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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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5 Responses to ““What genius. What a book.””

  1. Sean O Says:

    …..estranged, in a fog of pain about erotic relationships.

    Wow, you just described my life. But of course I am Catholic. Looks like I need to read this DeLillo chap.

  2. Mr Punch Says:

    “He has the status of Hemingway, Faulkner, Mailer, Bellow.” Well, he would, if anyone did. Maybe Bellow; but it’s interesting that no one today has a status (in broad terms) anything like Faulkner, much less Hemingway. (There aren’t any poets who have the public status of Frost, or maybe even Robert Lowell, either.)

  3. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Mr Punch: I think you’re right in the sense that DeLillo isn’t a big famous public personality the way Hemingway was; but I’m not sure this matters… or is even a good thing for a writer. (See Truman Capote.) The status I had in mind was his status among serious readers of literature – a large group of people in the US – as well as his reasonably visible status in the larger culture because of the recent film and other projects.

  4. Kerry Says:

    Can I come back to school and take your DeLillo class? Your lecture is making me miss teaching.

  5. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Kerry: Any time. You’re welcome.

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