“A writer takes earnest measures to secure his solitude and then finds endless ways to squander it.”
– Don DeLillo, The Art of Fiction, The Paris Review No. 135
The following is a discussion of the world and effects of the works of Don DeLillo. The books focused on are chosen more by my emotional state than by pragmatism, however all of his works will make an appearance at some point. The assertion here is both personal and universal, stating that Don DeLillo changed my life, and gave new breath and scope to the world of literature.
Don DeLillo began writing later than many the American prodigy to change the movement of our country’s letters. His first novel, Americana (published when he was roughly 35 years old)—a winding tale of one man’s devolving lunacy reflecting a life of advertising, television, and travel—to hear him tell it, came from a quick sight of a man standing on a road staring off at nothing, that brief vision was enough to carry him through the beginnings of his first novel and, in light of that, the early stages of what has been one of the more tumultuous careers in history.
When the idea came to me to write about Don DeLillo for HTMLGiant, it was first slated to be an exploration of his novels Great Jones Street and, ideally, White Noise—comparing something less-discussed to something hailed as one of the masterpieces of the latter half of the 20th century; what fueled this? What brought about this response? Etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. However, I found myself unable to hold back certain instincts as I began to reflect over his impact on me and this world as a whole, and in spite of myself began falling deeper and deeper into a DeLilloan stupor with every interview, novel, and anecdote explored. I found the intricacies of his books that I’d call my favorite proved far less ambiguous than I’d thought and that–say, with the discussion of contemporary (in 1985-ish) universities in White Noise–his work was sewn deeper into me than I’d realized.
There was, I think, initially an aversion to his writing due to the fact that the only copy of DeLillo’s work we had in my house growing up was a very daunting paperback of Underworld (interestingly, I was only completely drawn back to it when attempting an essay on the Spaldeen, a little Hi-Bounce Ball made by Spalding that I’ve become quite obsessed with that DeLillo notes in the novel, as they were the primary ball used in stick ball games in New York City in the heyday). I remember picking it up one day after reading Bret Easton Ellis considered him a great influence and finding myself lost beyond salvation. The words didn’t exactly register and when they did they seemed strange, infused with a level of what I’d now call reified Americanism that wasn’t apparent in anything I’d been reading at the time (Ellis, Fante, Kesey, et al, authors of fiction that seemed to be right there, which I found in DeLillo only after reaching the necessary level of paranoia to understand the first book of his I read and loved, Mao II) and in spite of a burning curiosity, I tucked the paperback where I’d picked it up on the shelf to remain for several years until I found those radiant little pink Spaldeens in a hardware store in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.
Years later, after many other books had ricocheted through my brain and many authors both of the high and lowbrow had shared with me their insights, it seemed I was ready to pick him up again. This time, I decided, it would be with Mao II, as the title piqued my interest and I couldn’t readily recall an author so originally using the presence of an artist in the conception of a book. I ordered a copy on Amazon, and though when it was delivered it harbored none of the eloquence and beauty of that aforementioned Underworld, I vowed to myself to sit down very soon and read the thing from cover to cover. It just so happened that the following weekend I was taking the train from Chicago up to Wisconsin to visit family, and the minute I boarded Chicago’s Redline to the downtown Union Station, I opened the paperback and began finding myself immersed in the story of Moonies in Yankee Stadium, and the author Bill Gray who’s left this world to focus entirely on writing as he’s regaled by his flunkies with any possible requests. An eerie thing happened then–I was a card-carrying member of the Chicago Art Institute, it’ll soon come to matter–I took out my cellphone when I was exiting the train and in the twenty minute ride I’d received just one email: “Andy Warhol’s ‘Mao’ Returns to the Art Institute!” and with a brief shudder I took this as a sign and for the next six hours did not put down the book. I found myself surprised to be reading so easily what had initially sent me running for the hills in confusion and lack of understanding. I found the words touched me and the character Bill Gray understood something about writing and literature that I’d long wanted to understand. I found the action compelling and original and the dialogue beyond anything found in Hemingway or Carver or any of those authors cited as the vanguard of spoken originality in prose. I was hooked. Hooked, and cursing myself for not getting it those years prior when I’d take a second to peer at that copy of Underworld on the shelf.
There are three things which Don DeLillo does in either a way so original it sets him apart from all his predecessors and contemporaries or a way that highlights his efforts as so much better that it makes him the best at each respective one. They are, Dialogue, America (or showcasing the American condition), and Hysteria. What follows will be an exploration of each with examples from several books. Those that aren’t mentioned (say the sheer Americanness of Underworld on the whole—what is boiled down to be a baseball novel reaches the heights of corruption in this country without missing a beat—the hysteria and loss of sanity evident in Americana, Players, The Names and each of his works since) were not omitted for their lack of coherence to this triangular principle, but because the three I’ve chosen to include, Great Jones Street, Mao II, and White Noise, seemed to fit this paradigm so perfectly that to expand it any further would’ve simply resulted in a longer critique regarding historical facts without much gained in the way of knowledge of DeLillo’s work. I’ll also be taking a moment to focus on Cosmopolis, both the novel and the film, to bring his influence into the present.
“Who were you talking to at the door?”
“I thought you were asleep.”
“I was asleep but I wasn’t fast asleep. Somebody was at the door and the two of you talked about something. It wasn’t Fenig because I know Fenig’s voice. It wasn’t the woman downstairs because it was a man. So I surmise one thing. It was the man you’ve been waiting for. The courier. Is that who it was?” – Great Jones Street, Page 84
DeLillo, here, presents a brief and relatively harmless scene in which two characters are discussing the delivery of a package that’s pervaded the narrative as something eerie and nothing much more just yet; however, because of some savvy and ellipsis the quotes develop into more of a syllogism of philosophical thought, something to make the reader stop and wonder about the circling nature of this conversation, something to catch the reader off-guard as perhaps more important than the piddling attempts at conversational honesty so inherent to contemporary fiction. This is, I would posit, an attempt to give more than human observation and realism; but an attempt to describe both the paranoia of the scene—the way Steinbeck would use the landscape, say, or Fitzgerald would use the details of a person’s clothing—without unwarranted exposition or descriptive dialogue that only results in eye rolls anyway.
“You look like a writer. You never used to. Took all these years. Do I recognize the jacket?”
“I think it’s yours.”
“Is it possible? The night Louise Wiegand got drunk and insulted my jacket.”
“And you took it off.”
“I threw it right down.”
“And I said I need a jacket and I did need a jacket and she said or someone said take this one.”
“Wasn’t me. I liked that jacket.”
“It’s a nice old tweed.”
“Doesn’t fit.” – Mao II, Page 95.
Here, again, we have a moment in time during Mao II when all is escalating and the character Bill Gray is losing his mind, and yet without apology DeLillo gives a brief moment of sheer reading pleasure when these two men are discussing nothing more than a jacket and, oddly enough, it lends itself completely to the lunacy of the progressing story. To write truly good dialogue, the conversations must lead you away from everything into their own world and hence can live on top of the story as our conversations live on top of the melee and hell of our daily lives. Here DeLillo has captured that aesthetic and the notion that sometimes we talk to avoid the chaos, the confusion, and the deterioration of our psyches.
The latter half of the 20th century for America saw some of the most catastrophic events ever documented: the terrible fuckup of the Vietnam war and Nixon himself, the hippies, the protests, the nuclear family, the Cold War, fears of communism, fear of children, fear of teenagers, fear of nothingness, of oblivion, of being blown off the earth, of blowing ourselves off the earth. It was not a good time to be a kid, an adult, or an elder, and though this could be said of any generation there were particularly interesting effects related to the monetizing and recording of these events that set it apart from anything else. It became the generation where everyone wanted to see the events transpire and be told through editorials almost as quickly what to think. Writers like Norman Mailer or Hunter S. Thompson excelled at encapsulating this condition in their works as a sort of historical and personal document, however it’s only with a chosen few—DeLillo at the forefront as we move into the 70s and onward—that fictive descriptions of our times in that half century were truly earth-shatteringly honest, if not terrifying and brazen.
“They’re not calling it the feathery plume anymore,” he said, not meeting my eyes, as if to spare him the pain of my embarrassment.
“I already knew that.”
“They’re calling it the black billowing cloud.”
“Why is that good?”
“It means they’re looking the thing more or less squarely in the eye. They’re on top of the situation.”
With an air of weary decisiveness, I opened the window, took the binoculars and climbed onto the ledge. I was wearing a heavy sweater and felt comfortable enough in the cold air but made certain to keep my weight tipped against the building, with my son’s outstretched hand clutching my belt. I sensed his support for my little mission, even his hopeful conviction that I might be able to add the balanced weight of a mature and considered judgment to his pure observations. This is a parent’s task, after all. White Noise, Page 113.
A brilliant description of forthcoming madness, this begins the portion of White Noise where Jack Gladney and his small college town are terrorized by an Airborne Toxic Event, and with each mounting piece of information describing what should be the family’s demise and descent into fear and paranoia, Jack has yet another bit of consolation for each of them, right up until the moment everything effects him, and he must carry that as any good, hysterical father should.
And yet it isn’t nonchalance, or laziness that makes this passage so powerful, so thought-provoking. It would seem to be the exact opposite: a sort of devotion to Americanisms that pervade our landscape in times of crisis, an adherence to the mood and conversational structures apparent in the previous parts of the novel that don’t suddenly vanish when hysteria arises—as they often do in poorly-written works describing terrorism (being suddenly blown apart with adverbs and malapropisms, the stuff of bad science fiction). DeLillo has excelled immensely at describing the terrorist act (though to be clear it’s never stated outright what the intent behind the Airborne Toxic Event was…), and considering terrorism’s close proximity to the hearts of each living person on earth today, it follows logically that his work be praised as exceptional above many others, that novels like White Noise or even the mathematical insanity of Ratner’s Star be acknowledged for capturing the hysterical zeitgeist of our planet.
I struggle with this one on several levels. First, I am not a proud American. I consider myself lucky the way Louis CK tells me I should for being born a white American in a time where there are certainly worse options, but I don’t hold Don DeLillo close in my heart as a particularly American figure, though his work could perhaps lead one to do otherwise. What I mean when I say DeLillo excels at describing America is that his novels set here often show me cities much exhausted—New York, the college towns in White Noise, the East Coast in general—by American fiction and yet I find my mouth watering at each description as though I’m being shown something quite unique. Not everything is set in this country, and that’s the way it should be for writers of all birthplaces, but Don DeLillo is in many ways an American-born and American-informed writer—born into a well-off-enough family, he got through college and spent one summer delving into the modernists and post-modernists working some menial job; he then worked for sometime at an ad agency until renouncing that to spend much of his time at the movies watching Godard, etc., all things characteristic of writers to come from here for many years past (though granted there are many things in there quite universal).
Finally, I tie this characterization or identification of Americanness in DeLillo to the former category, hysteria. For roughly two hundred years—perhaps more, perhaps less—America has been the most neurotic, confused, desperate, aggressive and fundamentally hysteric nations on earth. Mailer took a crack at it, as did Fitzgerald, Exley, Auster, Hemingway, Wolfe (1 & 2), Thompson, Gaddis, Whitman, Kerouac, etc. etc. etc., but in my opinion one of the most keenly-felt moods in DeLillo is that extremely organic American Hysteria; better felt in him most moments than all those mentioned and more.
To close here today I’m moving forward right up to the present—it should be noted before I delve deeper that DeLillo’s short story collection The Angel Esmerelda is a fucking masterpiece and should be read immediately (I’m not kidding, I haven’t read a collection of short stories this brilliant in a very long time). First, I’d like to discuss the novel Cosmopolis, before addressing the Cronenberg adaptation, starring Robert Pattinson.
I recently had the immense pleasure of rereading the novel (I’d like to say right off the bat that there’s really no excuse for watching the movie first without reading it, it’s a very quick read and quite palatable) describing Eric Packer’s slow descent into madness and desperation and several thoughts rang loudly through my mind.
#1 The Joyce Influence/Comparison Paradox
Cosmopolis is a picaresque depicting a single day in a man’s life as he moves throughout a city with significant emphasis made on grooming (he’s going to get a haircut, essentially, to simplify it beyond recognition). I’d like to formally state that, though there are obvious similarities and DeLillo is a noted fan of Joyce, this incessant little factoid (the question of whether it’s meant to directly reflect Ulysses or not) belittles the book in a great many ways; even considering the longstanding and indisputable merits of Joyce, Cosmopolis is a thing all its own, and starting out attempting to find corresponding events or passages is only going to ruin your experience reading one of the great contemporary stories ever told.
#2 Samuel Beckett, meet Benno Levin
The only real divergence from the story of Eric Packer in the novel is a confessional written by someone named (we think) Benno Levin. This, interestingly enough, reminded me to no end of the prose and lunacy of Samuel Beckett, a comparison only relevant due to the important distinction eventually made between Joyce and Beckett—with Joyce throwing in every mite of intellect available to him and Beckett deciding one day in his mother’s bedroom that he’d focus on a sort of anti-intellect, the literature of characters losing everything, devoid of intelligence and money and status, which he went on to due unforgettably in novels like Molloy, Malone Dies, or The Unnamable. Cosmopolis is nestled somewhere in the middle of these two giants of the written word; harboring the brilliance and savvy of storytelling inherent to Joyce while exploring content and minimalist passages made effective by Beckett’s prose.
#3 How the fuck is David Cronenberg going to pull this off?
Though one of my greatest obsessions this past year has been watching Cronenberg’s more recent films (notably the Viggo Mortensen movies, which feature some of the best storytelling I’ve seen on screen in years) and reading DeLillo’s later novels; I never once considered the prospect of these two joining forces. Cronenberg being a master of subverted violence and strange character study, and DeLillo being a sort of businessman’s nightmare-weaver with a penchant for getting his point across no matter what the subject matter, frankly, I couldn’t see one’s abilities complimenting the other; but rather the result being a highbrow mélange of insanity that entertains, but harbors little of the original narrative—let alone showcase the merits of a brilliant director.
I pondered this right up until the last moment of reading and, having seen the trailer, even attempted to ascribe certain qualities in the prose to Robert Pattinson’s person, and still I felt confused, so confused.
I closed the book, shut my brain off and put it right next to that still-daunting (though thoroughly read time and again, after all) copy of Underworld and figured “fuck it, I’m going to the movies.”
[Watch the Cosmopolis movie trailer here]
DeLillo on screen.
Eerie, eerie, from beginning to end the experience of watching DeLillo’s work captured on screen was very, very eerie. I enjoyed it, though certainly Pattinson’s acting suffers moments of debilitating lassitude, he returns to form when it matters most. The eeriness, I think, comes from the realization that you’re watching what’s at least a damn good interpretation of something you’ve created in your mind; like watching a painting before you’ve finished it being done by a stranger, I’d imagine.
Cronenberg is obviously a fan of both the novel, Cosmopolis, and the work of Don DeLillo in general. This is apparent from the beginning as there are staggeringly few deviations from the original text and those that do happen—looking at the book it’d be impossible to expect the entirety of the film to match it—are soon set aside as necessary for the transition from printed word to screen, and we’re hence back into Cronenberg’s (an artist, in every way DeLillo’s an artist) interpretation of the dreamscape that is the original text. Dialogue here is kept in its place with a monkish sanctity that leaves one applauding the actors, the directors, and the author in the first place for writing a book that makes its way onto the screen with nary a hiccup between words.
Performances that measure up as something worthy of the original endeavor unfortunately do not include Pattinson’s—he did an excellent job with what he had, but one can’t shake the notion that he’s constantly trying to put on his “actor” face… The two actors that left me floored and without the slightest bit of trepidation or fear that they were getting it wrong are Mathieu Amalric and Paul Giamatti (an aside: I thought Sarah Gadon did an exquisite interpretation of Elise Shifrin but in general her acting wasn’t noteworthy), playing Andre Petrescu (the pastry assassin who notoriously seeks out known personalities and assaults them with pies) and Benno Levin, the Beckett-esque character from above who, as the novel/film moves along, becomes decidedly more integral to the life of Eric Packer.
Another consideration aside from the film and novel themselves lends itself to the earlier notion of Ulysses-Cosmopolis similarities. Firstly, Ulysses is absolutely impossible to make into a film. The brilliant wordplay and use of nearly everything under the sun regarding language make it first and foremost a literary pursuit (for reader and writer) that would lose all of its élan if put through the reels of Hollywood. The brilliance of the DeLillo novel is that—Joyce comparisons intended or otherwise—he’s written something contemporary, scathing, confusing, literary and cinematic in such a way that it translates to the screen in the hands of a true visionary with very little lost along the way.
I think, or rather I’m quite certain, the best result of this film will be a lofty handful of readers of DeLillo that wouldn’t have otherwise discovered him, because anyone curious enough to pick up the book will soon realize it exceeds the film in vision and artistry in every way; but all the same I can’t escape that initial eeriness that I felt at seeing the novel I saw in my head put onto the screen. Cosmopolis (the book) is a fucking head rush, the sort of thing you don’t imagine could ever be transferrable to the movies, and yet that seems to be what’s happened nonetheless, and we’re given two takes on a massive story well into the future the novel so brilliantly describes.
Grant Maierhofer is the author of The Persistence of Crows and the weekly column A Cabana of the Mind for Delphian Inc., his unrelated work can be found at GrantMaierhofer.Org. He lives in Wisconsin and is currently at work revising a second novel for publication next fall.