levels of behaviour and intensity normally associated with seduction. In this case, words appear to substitute for the great diversity of emotional responses associated with the sex act. The reader, however, knows that verbal intercourse is no substitute for sexual intercourse and commiserates with David on his lack of fulfillment; words are false images that can be made to disguise the multilayered nature of reality. In the end, however, the word is destroyed by the meaning it tries to mask.
This verbal affair takes place in the middle of America, in a town called Fort Curtis, the designated location for the filming of David’s documentary. He has been commissioned to film the Navajo Indians but decides that the town will be the backdrop for a film about the central moment of his own childhood, the moment he learned that his mother, for him the bastion of health and security, would soon face disintegration and death. Each stop on his “sacred journey” out West holds a numinous attraction for him: the starting point, the chaotic craziness of the network office with its mad memo writer; the garage of Bobby Brand (a friend who uses his van for the trip); Fort Curtis; and ultimately Rooster, Texas, where David’s pilgrimage of selfexploration ends in a boozy orgy in the dust. In Fort Curtis, David hires local people to read absurd lines and then has traveling companion Sullivan, an enigmatic sculptor, play the part of his mother on the day he learned, in the pantry of his parents’ home, the tragic truth that women were not what he expected and wanted them to be: They cannot be held as an anodyne against the fear of death. In David’s hands, the camera has the power to create from the union of a special place and a particular moment an image that is again an illusion of reality. When he later tries to make a created image real (that is, make Sullivan a real mother figure by having her tell him a precoital bedtime story), he is again instructed in the misalignment between images and the world. DeLillo, by constantly emphasizing the impossibility of the world’s true representation in time and place via the word (history), mythologizes his characters and frees them from the bounds of historicity.
One of DeLillo’s mythic characters, Myna Corbett, appears in End Zone, the one novel that most of the author’s critics agree is a brilliant piece. Myna, a student at Logos College in West Texas, is typical of DeLillo’s female characters: She is big, carrying 165 pounds, which she refuses to shed because of her desire not to have the “responsibility” of being beautiful; she fills her mind with trivial matter (she reads science-fiction novels); and she has large breasts in which Gary Harkness, the protagonist, hopes to find solace from the world.
Gary is a talented but eccentric footballer at Logos College who, because of his strange behavior, has been cut from the team rosters of larger institutions such as Penn State and Syracuse. He does not change his ways at Logos, walking off the field during the last game, high on marijuana and very hungry. He has a fascination with war and audits the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps classes that have to do with mass killing strategy. When Colonel Staley asks him to become a cadet, Gary refuses, saying that he wants only to fantasize about nuclear war. He enjoys playing nuclear destruction games with the colonel, but he will not prepare himself to become an Air Force officer: He will not drop real bombs.
When not engaged in his graphic war daydreams, Gary is either playing football, an abstraction of war, or having picnics with Myna. If war is organized, palpable death, then Myna must be its opposite, an image of life and a defense against the fear of death. The tension between women (as the word or image of antideath) and harsh reality finds expression in the scene in which Gary undresses Myna in the library stacks. He says to himself that it is important to have her completely nude in the midst of the books containing millions of words. He must see her as the word (the image of harmless, uncomplicated femaleness) made flesh. He wants to see Myna, as the embodiment of the illusion of safety that words give, appear to belie the truth behind the image, the truth that women are not immune from the dread of death and therefore cannot offer the security that he seeks. He does not want to confront the mystery and lure of feminine beauty: He is upset when Myna loses weight. When she returns from vacation slender, it is he who does not want the responsibility of Myna’s beauty. Women’s love can lead to death, and words can have deadly connotations.
Great Jones Street
DeLillo further explores his themes dealing with language, death, women, and time in Great Jones Street, the story of a rock star, Bucky, who grows tired of the business, leaves his band in Houston, and returns to a hovel of an apartment in New York City. There his seclusion is destroyed when Skippy, a hippie girl, leaves with him a box full of a special kind of dope that is untested but is thought to be extremely powerful, and therefore of great interest to the drug people. The rest of the novel focuses on the many people who want to get the drugs. One of the agents sent for the drugs is Opel, who eventually dies in Bucky’s bed. She is only an image of a living woman as she lies in the bed; the anti-image, death, is the reality of her being there. When she dies, Bucky can contemplate only her dead self; once people leave one extreme of being, they must become the other.
Bucky tries to make his apartment a refuge from the relentless roll of time and the world. He talks into a dead phone, stifling any possibility that words can reach their destination and complete the communication process. He refuses to wind the clock, hoping to arrest time, that hard reality that lies beneath the illusory image of stasis. Opel, although safe in bed in Bucky’s timeless, wordless (telephoneless) world of the apartment, dies nevertheless. The song that has made Bucky famous, “Pee-Pee-Maw-Maw,” provides grist for another favorite DeLillo theme, that children, because of their few years, have no thoughts or fears of dying and therefore are immune from death. Bucky sings in the simple, life-giving syllables of children. The Mountain Tapes, traded for the drugs by a boy named Hanes, bring the same release as do the drugs in the box: They reduce language to nonmeaning. Later, when Bucky is injected against his will with the drug, he loses the power of speech; he is silent. Childish babble and wordlessness are equated with a loss of the fear of death and consequently, a loss of humanity. Only humans fear death, says Bucky.
A child is the central character in Ratner’s Star, a dense and overly long novel about the shortcomings of modern science. Billy, a fourteen-year-old mathematical genius who has just won the first Nobel Prize for Mathematics, is called to a futuristic think tank to help decipher a signal presumed to be a communication from Ratner’s Star. The boy eventually finds the answer: The pulses of the message are really from the earth as it existed long ago. The meaning of the mathematical “words,” the exact time of day as Billy looks at the clock on the wall (and coincidentally the exact time as an unscheduled eclipse of the sun), is that the secret of all knowledge is what one has at a particular place at the present time. All the supposed power of the modern scientific community can be reduced to the utter simplicity of the time of day in a child’s room on our own planet in our own time. When a spontaneous heavenly movement takes place, it is announced first to the child’s mind.
The adult scientists with whom Billy is obliged to interact by their utter egregious- ness offer DeLillo myriad openings for the insertion of his biting satirical barbs. Endor, for example, the world’s greatest mathematician, has given up solving the mystery of the pulses and has gone to live in a mud hole, living off worms and roots that he digs from the ground. Fitzroy-Tapps, the rat-talk scholar, hails from Crutchlyon- Podge, pronounced Croaking-on-Pidgett. Hoy Hing Toy, the obstetrician who once ate a newborn placenta; Grbk, who has to be officially reprimanded for showing his nipples to young children; and Armand Verbene, S.J., a practitioner of red-ant metaphysics, are representative of the resident staff. Of these bizarre characters, one in particular provides DeLillo with an excellent opportunity to hold forth on the meaning of language. Young Billy, a Nobel laureate by virtue of his having conceived the mathematical notion of the zorg (an entity reduced as far as it can be—that is, to nothing), confronts the astronomical mind of Lazarus Ratner. It is necessary to say that Billy confronts the “mind” of Ratner, because that is practically all that is left of the man. He is kept from collapsing in on himself by constant silicone injections, and his bodily functions are kept going mechanically inside a protective bubble. Billy sits astride the biotank, talks to Ratner (who will speak to nobody but the child), and translates what the great scientist says for those who stand near.
DeLillo uses this conversation between the old man and the boy to explore provocative notions about language, knowledge, and God. Ratner tells the boy about the Kabbala: The hidden and unknowable name of God is a literal contraction of the superdivinity. The contraction of divine anti-or other-being, en sof, makes possible the existence of the world. Being (God) is somewhere on a spectrum between light and darkness, something and nothing, between an integer and a zorg, in Billy’s mathematical code. Divinity (pure being) is revealed in the expansion of matter. As the universe expands, human beings, as part of that expansion, come into existence. Existence, then, is like the birth and death of stars, says Ratner: It is manifested with the expansion and perishes with the contraction of its mass. Thus, as elements, or sephiroth of the primal being, humans are like tiny sparks of Ratner’s Star. Human names, the words that equate with human existence, are merely artificial and abstract images of a constant expansion and contraction. Real being consists of the flux and levels of being behind the image.
Billy puts this theory into simple, incomplete terminology that, complains Ratner, is not fully expressive of the reality of that which is being communicated. Here again is the old problem: Words, as images of reality, cannot possibly convey the entire dimension of the meaning of the world. Those who listen to Billy as he interprets Ratner are able to glean only a small portion of the content of Ratner’s words.
Of the later novels, The Names and White Noise offer the most moving and powerful treatment of DeLillo’s recurring themes. The Names features the decay of the typical American marriage. James and Kathryn are married, have a son named Tap, and live happily for a time on an island in the eastern United States. They live peacefully until the bright image of marital bliss splinters, broken into a multileveled subset of hard problems, the first of which is separation. Kathryn, yielding to the fascination for digging in the ground in search of lost messages, commits herself to a life of archaeological digging; she joins an excavation site on an island in Greece. James, wanting to be near his fractured family, gets a job in Greece as a so-called risk analyst. Even though this bit of darkness has tarnished the core of the little family, they live on a reasonably even keel until archaeologist Owen Brademas begins an investigation of a cult of hammer killers.
These cultists occasionally pound to death a chosen victim who happens to wander into a town, the initials of which match the initials of the victim’s name: For example, they kill Michaelis Kalliambestos as he enters Mikro Kamini. Brademas, whose profession it is to find and translate ancient script written in stone, really is more interested in the cabalistic power of the alphabet as it is combined and recombined to reveal the hidden names of God. He finds the Names, as the members of the hammer cult refer to themselves, becomes one of them in spirit, witnesses a ritual hammer murder (death comes to him who finds, even if by accident, correspondence in letters and reality), and then retires to read stones and live unmolested in his final sacred place, a hotel room in Bombay. Owen Brademas seems to be merely a mythic extension of an innocent, babbling language spoken by Kathryn and her sister as children, and used by Kathryn and her son: The language inserts the syllable “ob” among the syllables of real words to create a special code. The initials of wordmonger Owen Brademas’s name happen to be “O. B.” He seeks the meaning of alphabetic combinations even when they lead to death: He is the one who figures out the workings of the Names. In many ways, he is the shadow image of Kathryn’s husband, a writer, who lives by the combinations of words and who follows Brademas in search of the cult. James finds his place of revelation in a Roman ruin just as Brademas finds his in a hotel room. Brademas is also an alter ego of Kathryn, who seeks hidden wisdom by a kind of mindless digging at the site, yet he takes archaeological inquiry to the ultimate degree and ends in a room with nothing but ordered space, a perfect stasis, a state much like death.
In the same way, James’s job is nothing but a cover for an operation conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). His image of a harmless and rather pleasant way of life in Greece is destroyed: He experiences a dark underside of intrigue and deception. It seems that the surface of daily life can never remain innocuously in place; there is always a seepage of antilife. His wife and profession appear to be entities resting on shifting sands; only his son, the child, who writes away at a nonfiction novel, can be counted on for authenticity.
White Noise is a thematic duplicate of The Names. The characters are cartoons. Babette is the physically large wife to whom Jack Gladney, her husband, looks for a peaceful domestic life totally removed from danger. Babette, also called Baba, appears to be very capable of fulfilling her husband’s needs: She is the perfect image of easygoing housewifery. She volunteers for community service, she shops constantly in the supermarket, and she lovingly cares for the children. The children are precocious and serious-minded. Heinrich, the oldest boy, seems to know much more than his father, a college professor, about the real world. The girls, especially Denise, are concerned about Babette’s health, hiding her drugs and looking for hidden habits that might bring her danger or death. Husband and wife, lost in triviality, make inconsequential or erroneous statements, while the children speak with precision and maturity. There is a reversal in the parent-child roles; these children, therefore, are not as innocent as the typical DeLillo child figure. Only Wilder, the baby, embodies the ideal of the deathless child hero: At the end of the novel, he rides his tricycle into the street, across a four-lane street teeming with speeding vehicles, into the grass of the opposite shoulder, miraculously escaping death.
Babette crumbles as the symbolic shield against fear; she is exposed as a woman so terrified of death that she trades sex for a special kind of drug that causes one to forget about the fact that one must die. She takes these pills on the sly and is finally found out by her snooping family. Jack has been happy with Babette because she is open and guileless, unlike his previous wives, who were mysterious, complicated secret agents who worked for the CIA. His illusion is destroyed when he finds out about her pills. Her complicity in this kind of intrigue reinforces his recently discovered vulnerability to death (a physical examination has revealed that his exposure to a toxic chemical spill may leave him only a short time to live). Even Baba, the large, comfortable, unbeautiful, unmysterious, faithful wife, who has consoled Jack as he has lain with his face between her large breasts, proves to be full of duplicity and treachery.
This complication leads Jack to reflect on what Murray Siskind, a fellow faculty member, has told him regarding death: Death, says Siskind, can be purged only by killing. Jack has already intuited this precept on his own: His success as a professor of “Hitler studies” (which he established as a full-fledged academic discipline) depends in part on his awareness of the peculiar fascination of the Nazis. Ultimately, Jack shoots Willie Mink, a seedy drug dealer who dispenses death-forgetting pills to women in exchange for sex. He enjoys the bleeding of his wife’s seducer for a while but then has pity on the mindless Mink, a victim of his own pills, and drags him by the foot to a hospital. The nuns who attend the wounded man destroy the last great image of security that Jack has left: Jack learns that those whom he had always thought of as sainted women, women firm in their faith that death’s dominion has been crushed by the resurrection of Christ, have no more faith in salvation than he, his wife, or anybody else. The white noise of death silences any voice that would offer human beings a verbal sanctuary from its assault.
DeLillo followed White Noise with Libra, a novel about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy; atypically for DeLillo, the novel enjoyed a run on the national best-seller lists while winning critical acclaim. Libra is, in a sense, two novels in one. It is, first, a fictional re-creation of the assassination and the events leading up to it. In the book’s opening pages, and at intervals throughout, the reader shares the consciousness of Lee Harvey Oswald. From Oswald’s point of view and many others as well, DeLillo constructs his scenario of this still-enigmatic and much-disputed moment in American history. Although DeLillo’s version departs from the conclusions of the Warren Report (he posits a second gunman and a fortuitous confluence of conspirators, including rogue CIA agents and Cuban exiles who want Fidel Castro overthrown), much of the speculation is grounded in the public record.
At the same time, Libra is a novel about the making of fiction and, more broadly, about the way in which people make sense of their lives. The novelist’s alter ego is Nicholas Branch, a retired senior analyst for the CIA, hired by the agency during the 1980’s to write the “secret history” of the assassination. This device allows DeLillo to sketch for the reader the process he went through in order to re-create happenings of the 1960’s: sifting through the incredible profusion of evidence (he describes the twenty-six-volume Warren Report as “the Joycean Book of America, . . . the novel in which nothing is left out”), discovering strange patterns of coincidence. Novelists and conspiracy theorists, DeLillo suggests, are in the same business.
Continuing this preoccupation with the making of fictions, Mao II juxtaposes writers, terrorists, and crowds. Narratively similar to Libra, the novel interweaves scenes of reclusive novelist Bill Gray; Scott Martineau, his assistant; Brita Nilsson, the photographer assigned to take Gray’s photograph as part of the publicity for his new book; and a Swiss United Nations worker and poet, Jean-Claude Julien, who is held hostage in Beirut by a Palestinian group so shadowy that the only knowledge that exists about them is that they have taken him hostage. The first half of the novel gives an intimate view of the writer, the different machinations and rationalizations that sustain his work, and the attempts made by his publishers to get Gray to finish his novel and allow his image to be publicized. Continually rewriting and withholding his last book, the image of the writer in modern, media-saturated society, solitary and alone, is contrasted to crowds: China, the Moonies, mass marriages, terrorist movements.
It is terrorism that undoes Bill Gray in the second half of the novel. When Gray is asked to help in the attempt to get Julien released, he goes to London and then to Beirut, where he dies of untreated injuries sustained in a random automobile accident in London. Along the way, on this journey of unmaking, he has cut off all contact with Martineau, who in his absence goes about the process of organizing all of Gray’s papers, taking the reader backward in time, via a lifetime’s worth of detritus. Accompanying this deconstruction of the archetypal writer is the rise of scenes of terrorism, which take away from the novelist’s ability to influence people. Faceless groups displace the writer’s power to make societal change possible. Replacing Bill Gray in the narrative’s coda is the terrorist leader, Abu Rashid, and the “rising movement” he represents. Ironically, the final scene in the novel is Nilsson’s interviewing and photographing of Rashid. Mao II draws a desolate picture of life at the end of the twentieth century. Where there had once been the importance of solitary individuals struggling to present their understanding of the world, what is left at the end of the novel is faceless violence, mass influence in the formof religiously or ideologically inspired movements, and the hypermediated publicity machine that broadcasts these images to the world.
Perhaps because of the bleakness at the end of Mao II, DeLillo’s next novel seems to be attempting to understand the world afterWorldWar II. A synthesis of many of the concerns in the previous ten novels, Underworld may possibly be seen as DeLillo’s magnum opus. Beginning with the simultaneous events of October 3, 1951—Bobby Thompson’s home run, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and the Soviet Union’s conducting of a second nuclear bomb test—the novel jumps back and forth from the early 1950’s to the late 1990’s. This process repeatedly grounds the language and institutions of the Cold War in a diverse range of contexts, including 1950’s schoolchildren huddling under their desks during practice responses to nuclear attack, the week of the Cuban Missile Crisis (October, 1962), the compartmentalized world of the 1970’s bomb makers, the 1980’s construction of waste storage, and 1990’s post-Cold War Russia’s elimination of nuclear waste via nuclear explosions. Simultaneously, Underworld is also a story of degrees of separation, mingling together the lives of brothers Nick and Matt Shay, the former running a waste-management company, the latter a designer of nuclear weapons; Klara Sax, a found-object artist and their childhood Brooklyn neighbor; Albert Bronzini, her ex-husband and Matt’s chess teacher; and Sister Edgar, a nun in the slums of New York and the brothers’ former teacher. Additionally, the novel is the tale of Thompson’s home-run baseball and its journey from owner to owner, particularly the crucial first day after the game, when the African American child who caught the ball, Cotter Martin, has it stolen from him and sold by his father, Manx Martin.
What is revealed again and again in the novel is the underworld of modern life: never-mentioned family stories of an absent father; the charity work done by nuns in America’s forgotten inner cities; the inner life of the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), J. Edgar Hoover; the transformation of stockpiled and rusting B-52 bombers into acres-long pieces of artwork; the creation of landfills for America’s ever-increasing garbage; and the waste that results from fifty years of nuclear stockpiling. Like DeLillo’s previous novels, Underworld offers a picture of life at the end of twentieth century that is extremely conflicted, with resolution an impossibility. Yet, through it all, the underworld of civilization’s forgotten garbage continues to increase, revealing what sustains peoples’ lives.
Long fiction: Americana, 1971; End Zone, 1972; Great Jones Street, 1973; Ratner’s Star, 1976; Players, 1977; Running Dog, 1978; The Names, 1982; White Noise, 1985; Libra, 1988; Mao II, 1991; Underworld, 1997; The Body Artist, 2001; Cosmopolis, 2003.
Short fiction: “Pafko at the Wall,” 1992.
Plays: The Engineer of Moonlight, pb. 1979; The Day Room, pr. 1986; The Rapture of the Athlete Assumed into Heaven, pb. 1990; Valparaiso: A Play in Two Acts, pb. 1999; Love Lies- Bleeding, pb. 2005.
Nonfiction: Conversations with Don DeLillo (Thomas DePietro, editor).
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.