One of America’s literary giants is profiled in The Sunday Observer. I have read his work off and on for a decade now, and found this lengthy article to be of great interest. Why? Because I enjoy when literary masters such as Don DeLillo use their fiction to chronicle and tackle the changes in American society, when real-life events cause a paradigm shift in contemporary thinking, events such as 9/11, the so-called war on terror and also the dreadful murders last week at Virginia Tech.
I tackled DeLillo’s mammoth 1997 work, Underworld, with zest, but struggled to grasp its core theme at first. However, the ideas and narrative haunted me sufficiently that I read the more accessible Libra, which approaches the events of Dealey Plaza and the relationship between Lee Harvey Oswald and President John Kennedy. I share a common curiosity with DeLillo, in the somewhat unhealthy interest in conspiracy theories, and I am therefore excited about his forthcoming work, The Falling Man. The title should give you a clue as to its backdrop and theme.
If you’re not familiar with DeLillo’s work, then the following précis from Penguin’s reading group will illuminate this great mind:
The author of thirteen novels, five plays, and numerous short stories, Don DeLillo was born in the Bronx in 1936. He received his bachelor’s degree from Fordham University and worked as a copywriter at the Ogilvie and Mather advertising agency in New York City from 1959 until 1964, during which time he published his first short stories. Americana (1971), his first novel, announced the arrival of a major literary talent, and the novels that followed confirmed his reputation as one of the most distinctive and compelling voices in late-twentieth-century American fiction. The subject matter of DeLillo’s work runs a rich gamut, demonstrating eclectic and sometimes cerebral interests: nuclear game theory, “Hitler studies” as a scholarly enterprise, academic marriages, rock-and-roll stars, hockey and sportswriting, physics, film’s impact on our apprehension of history, JFK, and the inner lives of terrorists. DeLillo’s comic gifts are also considerable, though not always recognized. They come to the fore in White Noise (1985), which won the National Book Award, and Underworld (1997), with its vivid portraits of actor Jackie Gleason and standup comedian Lenny Bruce.
Some weeks seem to have been foretold by Don DeLillo. This past one, dominated as it has been by the unedifying soliloquy of Cho Seung-hui, with the banal detail of television packages mailed amid slaughter, and the viral spread of the killer’s monomania across the internet (necessitating the downloading of Flash players) feels like one of them.
When he first became a novelist in the late 1960s, DeLillo had two files on his writer’s desk in New York; one was labelled ‘Art’, the other was marked ‘Terror’. No writer since has been as alive to the congruence of violence and its media. The currency of our age, he has long argued, has become ‘bad news, sensationalistic news. It has almost replaced the novel, replaced discourse between people … your TV set has become an instrument of apocalypse’. Acts of random horror played on a loop on the networks, obsessively talk-showed and blogged, become self-fulfilling prophecies.
His long-awaited The Falling Man will be out next month. It sets a literary context to the events of 9/11. I enjoy when the world we call reality merges with the world we call fiction, because, for this reader, the distinctions between reality and fiction blur and that’s where the danger lies. The Observer reports that DeLillo seems to agree with my train of thought:
People talk about the killing, but they don’t talk about what it does to them,’ DeLillo suggests. ‘The truth is we don’t know how to talk about this. Maybe that is why some of us write fiction.’
Even so, the writer of fiction, he contends, particularly the writer of fiction in America, is engaged in a losing battle. His or her imagination is not as powerful in shaping the present and determining the future as that of the dominant creative force; ‘Art’ is not up to ‘Terror’. Long before such a theory was easily imaginable, DeLillo wrote: ‘In a repressive society, a writer can be deeply influential, but in a society that’s filled with glut and repetition and endless consumption, the act of terror may be the only meaningful act … people who are powerless make an open theatre of violence. True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to.’
DeLillo’s 13 novels to date, blackly comic, humming with ideas, are laced with such aphorisms of doom, but they still aspire. Now 70, he long ago realised that the novelist’s maxim, ‘only connect’, is also that of the paranoiac. The drama of his fiction comes from that tension. In Libra, DeLillo’s indelible imagining of the Kennedy assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald is told that history ‘is the sum total of things they aren’t telling us’. DeLillo filled those gaps. ‘Believe everything,’ says a character in Underworld, his masterpiece, which, when it was published in 1997 featured a cover on which a bird with outstretched wings flies towards New York’s Twin Towers, shrouded in mist. ‘Everything is true.’
Tim Adams says that DeLillo is an enigmatic giant in the field of modern American literature:
Underworld, which earned an advance of a million dollars and extravagant critical praise (‘DeLillo suddenly fills the sky,’ Amis wrote in the New York Times), changed that to a degree, but DeLillo still refuses to play the game of self-promotion, preferring to stay outside the literary world. Though not reclusive in the manner of Thomas Pynchon or JD Salinger, he nevertheless characterises his relationship with his readers as one of: ‘Silence, exile, cunning and so on.’ Sightings of him are rare.
Read the full Observer piece, because it presents a insightful look at a writer who chronicles this difficult age with a keen eye, and one who provides the explanations that only fiction can present when viewing this madness we term reality.