DeLillo, Don (Vol. 13)
DeLillo, Don 1936–
DeLillo is an American novelist who writes satirically of contemporary events. Often compared to Thomas Pynchon and other metafictionists for his use of language, he has portrayed the chaos of society under the guises of football, science, rock music, and urban sophistication. The discrepancy between appearance and reality is a central concern in DeLillo's work. (See also CLC, Vols. 8, 10.)
While Thoreau was able to shape his months on Walden Pond into an instructive lesson for his future life, and into a ritual rebirth as critics have named it, DeLillo's characters are invariably left at the end of the novels still groping, or, at best, tentatively embarking on a course of possible rebirth but uncertain outcome. (p. 5)
[DeLillo's] fifth novel, Players (1977), shares many of the major thematic and technical qualities of the first four, but in a most fundamental way it breaks the pattern. From Americana to End Zone to Great Jones Street to Ratner's Star DeLillo traces a single search for the source of life's meaning. By the end of Ratner's Star the quest has been literally turned inside out; the path from chaos to knowledge becomes a Moebius strip that brings the seeker back to chaos. The main characters in Players are not sustained by the illusion that answers to cosmic questions can be found; they seek meaning in their lives, but meaning of a tentative and minimal nature. The novels before Players create a quartet, a four-volume sequence that DeLillo's [next] novel does not directly extend.
DeLillo's first four novels, then, are segments of a single proto-novel. Certainly the casts of characters in all the novels share common traits. Whether they be media executives, college football players, rock musicians, or mathematicians, characters who...
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J. D. O'Hara
Don DeLillo is insufficiently known, although his last novel [Players] got some media play. Like Shakespeare (how's that for a start?) he is seldom sufficiently serious; only End Zone displays his remarkable abilities with consistency. But he admirably refuses to repeat himself: after surveying America in Americana he considered a range of philosophic and ethical complements in End Zone, worked out a fantasy of drugs and rock in Great Jones Street, got into science fiction with Ratner's Star, brooded about urban violence in Players, and now has written an amusing and imaginative send-up of the spy novel, with overtones [The Running Dog]. The predictably violent crimes and creeps are here, the mysterious overlords, the sexy women, the quaint settings, the spaghetti-structure plot, the absurd treasures (for instance a porn movie made in Hitler's Berlin bunker), and the obligatory paranoid chase—all reported in a remarkably crisp, witty, and stylized English…. (p. 227)
J. D. O'Hara, in New England Review (copyright © 1978 by Kenyon Hill Publications, Inc.), Vol. I, No. 2, Winter, 1978.
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As a European, I sometimes wonder whether the kind of fiction that Don DeLillo and other Americans are writing can be termed novels in the sense still current in Europe. Here it is legitimate to fictionalize the breakdown of civilization, but only from the viewpoint of a protagonist who holds to the values out of which the novel-form was begotten. We need humanity to observe the death of humanity. But in Running Dog, and in much contemporary American fiction, we have no humanity at all—bodies, nerves, trigger-fingers, money-lust, power-lust, but no (ah, ridiculous Dostoevskian archaism) soul. Americana is the title of DeLillo's first novel; Americana are still, in his sixth, his theme. Americana is a neuter collective: American things. His characters are all American things….
In Running Dog, Radial Matrix, the ultimate intelligence agency, and several underworld characters are fighting to get hold of film mistakenly believed to be unedited cinema verité of a final orgy in which the Fuehrer himself took part. The pornmen want the film, and some of them are prepared to kill to get it. It is, so to speak, the ultimate stimulus in a sex-absorbed society that approaches impotence. The film, however, turns out to be scenes of Hitler doing a Chaplin act for Goebbels's children….
The humanistic position, however black and white and grainy, that Chaplin represents stands for something like a...
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Plenitude and excess distinguish much of our best fiction: Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, Coover's The Public Burning, Gaddis's JR, McElroy's Lookout Cartridge. Don DeLillo has their exhaustive impulse, but his six novels, singly and together, are a reversed cornucopia. They spiral from the overripe riches of America toward a difficult silence. More than any other novelist to emerge in [the '70s], Don DeLillo knows the spoiled goods of America and knows as well that a novel made in the USA may be implicated in the waste and noise of its place. His tactics have been attack and withdrawal….
"The beast is loose/Least is best" say the lyrics of Bucky Wunderlick in Great Jones Street. Minimalism has its great exemplars in Beckett and Borges, but it also has its attendant difficulty: "The less there is," says a character in Running Dog, "the more you're tested to find the things that do exist." It is a test for reader and writer alike, one that DeLillo does not manage well in this new novel. Narrowed, flattened and polished, Running Dog reads too much like some compacted version of the literary waste—the intrigue—from which DeLillo has presumably meant to separate it with artful reduction. But because Running Dog features the contractive method that worked in the earlier books, especially Players, it remains an interesting novel, an experimental coda to a major writer's...
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[With] precision and order, Running Dog reveals pattern and network linking seemingly unrelated individuals and their rituals of distance, devotion, quest, connection, and separation enacted around a "pornographic" film. That film and the inability or unwillingness of the individuals involved to comprehend or transcend the true nature and full extent of their actions and relationships lend moral perspective to DeLillo's novel….
Running Dog belongs to a special category of art, one that includes, say, Conrad's Secret Agent, Goddard's Weekend, and Tooker's paintings of petrified subway patrons. Works of this kind situate us precisely and concretely—if ironically—in recognizable contemporary reality slightly but purposefully heightened to exploit the ambiguous interfaces between system and chaos, the commerce between meaning and absurdity, perversion and normalcy. They show us society as an anti-anthill, a hive of grotesque conspiratorial cells, a dangerous maze of cross-purposes. But there is no preachment in Running Dog. DeLillo has reimagined the world of our recent and present history into a compact whole of speech and action in which the details of the present are perfected through careful craft into a metaphoric vision. The language of conspiracy, with its beginnings in self-repression and its "sexual sources and coordinates"; the stance of taut, impersonal reportage; a design full of...
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[A lesson] in how to compile a political thriller—smartly enigmatic, niftily cross-cut, bouncy with erotics, sudden deaths, and smartipants talk—is Running Dog, which wears its seriousness with fetching lightness. Cinematically, indeed fast-movingly done, it celebrates our cineastic age where only what moves is alluring: and where what allures its pawn-dealers, villains, journalists, and secret service operators most is a rumoured sex-orgy movie shot in Hitlers's bunker. Inevitably disappointing, the old footage has Hitler doing Chaplin impressions for Goering's kiddies. 'Could he tell them history is true?' a dealer wonders. Hardly, the novel implies, in Kino America, where the real is merely a western reel. (p. 158)
Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1979 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 2, 1979.
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