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Okay so Bob Dylan wins the literature Nobel and everyone – specially ol’ UD – is astonished. UD is thrilled. It’s good. It’s great. Instead of spending her pre-election-day hours in a snit, she gets to spend them in a ‘sixties trance.

But I want once again (check the DeLillo category on this blog for earlier posts) to try to get at why Don DeLillo is perennially close to his own Nobel Prize in Literature.

UD could choose glorious passages describing postmodern cities and the countrysides to which people in those cities escape; she could visit the streams of consciousness in the heads of characters like the mother of Lee Harvey Oswald and a conscience-stricken CIA agent. She could show you how DeLillo throughout his novels lyricizes political as well as metaphysical thought, and even infuses the commercial detritus of American culture with poetry.

But instead she’ll show you what he could do with just a sentence, a casual seemingly unimportant sentence of the sort you see in this post’s headline.

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The divorced narrator of The Names (1982) recalls his ex-wife, with whom he remains in love — a woman now fanatically engaged in archeology, wanting no human intimacy but only to be left alone to spend her days digging for fragments. (The novel’s narrator is at the opposite terrestrial extreme: a consultant in risk management, he’s almost always in the air, flying from one turbulent country to another.) He remembers her, even when they were married, engaged in a sort of domestic archeology:

She used to go through the house groping in dark closets for a lone Salem left faded in some coat pocket.

DeLillo’s prose somehow ennobles this mundane and even grubby act of tobacco scrounging; the poetic language conveys the pathos of her archeological disposition, ever-engaged in obscure searches for faded goods, for old and hidden (and therefore somehow more authentic) forms of sustenance.

Obviously the sentence gets its greatest weight from the larger context of The Names itself, as you read it. But let’s anyway go ahead and try to clarify how DeLillo lyricizes these words.

Go/groping/lone/coat – Assonance and near-rhyme pull the sentence into a coherent mood of melancholy, with the mournful murmur of all those O‘s. But there are many more O‘s in the sentence: to/through/house/closets/pocket. The sentence is a veritable exploration of the tonal range of O. In this second group of words, we find exact rhyme (to/through) as well as very close rhyme (closets/pocket).

All of this conveys not only the sadness and occasional panic of not being able to fix yourself meaningfully in the world (here, you’re after your tobacco fix, if you will), but also the sense of being – as Thomas Wolfe (another player of variations on O) put it in one of his titles – O Lost. You are in search of (Wolfe’s subtitle) the buried life. All three main characters in The Names are in various ways digging for clues, for a sense of balance, a sense of reality, a sense of situatedness in some deep and true cultural actuality, amid a simulacral, drifty, and menacing postmodern world. As the narrator puts it:

It seemed we’d lost our capacity to select, to ferret out particularity and trace it some center which our minds could relocate in knowable surroundings.

DeLillo’s prose, however, does relocate; he has what all great artists have — singular control over his medium. The world may be out of balance, but his sentence has balance – and not merely tonal balance. There’s a nice metrical regularity here too, as in the repetition of similarly stressed phrases:

dark closets
lone Salem
coat pocket

Even that “Salem” cigarette is carefully chosen, no? To be sure the gentle two-syllable word, a sibilant whisper, fits the soft sad insinuating feel of this sentence; more than that, though, the word derives from peace (Salaam, Shalom)… And though as our eyes run over these words we’re not going to stop and say Hey Salem peace, if we’re reading this as it wants to be read, as a species of prose-poetry, we may obliquely pick up on that connotation, especially if the rest of the novel’s text has been amplifying the idea of peace.

Within the aesthetically ordered and meaningful world of DeLillo’s novels we can encounter and explore our own driftiness, embodied in characters and places, and even gain a bit of insight into/leverage over it.

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Indeed a major theme of many DeLillo works involves the very serious trouble we get ourselves into when our desire for meaning and groundedness and belonging gets so desperate that we form or join cults.

My life is going by and I can’t get a grip on it. It eludes me. It defeats me. My family is on the other side of the world. Nothing adds up. The cult is the only thing I seem to connect with.

Cults tend to degenerate into violence. At the moment, in America, we have a ringside seat.

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