UD‘s beloved Don DeLillo makes a few remarks on his way to winning another prize. This particular remark reminded UD of something Saul Bellow said about Bernard Malamud:

Well, [Bernard Malamud] did make something of the crumbs and gritty bits of impoverished Jewish lives. Then he suffered from not being able to do more. Maybe he couldn’t have, but he looked forward to a fine old age in which the impossible became possible. Death took care of that wonderful aspiration. We can all count on it for that.


The filmed murder of the two journalists in Virginia had me – and others – thinking about DeLillo, particularly his short story “Videotape,” later incorporated into his novel Underworld.

Over two decades ago, author and novelist Don Delillo published the short story “Videotape,” about a young girl who unwittingly films the murder of a man in a car behind her family’s van. Written in second person, the story manages to capture humankind’s rejection of, as well as fascination with, watching death play out on screen.

“The tape is superreal, or maybe underreal,” wrote Delillo. “It is what lies at the scraped bottom of all the layers you have added.”

I thought of “Videotape” after hearing about the Virginia shooting and taking in some of the images and facts, chief among them the chilling detail that the killer filmed the murder and made it available to the public on Facebook while fleeing police.


Here’s some of his prose, from The Names, whose main character, an American living in Athens, is finally visiting and walking around the Parthenon. He has been avoiding it for months.

The marble seems to drip with honey, the pale autumnal hue produced by iron oxide in the stone. And there are stones lying about, stones everywhere as I cross around to the south colonnade – blocks, slabs, capitals, column drums. The temple is cordoned by ropes but this mingled debris is all over the ground, specked surfaces, rough to the touch, wasting in acid rain.

See here you have DeLillo trying to convey a postmodern disposition in the context of an ancient setting. So what he’s going to do is mix things stylistically, making plenty of room for both the enduring power of the classical temple and its values (a power the character has until this moment avoided because, in the context of a chaotic and ugly contemporary world, he finds this monumental realization of those values – “beauty, dignity, order, proportion” – “daunting”) and the much greater pull of a post-classical, post-romantic, hyper-technological world.

Here’s how he packs cultural history into his little paragraph: classicism, romanticism, modernism, postmodernism:

DeLillo’s first clause has a very simple stripped down classical balance and dignity – The marble seems to drip with honey. His second starts out pure romanticism – pale autumnal hue

Hey – in fact – lookee here: a sonnet by Romantic poet Felicia Dorothea Hemans, “To A Dying Exotic” —

AH ! lovely faded plant, the blight I mourn,
That withered all thy blossoms fair and gay;
I saw thee blushing to the genial May,
And now thy leaves are drooping and forlorn.
I mark’d thy early beauty with a smile,
And saw with pride the crimson buds expand;
They open’d to the sunbeam for a while,
By all the flattering gales of summer fann’d.
Ah ! faded plant, I raise thy languid head,
And moisten every leaf with balmy dew;
But now thy rich luxuriant bloom is fled,
Thy foliage wears a pale autumnal hue;
Too soon thy glowing colours have decay’d,
Like thee the flowers of pleasure smile and fade.


(UD has helpfully bolded the pertinent phrase.)

And then, number three, DeLillo moves right into modernity – science, technology, ye olde disenchanted world, here represented by iron oxide. In the hands of a mediocre writer, this shift from classicism to lyricism to iron oxide would be jarring, but DeLillo’s light and lilting prose maintains its music throughout the disenchantment, which makes everything flow … like honey. He’s not like Henry Miller, who wants to shock you, jolt you, who has Henry walking the streets of Paris in Tropic of Cancer and writing

[Some of] the women … look so attractive from behind, and when they turn round – wow, syphilis!

This isn’t about the character’s consciousness being shocked by acid rain. He knows how the world has degraded. It is about the mild cumulative realization in this particular setting of (in the novel’s final lines)

… the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world.


Here’s UD‘s take on another DeLillo short story.

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4 Responses to ““It’s true that some of us become better writers by living long enough. But this is also how we become worse writers. The trick is to die in between.””

  1. dmf Says:

    have you read william gibson’s pattern recognition? pretty delillo-esque

  2. Margaret Soltan Says:

    dmf: No – but I’ll take a look…

  3. charlie Says:

    Bernard Malamud was a tenured professor at Oregon State, many of his papers are archived in Corvallis. His book, “A New Life,” I was told, was premised on the firing of a OSU chemistry professor, due to the prof’s putative communist affiliation.

  4. dmf Says:

    not great lit but a pretty good step up from his roots in scifi/cyberpunk

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