DeLillo in Winter

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Richard Rayner uses a new edition of Don DeLillo‘s White Noise as an opportunity to remind us of the author’s charms:

“White Noise” posits a world, very much our world, in which TV images and a sense of déjà vu replace real events even as they’re happening. “I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters,” Gladney says, a haunting and lovely phrase that, for a few seconds, reclaims his being from anxiety and media saturation.

“White Noise” is almost overstuffed with such moments, with deadpan dialogue and scintillating aphorisms. DeLillo’s biggest kick comes not from satire, or the evocation of the mystery and magic that course through our lives, but from making language pop and fizz.

Pop and fizz—remember when DeLillo made language do that? His concerns have become more interior and less world-encompassing in the three novels he’s published since 1997’s Underworld. Perhaps by necessity, his prose has become similarly less expansive. Few readers ever went to him strictly for laughs, but the satire and taste for irony that Rayner admires is all but absent now. I have a galley of DeLillo’s next novel, Point Omega, and though I have my hopes I also dread what’s coming; at less than 150 pages it looks light as a pamphlet but seems heavy as a concrete piling.

Of course, DeLillo’s reputation would be much smaller if he kept repeating the dryly arch tone of White Noise. The question is whether his increasing grimness has gotten him anywhere. In his book Out of the Blue, critic Kristiaan Versluys argued that 2007’s Falling Man evoked the way 9/11 fractured our capacity to tell stories in conventional forms—so the thinly drawn characters and the paragraphs soaked in vague foreboding are strategic responses to the death of comforting narratives, not failures on DeLillo’s part. I’m willing to revisit the book at some point to test the argument for myself, but I worry if it will just again feel, as I suspect, much like “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” a DeLillo short story that ran in the New Yorker last November.

The setting is again a college, but now it’s Jack Gladney’s stomping grounds in nuclear winter: The weather is gray and windy, the two characters are grimly academic college boys, and their shared class is in logic, taught by a man prone to pronouncements like, “The only laws that matter are laws of thought. The rest is devil worship.” In a certain light, the story is a mildly comic existential tale: The two young men ponder the background of the old man who wanders the campus, filling him up with more drama than he probably deserves, confident in their imaginations but too timid to actually approach the man and figure out what his deal is.

All of which is fine as far as it goes, though DeLillo never quite nails down how callow he’d like his narrator and his friend to be. On winter break he wanders the town (even more a ghost town that it’s felt like before):

On the stunted commercial street in town, there were three places still open for business, one of them the diner, and I ate there once and stuck my head in the door two or three times, scanning the booths. The sidewalk was old, pocked bluestone. In the convenience store, I bought a fudge bar and talked to the woman behind the counter about her son’s wife’s kidney infection.

Nothing in the story suggests that he’s had much capacity, let alone interest, in such casual conversation about such a serious issue. Perhaps he and the clerk have known each other a while; perhaps she volunteered the information without his encouragement. But a more assured DeLillo would’ve clarified the matter, or dispensed with the bit entirely; in any event, that’s just a minor plot hiccup compared to the ginned-up conflict between the boys that concludes the story. By the end things have moved pretty much nowhere, from a dimly felt fear of connection to a dimly felt fear of connection. It’s fine if DeLillo chooses to abandon the tone he pioneered in White Noise. What’s disappointing is the loss of sure-footedness that’s come with it.

10 thoughts on “DeLillo in Winter

  1. I’ve admired DeLillo ever since I’ve read White Noise, but haven’t read anything beyond that novel. It’s a shame if that keen ironic humor (and believe me, White Noise made me laugh) has been replaced by – gloom. Is there a second best DeLillo novel?

    1. There are more than a few second-best DeLillo novels—I’d try either “Great Jones Street” or “Libra” next. Both are excellent.

  2. I like “Libra” quite a bit, but I would go so far as to say it’s a mistake to send someone to “Great Jones Street” for their second DeLillo novel. My favorite is “The Names.” For early DeLillo, I’d point readers to “End Zone” before GJS (but maybe it’s a football/rural vs. music/NY distinction). “Running Dog” is fun, too.

    1. Fair points. It might make more sense to suggest books to explicitly avoid, at least for starters. “Ratner’s Star” tops my list on that front.

      1. “Ratner’s Star” is challenging, and I suppose, DeLillo’s most esoteric (and surreal) book. For those who don’t know the book, its subject, sort of, is mathematics.

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  4. I’m not sure I agree with you Mark – and I certainly don’t think a short story, a form which in no way best suits Delillo’s talents, is a good yardstick against which to measure his current form.

    Sure, when faced with a novel like ‘The Body Artist’, it’s hard not to feel that some of the pop and fizz has gone out of his writing. Yet what about ‘Cosmopolis’? It’s got them in extremis. It certainly shows little evidence of ‘increasing grimness’. If anything, if I remember correctly, its persistent levity and deliberate air of farce went down rather badly – clearly it didn’t fit the reviewing fraternity’s idea of Delillo.

    I also think it’s a mistake to hold up ‘White Noise’ as being in any way emblematic of the man’s work. Reviewing his career, the thing that most strikes me is the way in which he has demonstrated an increasing willingness to take risks over time – either in subject matter or form, or both.

    ‘Falling Man’, for my money, is an incredibly interesting book because of the way it treads a highwire between pretension and intellectual audacity. Delillo seems acutely aware of the book we’d ideally like him to write in response to 9/11, and plays a cat and mouse game with us – half giving us that book, half denying us it – that forces us to reflect upon what it is about art that makes us look to it for meaning.

    No doubt I am outing myself here as one of the cultish worshippers at his shrine. Whatever. But what I will happily own to is a bewilderment as to why he isn’t revered more widely. I’ve lost count of how many pieces like this I’ve read over the last few years and if I’m really honest, I think they are evidence of our over-prolix cultural lives. Who has time to read deeply – and re-read, as Delillo’s work deserves – from within a single author’s oeuvre when there are so many other cultural items crying out for our attention? Yet this is what we must do, I believe, before trying to typify his work.

    All of the above might, perhaps, best be read as a rather long-winded and possibly self-important way of saying that I can’t wait to read ‘Point Omega’ as I’m sure it will force me to re-assess my idea of what kind of writer Delillo is. We’ll have to compare notes once it’s out.

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