“The Names is a prophetic, pre-9/11 masterpiece: a 21st-century novel published in 1982.”

Wonderful brief appreciation of UD‘s beloved Don DeLillo in the Guardian, where Geoff Dyer reckons that if the Booker Prize had been open in the past to Americans, three of DeLillo’s novels would have won.

Yet Dyer doesn’t really get at why The Names is such a great novel. For that he’d need more space, because there are lots of reasons.

Above all, The Names is extremely beautifully written.

One recurrent tension in the book is between the white noisy, airy, superficial, radically present, restless life of postmodern Americans, and the deeper, grounded, realer life of pretty much everyone else. The Americans literally spend much of their time up in the air – they are multinational businesspeople, constantly flying from place to place. Here DeLillo evokes the feel of air travel:

At the boarding gate, the last of the static chambers, the stillness is more compact, the waiting narrowed. He will notice hands and eyes, the covers of books, a man with a turban and netted beard. The crew is Japanese, the security Japanese… He hears Tamil, Hindi, and begins curiously to feel a sense of apartness, something in the smell of the place, the amplified voice in the distance. It doesn’t feel like earth. And then aboard, even softer seats. He will feel the systems running power through the aircraft, running light, running air. To the edge of the stratosphere, world hum, the sudden night. Even the night seems engineered, Japanese, his brief sleep calmed by the plane’s massive heartbeat.

Where to start? With even the night seems engineered, no? Not only for its strange but true content, the way so many hugely powerful and transformative techno-moments are managed for us, their massive underlying powerful systems quieted and calmed for us (WhisperJet), their deformations of nature so radical that from their theater of simulacra they can seem to pull open the curtains of our very morning noon and night … But also for its poetry, the long ee sound eerily recurrent not only in this phrase but throughout the passage (the repetition of Japanese, of feel, and then, after seems engineered, brief sleep…). And note along with this incantatory word music the language of the spirit, prayer, loftiness (chambers, stillness, stratosphere) — “it doesn’t feel like earth.”

The character senses, is alive to, a certain affiliation between traditional spiritual experience and what he is being lifted into here; but the language of radical artifice, and of a kind of drugged drowsiness, makes clear that this experience is far from truly spiritual. It is empty, engineered.

The other side of the tension is DeLillo’s evocation throughout the book (most of which is set in Greece) of grounded existence, or, more precisely, the postmodern American’s yearning toward it. The main character feels it, sort of, when talking one beautiful quiet evening with his wife:

This talk we were having about familiar things was itself ordinary and familiar. It seemed to yield up the mystery that is part of such things, the nameless way in which we sometimes feel our connections to the physical world. Being here. Everything is where it should be. Our senses are collecting at the primal edge. The woman’s arm trailing down a shroud, my wife, whatever her name. I felt I was in an early stage of teenage drunkenness, lightheaded, brilliantly happy and stupid, knowing the real meaning of every word.

We sometimes feel our connections to the physical world. And again in a passage about Greece:

The sun, the colors, the sea light, the great black bees, what physical delight, what fertile slow-working delight. Then the goatherd on the barren hill, the terrible wind…. Look to the small things for your truth, your joy. This is the Greek specific.

“The shticky suffusions of show-biz tradition were replaced by a rigidly plasticized shell of industrial defensiveness that wore its bank-vault-like mentality up front.”

UD‘s finished reading about Oscar night. It’s too complex (Lyle and Pammy, the couple at the center of Don DeLillo’s novel Players, constantly worry that they’re “becoming too complex”).

UD has moved on to the other Oscar – Pistorius – and she’s not reading. She’s watching. The conventions of South African courtrooms are intriguing. The accents, the costumes, and the way everyone addresses the judge as “my lady” put things strangely in the way of a Gilbert and Sullivan performance. And there’s no question that plot-wise the story is a page-turner.

UD will be shocked if he’s found not guilty, so this isn’t really about who done it and why and how. It’s actually (I blush to admit) about watching to see if Pistorius’s lawyers are agile enough to maneuver around vast shuddering peaks of damning evidence.

Don DeLillo – a writer UD has been praising and teaching and getting excited about for years –

has been named the first recipient of the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. The new lifetime achievement award, announced Thursday by Librarian of Congress James Billington, will be presented at the 13th annual National Book Festival in September.

Essays about DeLillo by UD can be found here and here.

And here’s a short essay of hers about a story of his – “Midnight in Dostoevsky.”

“An irreplaceable repository of Greece’s literary history and heritage”…

… has gone under.

Hestia Publishers and Booksellers,

known as the Gallimard of Greece,
published the Greek translation
of Don DeLillo’s White Noise


along with many other
great modern novels in
translation. It has
not been able to survive
the Greek economic fiasco.

A New Yorker Appreciation of Jack Gilbert…

… who died last week, includes this poem.


He thinks about how important the sinning was,
how much his equity was in simply being alive.
Like the sloth. The days and nights wasted,
doing nothing important adding up to
the favorite years. Long hot afternoons
watching ants while the cicadas railed
in the Chinese elm about the brevity of life.
Indolence so often when no one was watching.
Wasting June mornings with the earth singing
all around. Autumn afternoons doing nothing
but listening to the siren voices of streams
and clouds coaxing him into the sweet happiness
of leaving all of it alone. Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose. Neglecting
the future. Content to let the garden fail
and the house continue on in its usual disorder.
Yes, and coveting his neighbors’ wives.
Their clean hair and soft voices. The seraphim
he was sure were in one of the upstairs rooms.
Hesitant occasions of pride, feeling himself feeling.
Waking in the night and lying there. Discovering
the past in wonderful stillness. The other,
older pride. Watching the ambulance take away
the man whose throat he had crushed. Above all,
his greed. Greed of time, of being. This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

Well, I wrote about a cicada poem here, and the cicadas do the same thing in John Blair’s poem that they do here in Gilbert’s. They give out, says Blair, with a “warning wail” about, Gilbert says, “the brevity of life.”

Jack Gilbert is famous (among poetry types) for having had so much “greed of time, of being” that early in his career he turned his back on America, and the poetry world (in which he had already had high-profile successes), and lived pretty much alone on Greek islands. As “Trangressions” makes clear, Gilbert’s recognition of life’s brevity catalyzed a determination to be, not so much to do. He wrote some – not many – books of poems, but mainly he placed himself, open and ecstatic, in life. He lived, as it were, a microscopically intense existential ongoingness in one of the earth’s most intense settings.

Many of his poems arise from this peculiar ontological arrangement, this hyper-focused sensitivity to passing objects, moods, weather patterns. Undistracted by work, family, and social life, untethered by ideology or faith, Gilbert produced strange poems that starkly combine the two essentials of each human being’s being in the world: the physical universe, and the mind. His poems are both sharply clarified evocations of people and things in his sun-blasted environment, and insistent conversations with himself about his own motives in moving himself away from ordinary life, and the price he’s paid for that move.

Of course Gilbert would choose Greece for his slow sweet clear declension through time. Don DeLillo chose it too, for a few years, and saw the same things Gilbert did. In his novel, The Names, DeLillo described a Greek village in language that, put into short lines rather than paragraphs, could be Gilbert’s:

Laundry hung in the walled gardens, always this sense of realized space, common objects, domestic life going on in that sculpted hush. Stairways bent around houses, disappearing. It was a sea chamber raised to the day, to the detailing light, a textured pigment on the hills. There was something artless and trusting in the place despite the street meanders, the narrow turns and ravels. Striped flagpoles and aired-out rugs, houses joined by closed wooden balconies, plants in battered cans, a willingness to share the oddments of some gathering-up. Passageways captured the eye with one touch, a sea green door, a handrail varnished to a nautical gloss. A heart barely beating in the summer heat, and always the climb, the small birds in cages, the framed approaches to nowhere. Doorways were paved with pebble mosaics, the terrace stones were outlined in white.

Realized space – that’s what the artist is after. The world’s objects and people distributed deeply and fully and feelingly so that when you look at them you see reality, you see the actual world.
In particular, you see the earth’s empty spaces inhabited, elaborated, brought to life, realized by people through use. In Greece, even nowhere is framed.

This needs to be a domestic lived reality, not the techno-phantasmagoria of the great skyscraper city. You seek elemental truths, basic daily gatherings-up, using DeLillo’s word. You want to observe this. So you could live, for instance, on the edge of a Balinese rice paddy just as easily as in a Greek village, for both give you daily and nightly visual access to the interaction of small human communities and natural beauty and bounty. Actually, Greece is better because it’s dry, without natural bounty in the way of watery Bali — you want visual access to small human communities enacting the existential drama of drawing from the earth beauty, sustenance, and meaning.

So, you’re ecstatically, aesthetically, engaged in all of this, but your consciousness – your being a person with a past, with regrets and confusions and worldly avidities – is going to bedevil you, and from the conflict between your settled engagement in a settled world and your neurotic, restless, maybe guilty self (you’re an American behaving like this, for goodness sake) will arise a poem like “Transgressions,” in which the poet talks to himself about his passion for pure being and his sense of the sinfulness of this passion.

The sin of “sloth,” “waste” — yet those were his favorite years, when he was doing “nothing important.”

Using up what
little time we have, relishing our mortality,
waltzing slowly without purpose.

Whitman loafs and invites his own and the universal soul; but Gilbert isn’t inviting. His “transgression” resides in his greedy taking of life for himself. Lust, pride, violence, the narcissism of “feeling himself feeling.” He concludes:

This world,
the pine woods stretching all brown or bare
on either side of the railroad tracks in the winter
twilight. Him feeling the cold, sinfully unshriven.

Nice the way the word shiver shivers through unshriven in that unredeemed cold… But he’s feeling it… Feeling himself feeling the cold, and that’s much more important to him than any reckoning in conventional terms of his transgressions. He wants the true world, all of it, including the true world of his mind and his body and his own ways of being. These may be ugly or beautiful but it is their being existent that elates him, lends him the only redemption he really cares about. Leave all of it alone, he writes – let the world be and let myself be. Let me watch as I become part of the realized space of the globe, and let me transgress and transgress against the higher waste of a labored existence until I come to an end.

UD’s happy to see that…

… “Afghan human rights activist, ex-minister and burka opponent Sima Samar is …seen as a possible winner” of this year’s Nobel Peace prize. This would be spectacular publicity for the effort to get women and children out from under this grotesque garment.

Plus of course UD‘s beloved Don DeLillo is again being shortlisted for the literature prize. He and Philip Roth always show up together on this list.


I thought of DeLillo’s novel Mao II tonight while reading again – for the first time in forty or so years – Catcher in the Rye. Almost at the end of that novel, Holden Caulfield has a heart-to-heart with one of his teachers, the very smart, alcoholic, Mr Antolini. Antolini recognizes Caulfield’s intelligence, sensitivity, moral rigidity, and self-destructiveness. He understands how the trauma of Holden’s beloved brother’s death has set on him on a nihilistic, existence-loathing path. He also sees how this rage, combined with Caulfield’s restless intellect, could make him some sort of dangerous fanatic. Here’s one of the things he says to Holden:

“Something else an academic education will do for you. If you go along with it any considerable distance, it’ll begin to give you an idea what size mind you have. What it’ll fit and, maybe, what it won’t. After a while, you’ll have an idea what kind of thoughts your particular size mind should be wearing. For one thing, it may save you an extraordinary amount of time trying on ideas that don’t suit you, aren’t becoming to you. You’ll begin to know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly.”

This know-yourself haberdashery put me in mind of a very similar piece of advice DeLillo’s hero, the totally Salingeresque writer Bill Gray, recalls having read and heard growing up:

He remembered the important things, how his father wore a hat called the Ritz, gray with a black band, a raw edge and a snap brim, and someone was always saying “Measure your head before ordering” which was a line in the Sears Roebuck catalogue…”

As he’s dying, Bill repeats this phrase to himself.

Know your true measurements and dress your mind accordingly. Measure your head before ordering.

This line from the New Yorker’s review of Cosmopolis…

… the new film based on Don DeLillo’s novel of that name —

Cronenberg focuses on the psycho-biological forces that resist a man’s best-laid plans: the lust for chaos and destruction latent in an optimized order, the need for degradation that’s fed by a rigid discipline of self-exaltation, the sickness manifested in an excessive concern for health, the trend to self-mutilation in obsessive grooming, the hunger for colossal failure in the drive for success and for death in the vigilant and violent defense of life all emerge in the course of the film and invest it with an oppressive tension that Cronenberg maintains skillfully.

— reminds UD of these lines from Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst:

There are parts of ourselves – that don’t want to live, that hate our children, that want ourselves to fail… [T]here is something strange about humans: they are recalcitrant to what is supposed to be their project.

“What genius. What a book.”

Geoff Dyer’s excited appreciation of his favorite novel – Don DeLillo’s The Names – inspires UD to share some notes from her final lecture, last April, in her George Washington University course devoted to DeLillo’s work.


DeLillo today is arguably America’s highest-profile, most-respected writer of serious fiction. He has the status of Hemingway, Faulkner, Mailer, Bellow. Every new novel occasions much attention and discussion. A big new film about Cosmopolis (a novel so weak I didn’t assign it to you) is about to come out; a play of DeLillo’s – about climate change, and it sounds quite dreary – will soon open in London. DeLillo is also politically engaged – as a free speech and human rights advocate.

He is, in other words, a significant force in the culture.

Although unlike Hemingway and Mailer DeLillo is the opposite of a self-promoter, much less a self-mythologizer (he’s a small, soft-spoken man) he has gained a huge audience for his work, and he is the major influence on many important younger American writers.

He is the opposite of the restless neurotic macho writer – only ever married to one woman, long-resident in one town – and though he shares some of Mailer’s anger at American culture and American foreign and domestic policy, his novels reveal a profound love of America, an anguished and profound love of New York City. The son of immigrants, he seems to share the appreciation of American freedoms and opportunities that such families often exhibit. His post-9/11 essay, “In the Ruins of the Future,” is a love song to the diversity and democracy of New York.


If asked to name the core value I associate with DeLillo, I’d say seriousness. You see it in his affect, his photos. He’s not grim, but his brow is always knit, and he always looks thoughtful and concerned. He has the sly satirical humor we see in White Noise, but it’s hard to imagine him writing a broad farce or a psychedelic romp.

It’s equally hard to imagine DeLillo writing a romance. Unlike, say, the author of The English Patient, who makes a love affair the center of a serious historical novel, DeLillo doesn’t, I think, have the disposition to create and follow passionate lovers. Can you think of any in his work? As we’ve noted, DeLillo seems rather embarrassed and inept in his sex scenes; his characters tend to be divorced or estranged, in a fog of pained confusion about erotic relationships. His most intense relationships are father and son, or friends.

This reflects, I think, his belief that the postmodern American landscape, with its sense of unreality and menace, makes it enormously difficult to trust other people, let alone open your intensest and truest self to them. The verbal and emotional transparency we might imagine for real lovers seems invisible in DeLillo’s world, where even the children are prematurely old, self-conscious, and skeptical (like Heinrich, in White Noise) even of natural events, like rainfall.

One of our few young married couples, Lyle and Pammy in Players, are a horror – self-hating, cynical, “too complex,” tempted – as so many DeLillo characters are – toward withdrawal from the world and from one another. Both move in the career world of Manhattan with seeming success, but both actually hate their lives, one drawn to pointless terrorist violence, the other to what she sees as the nothingness of Maine, which is the setting for her best friend’s self-immolation.

Indeed, far from living vivid passionate lives, the characters of Don DeLillo always seem on the verge of self-immolation or implosion. Many seem to have desperately unfurnished, unfinished selves, their time taken up with the search for a cult or a cult figure whose charismatic personal energy might somehow vitalize them.

This parasitic half-life cannot be sustained, and at some point DeLillo’s barely-there characters must either disappear like a puff of smoke or reckon with the half-life they’ve assumed. The combination of high intellect and low identity generates the minimalist characters we’ve particularly seen in his most recent novels: post-9/11-traumatized Keith in Falling Man, catatonically guilt-ridden Elster in Point Omega. Everyone’s sort of autistic, standing in a silent room all day watching a version of Psycho that takes 24 hours to play, or sitting in the desert quietly thinking.

The entropic tendency in DeLillo has things in common with Teilhard’s own omega point theory, in which we’re reaching levels of complexity we can’t sustain, and are heading toward nothing less than the end of the world. One critic calls DeLillo’s writing “pre-apocalyptic” — it’s elegiac, but the elegy seems increasingly to be for the earth itself, as in the film Melancholia, as if the proper attitude – emotional, philosophical, spiritual – to take toward our very planetary life is a kind of awed, observant love at what we were as we vanish. Think of the bizarre and beautiful sunset scene at the end of White Noise.


But you can understand this posture in simple, human, non-apocalyptic terms. Reflective people reflect on the transience of all separate lives; even more reflective people on the transience of all cultures (hence Owen Brademas, anti-hero of The Names).

And yet all the reflection takes place within the cloud of unknowing – it doesn’t endow you with sharper Being, move you toward a life of greater, more meaningful action. The American malady in all of DeLillo, writes one critic, “is one of spellbound fixation.” Voyeur-culture, looking, gazing, staring, indeed seems at the center of DeLillo’s work, in which the traditional “plot” and “action” and “characters” elements of the novel have thinned, because, DeLillo suggests, we have thinned.

University Diaries welcomes students (professors?) from Bogazici University…

… in Turkey. She has no idea why, but her referral log has lit up with tons of readers from there, all of them interested in her analysis of the Don DeLillo story, “Midnight in Dostoevsky.”

This sounds SO UD.

So here’s this: I am a huge fan of Don DeLillo. I would say acolyte, but as far as I know, there is not yet a Church of DeLillo where I might light candles and hum reverently.

A writer for the LA Times takes the words out of my mouth.

Wow – an essay about Don DeLillo by Martin Amis.

Should be a lot of fun to read. I’m doing that right now.

Live blogging my responses… Okay, we both love DeLillo. Our lists of books of his that we don’t love (we love most but not all of him) are pretty similar, but I disagree about The Names. It took me a number of rereadings to warm up to this oddball, philosophically ambitious, beautifully written novel, but it’s now gotten to the point where I feel ardor for it. I understand why Amis – why anyone – would have trouble with The Names – it can feel portentous, pretentious, as it digs down for spiritual meanings – but it’s actually a grounded and compassionate inquiry into the human soul.

The phrase “midnight in Dostoevsky,” we’re told, comes from a poem, and is probably intended to conjure some epiphany of willed despair.

Well, I tell you what the poem is, and offer some analysis of it and its connection to the story, here.


[It] is his general receptivity to the rhythms and atmospheres of the future that we should value… [T]he gods have equipped DeLillo with the antennae of a visionary.


The Warren Commission Report, Don DeLillo wrote in his novel …

Libra, is “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.”

But Joyce is more likely to have written the upcoming fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The DSM’s predecessor, four, has a thousand pages, and we may be sure that five will have many more than that. It’s a megaton psychotropic prescription machine. As Allen Frances, editor of earlier, more sane, DSMs, writes, “DSM-5 is suggesting many new and untested diagnoses and also markedly reduced thresholds for old ones.”

Frances offers an example:

‘Attenuated psychosis syndrome’ will have a ridiculously high false positive rate ( 80-90%), no effective treatment, would promote unnecessary exposure to harmful antipsychotics, and would cause needless worry and stigma. Since studies prove conclusively that the symptoms are so very rarely predictive of psychosis, why in the world would DSM-5 give someone the stigmatizing and absurdly misleading label ‘attenuated psychosis syndrome’ and open the door to inappropriate antipsychotic use? Recognizing all these risks, a large portion of schizophrenia and prodromal researchers are sensibly opposed to the inclusion of ‘attenuated psychosis syndrome’ in DSM-5. But unaccountably, the work group stubbornly clings to its proposal and, without the petition, there is a good chance it may sneak into DSM-5.

In great part, the DSM-5 is a work of the imagination. Like all ambitious novels, it exhibits enormous scope and imaginative energy. Told from the point of view of a detached omniscient narrator, it chronicles the plummeting of populations into pre-psychosis, and their ultimate rescue by “the number one revenue producer of all classes of drugs,” anti-psychotics. Its pages evoke a les misérables America, massively prodromal, holding out its butyrophenone-bowl on every street corner.

One of these things is not like the other…

… as they used to say on Sesame Street.

With the literature Nobel looming, people are talking about UD‘s beloved Don DeLillo (her work on him appears here, and here, and here).

UD‘s friend Jeff sends her this appraisal of him as insular and narcissistic. Read it alongside this (“The American Writer as Bad Citizen”), by Frank Lentricchia. (Scroll down.) It says the exact opposite. Decide for yourself.

“[A]n America in thrall to celebrity, technology and the mass media…”

Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times, writes a nice, concise appreciation of DeLillo’s 1997 novel, Underworld.

To be so enormous.

In the 234 years since Boswell knocked at Hume’s door, we have moved, if only in the way we talk about it, from death’s centrality to its banality.

Robert Zaretsky talks death and religion.


And listen – If it’s banal talk about death you want, there’s no better door to knock at than Don DeLillo’s White Noise.


“Cotsakis, my rival, is no longer among the living.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means he’s dead.”


“Lost in the surf off Malibu. During the term break. I found out an hour ago. Came right here.”

[ … ] “Poor Cotsakis, lost in the surf,” I said. “That enormous man.”

“That’s the one.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“He was big all right.”

“Enormously so.”

“I don’t know what to say either. Except better him than me.”

“He must have weighed three hundred pounds.”

“Oh, easily.”

“What do you think, two ninety, three hundred?”

“Three hundred easily.”

“Dead. A big man like that.”

“What can we say?”

“I thought I was big.”

“He was on another level. You’re big on your level.”

“Not that I knew him. I didn’t know him at all.”

“It’s better not knowing them when they die. It’s better them than us.”

“To be so enormous. Then to die.”

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