DeLillo, Don (Vol. 143)
Don DeLillo 1936-
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell) American novelist and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of DeLillo's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 10, 13, 27, 39, 54, and 76.
Regarded as one of the finest novelists and sharpest social critics of contemporary American life, DeLillo, like such authors as John Barthes, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut, writes in a postmodernist vein. From Americana (1971) to The Body Artist (2001), DeLillo's novels are satirical yet penetrating portraits of contemporary American society—its rampant paranoia and malaise, its myths, obsessions, and manias. In his satire DeLillo exploits the discrepancy between appearance and reality, targeting the power of mass media, the spread of cultural politics and crowd psychology, and the excesses of consumer culture. Stylistically experimental, DeLillo's fiction features terse prose, displaced bits of dialogue, and fast-paced, episodic narration instead of conventional plotting, devices typical of literary postmodernism but which also underscore his preoccupation with the ritualistic aspects of words, the nature of language, and its myriad uses. Critics have responded enthusiastically to the intelligence and wit of each of DeLillo's novels, with many citing his fascination with the meaning and usage of words as a particular source of pleasure. Generally attracting a small but faithful readership for most of his career, DeLillo vaulted to bestseller status with the publication of Libra (1988) and Underworld (1997). The publication of Underworld has not only enhanced his reputation in general but has also renewed critical interest in his earlier works.
The son of Italian immigrants, DeLillo was born November 20, 1936, in the Bronx borough of New York City. He grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood, attending Cardinal Hayes High School and later enrolling at Fordham University, where he majored in communication arts. After graduating in 1958, he briefly worked during the early 1960s as a copywriter at Ogilvy and Mather, an advertising agency. About 1967, DeLillo started writing what later became his first novel, Americana. Over the next seven years he published five more novels—End Zone (1972), Great Jones Street (1973), Ratner's Star (1976), Players (1977), and Running Dog (1978). Despite a warm and hearty endorsement from reviewers, DeLillo failed to attract a popular audience, developing instead a small but devoted readership. However, beginning with The Names (1982), which received more prominent reviews than any of his other novels, DeLillo cultivated a wider audience as his repute steadily rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Consequently, he has won several prestigious awards, including the National Book Award for White Noise (1985) and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II (1991). In addition, both Libra and Underworld received nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2001 DeLillo published The Body Artist, his twelfth novel.
Mass media, government conspiracies, and the human costs of consumerism are common themes of DeLillo's fiction. His work presents a composite of contemporary American society verging on chaos. This chaos is resolved only by the benefits of language—the single human means DeLillo considers capable of imposing order on random events. This linguistic approach toward the resolution of the conflict informs each of DeLillo's works. Americana recounts the odyssey of a television-advertising executive who embarks on a cross-country journey, partly to escape an unsatisfying job and marriage but mainly to discover his identity. End Zone, DeLillo's first novel to attract substantial critical notice, chronicles one playing season in the life of a running back on the Logos College football team whose two consuming passions are football and nuclear war. Superficially a satire on the American obsession with the violence of organized sports, End Zone uses football as a metaphor for nuclear war, implying that the ultimate consequence of such organized violence is total annihilation. A parable for the counterculture of the 1960s, Great Jones Street centers on a rock star whose retreat from public performances accompanies his slide into drugs and paranoia as he joins a search for a potent new experimental narcotic. Loosely modeled on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Ratner's Star is esoteric science fiction in which the first half of the narrative is mirrored in reverse in the second half. The novel concerns a fourteen-year-old mathematics prodigy who decodes messages sent from space for a government agency that authorizes him to answer, rather than simply decipher, the alien message. Evocative portraits of contemporary street culture, both Players and Running Dog focus on hip city-dwellers trying to escape the feelings of ennui through espionage, pornography, and terrorist activities. In these novels, the protagonist's behavior connotes broader, spiritual symptoms of a hollowness in contemporary American society.
The Names is simultaneously an investigation of the enigmatic nature of language and an accurate characterization of contemporary American mores. The narrative follows the quest of a corporate risk analyst to discover the motives of a mysterious cult that ritualistically kills people whose names bear the same initials as the locations where the murders are committed. A novel about mortality, technology, and the numbing impact of the American media, White Noise highlights the obsessive fear of dying, a very common but rarely discussed phobia. This novel recounts the events in the life of a death-obsessed professor of Hitler Studies at a midwestern university and his wife, following an industrial accident that releases toxic insecticide into their neighborhood. After he is exposed to the toxin, the professor discovers that his wife is taking an illegal drug—which she committed adultery to procure—that eliminates the fear of death, so he desperately begins a search to get the drug for himself. Generally considered DeLillo's masterpiece, Libra combines historical and invented characters with events in the story of Lee Harvey Oswald and the circumstances leading to his assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The novel weaves two non-synchronous narratives—one tracing Oswald's life from childhood to death and the other detailing the plan of a right-wing conspiracy to murder the president—to illustrate how random factors can propel an individual into ignominious posterity. An exploration of nihilism and isolation in contemporary society, Mao II incorporates such actual events as the student demonstration in Beijing's Tiananmen square, the Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral in Teheran, and the mass wedding of Moonies at Yankee Stadium to addresses terrorism, international politics, and the writer's role in the world. In this novel a reclusive writer, unable to finish a novel since his retreat from the public eye twenty-odd years earlier, uncharacteristically lets a woman publish a photograph of him, and thereby becomes enmeshed in a Middle-Eastern hostage situation involving another writer. A sprawling epic of the people, places, and events that defined the second half of the twentieth century as “the nuclear age,” Underworld traces the rise and fall of the Cold War mentality from the perspective of a professional garbage collector. One of DeLillo's shorter works, The Body Artist explores the nature of time, the grieving process, and the aesthetics of crisis—all in typical relation to the effects of language on each—in a story about a young widow living in a rented seaside house who “channels” dead spirits. DeLillo's other works include several plays, ranging from Amazons (1980), a farce about the first woman to play in the National Hockey League and written by the pseudonymous Cleo Birdwell, to Valparaiso (1999), another farce about a traveler who mistakenly arrives in the Indiana town that shares its name with his intended destination in Chile.
Recognized as a masterful satirist with a linguist's appreciation of words, DeLillo is also considered a serious social critic whose black humor and apocalyptic vision have led many to dub him “the chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction.” Commentators consistently identify the clipped, sound-bite quality of his dialogue, the evocative moods of his descriptions of places and events, and the poignancy of his depiction of American-styled fear and paranoia as the hallmarks of DeLillo's fiction. Detractors often use these same elements to characterize his protagonists as mere left-wing mouthpieces, his dialogues as little more than rhetorical equivocation, and his plots as nothing better than contrivances. However, despite their ideological diversity, reviewers universally applaud DeLillo's fascination with the meaning and usage of words and his knack for explaining the metaphysical implications of everyday matters. As a result, his literary style often draws comparisons to other so-called “metafictionist” novelists, a quintessentially postmodern movement concerning experimental narrative techniques that counts Pynchon and Vonnegut among its practitioners. Since the mid-1990s, academic interest in DeLillo's writings has surged, causing an explosion of explication in a variety of contexts. Scholars have framed his themes in religious, feminist, or political terms, investigated his characterization in terms of psychological notions of identity and alienation, and studied his style for implications bearing on the art of narration, both past and future. A number of critics have detected in DeLillo's writings certain affinities with romantic or pastoral literature, in contrast to the general critical consensus, which hails DeLillo's work as seminally postmodern.
Americana (novel) 1971
End Zone (novel) 1972
Great Jones Street (novel) 1973
Ratner's Star (novel) 1976
Players (novel) 1977
Running Dog (novel) 1978
The Engineer of Moonlight (drama) 1979
Amazons (drama) 1980
The Names (novel) 1982
White Noise (novel) 1985
The Day Room (drama) 1986
Libra (novel) 1988
Mao II (novel) 1991
Underworld (novel) 1997
Valparaiso (drama) 1999
The Body Artist (novel) 2001
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SOURCE: “Myth, Magic and Dread: Reading Culture Religiously,” in Literature and Theology: An International Journal of Theory, Criticism and Culture, Vol. 9, No. 3, September, 1995, pp. 261–77.
[In the following essay, Salyer explicates the religious dimension of American cultural phenomenon represented in White Noise, contrasting the novel's mythical and mystical elements with those of Leslie Marmon Silko's novels Ceremony and Almanac of the Dead.]
I have been asked to reflect upon the values and assumptions that inform my teaching and writing as a professor working in the area of religion and literature. My first response is to thank David Jasper and the contributors to this issue for even raising the question. All too often those of us who are trained to analyze texts and arguments are the most blind to the assumptions that pervade our own work as individuals and scholars working within the academy. I am not going to make the argument that we can unpack our assumptions, lay them out on the table, and then consider our self-reflective work to be finished. My point is, rather, that we tend to turn our critical lenses outwardly much more eagerly and vigorously than we do inwardly. While any assumptions that we deign to expose will always be informed by deeper, antecedent assumptions, the process of looking inward is valuable, even necessary I would argue, if we are to be critics in the...
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SOURCE: “For Whom Bell Tolls: Don DeLillo's Americana,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXVII, No. 4, Winter, 1996, pp. 602–19.
[In the following essay, Cowart analyzes the oedipal dimension of Americana, focusing on the novel's narrator in terms of postmodern concepts of identity and alienation.]
Don DeLillo’s 1971 novel Americana, his first, represents a rethinking of the identity or alienation theme that had figured with particular prominence in the quarter century after the close of World War II. The theme persists in DeLillo, but the self becomes even more provisional. The changing social conditions and imploding belief systems that alienate a Meursault, a Holden Caulfield, or a Binx Bolling do not constitute so absolute an epistemic rupture as the gathering recognition—backed up by post-Freudian psychology—that the old stable ego has become permanently unmoored. Whether or not he would embrace Lacanian formulations of psychological reality, DeLillo seems fully to recognize the tenuousness of all “subject positions.” He knows that postmodern identity is not something temporarily eclipsed, something ultimately recoverable. DeLillo characters cannot, like Hemingway’s Nick Adams, fish the Big Two-Hearted to put themselves back together. Thus David Bell, the narrator of Americana remains for the reader a slippery, insubstantial personality—even though he...
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SOURCE: “The Romatic Metaphysics of Don DeLillo,” in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXVII, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 258–77.
[In the following essay, Maltby identifies Romantic qualities of the “visionary moment” in White Noise, The Names, and Libra, comparing those qualities to the critical consensus that characterizes DeLillo's works as quintessentially postmodern writing.]
What is the postmodern response to the truth claims traditionally made on behalf of visionary moments? By “visionary moment,” I mean that flash of insight or sudden revelation which critically raises the level of spiritual or self-awareness of a fictional character. It is a mode of cognition typically represented as bypassing rational thought processes and attaining a “higher” or redemptive order of knowledge (gnosis). There are, conceivably, three types of postmodern response which merit attention here.
First, in recognition of the special role literature itself has played in establishing the credibility of visionary moments, postmodern writers might draw on the resources of metafiction to parodically “lay bare” the essentially literary nature of such moments. Baldly stated, the visionary moment could be exposed as a literary convention, that is, a concept that owes more to the practice of organizing narratives around a sudden illumination (as in, say, the narratives of...
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SOURCE: “Consuming Narratives: Don DeLillo and the ‘Lethal’ Reading,” in The Journal of Narrative Technique, Vol. 27, No. 2, Spring, 1997, pp. 190–206.
[In the following essay, Moraru explores the ways DeLillo's novels thematize the contemporary production and reception of narrative art, focusing on readers' “negative” or “distorted” responses to the texts.]
He didn’t really think he would have ended among the dead, injured or missing. He was already injured and missing. As for death, he no longer thought he would see it come from the muzzle of a gun or any other instrument designed to be lethal … Shot by someone. Not a thief or deer hunter or highway sniper but some dedicated reader.
(DeLillo, Mao II 196)
This excerpt from DeLillo’s 1991 novel sets forth a poignant critique of the social response to narratives in an age that has integrated “aesthetic production” into “commodity production” (Jameson 4). Along with a whole series of contemporary writers from, say, Paul Auster to Mark Leyner, DeLillo trades upon the predicament of narrative representation, showing how cultural objects in general and stories in particular are fetishized in the public arena. The “fate of narrative” in our time, DeLillo suggests, reflects the “clumsy transposition of art into the sphere of consumption”...
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SOURCE: “Romanticism and the Postmodern Novel: Three Scenes from Don DeLillo's White Noise,” in English Language Notes, Vol. XXV, No. 1, September, 1997, pp. 38–48.
[In the following essay, Caton posits that DeLillo's characterization of Jack Gladney in White Noise epitomizes Romantic sensibilities despite the postmodern tenor of the novel’s themes.]
A critical exploration of romanticism in Don DeLillo’s eighth novel White Noise may initially seem misguided or odd.1 And yet, some of the values and topics commonly associated with popular notions of romanticism, like sympathy, unity, authenticity, and an interest in the “unknown,” do emerge in this supposedly postmodern novel. They emerge not from overarching themes but rather from the common thoughts and desires associated with the novel’s viewpoint character, Jack Gladney. By judging such characterization as romantic, that is, supportive of these broad transhistorical values, I find a deeply qualified postmodernism within White Noise.
Granted, in spite of these observations, a first response to DeLillo’s fiction is probably not romantic; after all, his novels frequently show contemporary society struggling with a nostalgic palimpsest of old-fashion values that have been layered over by the textual, semiotic materialism of marketing, commodification, and computer codes. Cited as...
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SOURCE: “DeLillo’s Surrogate Believers,” in Commonweal, Vol. 124, No. 19, November 7, 1997, pp. 19–22.
[In the following review, Elie highlights the religious connotations of the language, themes, and imagery of Underworld.]
The reviewers of Don DeLillo’s eleven novels have called him many things: a “systems novelist,” the chief shaman of the “paranoid school of American fiction,” a cultural critic who works in the form of the novel. Now he is being called one of the immortals. In the New York Times Book Review, Martin Amis, ducking the question about the new book, put DeLillo up where serious readers have placed him for years. “While Underworld may or may not be a great novel,” Amis wrote, “there is no doubt that it renders DeLillo a great novelist.”
No one as far as I know has called DeLillo a religious writer. Nevertheless, religious language, themes, and imagery are thick on the ground in his work. His last few novels directly address the role of faith in contemporary life. In particular, he has dramatized the notion that skeptical moderns look with a kind of gratitude to religious people, who serve as surrogate believers, keeping open the possibility of belief for those who themselves cannot believe.
DeLillo also has described the nature of fiction in religious terms. Fiction requires a kind of belief from the reader and...
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SOURCE: A review of Underworld, in National Review, Vol. 49, No. 22, November 24, 1997, pp. 60–61.
[In the following review, Gardner summarizes the plot and themes of Underworld, faulting the scope and length of the novel.]
The problem with the New York Mets is that, instead of just trying to get to first base, which is a worthy and attainable goal, they always go for the home run and all too often strike out. The problem with much recent American fiction is that, instead of crafting a simple and compelling tale, many of our most respected authors aspire to write the Great American Novel—and they fall on their faces.
This baseball analogy is apt in the context of Don DeLillo’s latest novel, which begins at a baseball game and is shot through with meditations on our national pastime. Like his friend Thomas Pynchon, Mr. DeLillo has just come out with an eight-hundred-page book which, if we are to believe the publicists, is the last word on the American, if not the human, condition. But whereas Pynchon produced in Mason & Dixon what can only be called the Lousy American Novel, Don DeLillo’s Underworld turns out to be the So-So American Novel. This status is itself no mean achievement, because, as I wrote in reviewing Pynchon’s latest book (NR, June 30), the thicker the novel, the more pointless the writing and the story tend to become. This...
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SOURCE: “Don DeLillo’s Postmodern Pastoral,” in Reading the Earth: New Directions in the Study of Literature and Environment, edited by Michael P. Branch, Rochelle Johnson, Daniel Patterson, and Scott Slovic, University of Idaho Press, 1998, pp. 235–46.
[In the following essay, Phillips characterizes White Noise as a “postmodern pastoral,” studying the novel's representation of the natural world in general and the rural American landscape in particular.]
A decade after its publication, the contribution of Don DeLillo’s White Noise to our understanding of postmodern cultural conditions has been thoroughly examined by literary critics (see, for example, the two volumes of essays on DeLillo’s work edited by Frank Lentricchia). The novel has been mined for statements like “Talk is radio,” “Everything’s a car,” “Everything was on TV last night,” and “We are here to simulate”—statements that critics, attuned to our culture’s dependence on artifice and its habit of commodifying “everything,” immediately recognize as postmodern slogans. What has been less often noticed, and less thoroughly commented on, is DeLillo’s portrait of the way in which postmodernity also entails the devastation of the natural world.
Frank Lentricchia, in his introduction to the New Essays on White Noise, has pointed out that “The central event of the...
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SOURCE: “Shots Heard 'round the World,” in American Book Review, Vol. 19, No. 2, January, 1998, pp. 20, 22.
[In the following review, McLaughlin assesses the narrative structure of Underworld, outlining combinations and juxtapositions of characters, historical events, and ideas that comprise the novel.]
We seem to be in a new age of big postmodern novels: Gass’s The Tunnel; Wallace’s Infinite Jest; Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon; and now Don DeLillo’s ambitious exploration of the second half of the American Century. Underworld. And Underworld is a big novel: big in its cast of characters, big in its historical sweep, big in its themes—baseball, the cold war, the uses and abuses of the past, waste in all its forms. It’s big, too, in what it accomplishes. Underworld masterfully brings together its characters, historical events, and ideas, putting them in surprising and challenging combinations and juxtapositions as a way of exploring the nature of the society we have created and the possibilities for living in it.
Underworld is structured in two intersecting narrative flows, one from the past into the present, the other from the present into the past. The first begins in the brilliant prologue, which describes the famous October 3, 1951, playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, the game...
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SOURCE: “Afterthoughts on Don DeLillo's Underworld,” in Raritan, Vol. 17, No. 4, Spring, 1998, pp. 48–71.
[In the following review, Tanner faults DeLillo for neglecting the aesthetics of narrative art in favor of those of sensationalistic journalism in Underworld.]
“The true underground is where the power flows. That’s the best-kept secret of our time. …The presidents and prime ministers are the ones who make the underground deals and speak the true underground idiom. The corporations. The military. The banks. This is the underground network. This is where it happens. Power flows under the surface, far beneath the level you and I live on. This is where the laws are broken, way down under, far beneath the speed freaks and cutters of smack.”
—Great Jones Street
“All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”
Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it mean?
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SOURCE: “‘Refuse Heaped Many Stories High’: DeLillo, Dirt, and Disorder,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter, 1999, pp. 987–1006.
[In the following essay, Helyer analyzes the meaning of the “waste” metaphor in Underworld in relation to patriarchal ideals of masculine cultural authority.]
Don DeLillo’s Underworld explores boundaries, particularly the thin dividing line between what is considered waste product and what is not. Any discussion about what constitutes dirt and abjection leads to questions about concepts of “the body” and consequently gender-specific identity. The narrative’s relentless revelation of borders as fluctuating, rather than fixed, demonstrates the problems, not only of disposing of waste, but of identifying waste in the first place. Although this difficulty affects all identities, it is acutely felt by the classic narrative hero, who embodies the patriarchal masculine ideal of cultural authority. Such authority encompasses an inherent potency (even omnipotence), a taste for adventure, bravery, and resourcefulness. Nick Shay, DeLillo’s main protagonist, is a professional waste handler and serves as a jarring reminder that the hero contemporary society yearns for does not exist.
As the ideal “male body,” the “Hero” should consist of both perfect form and morality, with a certain clean wholeness that...
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SOURCE: “‘What About a Problem That Doesn't Have a Solution?’: Stone's A Flag for Sunrise, DeLillo's Mao II, and the Politics of Political Fiction,” in Critique, Vol. 40, No. 3, Spring, 1999, pp. 215–29.
[In the following essay, Bull identifies the conventions of “a literature of impasse” in Mao II and Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise, highlighting the political implications of both narratives.]
The political novel, says Irving Howe, is a work of fiction alive with the “internal tensions” born of abstract ideologies colliding with “representations of human behavior and feeling” (20)—and since World War II, by his estimation, such fiction has only been produced outside the West (254). In his 1986 epilogue to Politics and the Novel. Howe describes authors such as V. S. Naipaul, Nadine Gordimer, and Milan Kundera—among others—as creators of “a literature of blockage, a literature of impasse” (252) that offers “no way out of the political dilemmas with which they end their books.” He praises their ability to document “utterly intractable” circumstances while pointedly refusing to accept the totalist stances propounded by the subject of so many of their novels (253–54).
I argue that Howe’s definition underestimates recent attempts by American novelists to create political fictions—that is, that writers such as...
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SOURCE: “The Hard Subjects,” in Hudson Review, Vol. 52, No. 2, Summer, 1999, pp. 285–88.
[In the following excerpt, Loughery pans Valparaiso.]
Don DeLillo’s Valparaiso concerns a man who buys a plane ticket to Valparaiso, Indiana, and ends up in Valparaiso, Chile. This mildly amusing idea might have yielded a good light comedy. It is certainly plausible; I recall some years ago a couple intending to go to Panama City, Panama, ending up in Panama City, Florida, just as a hurricane hit, stranding them there for days. This became a running joke in Florida, where the northern Gulf Coast is referred to as “the redneck Riviera.”
Valparaiso, however, is no comedy, but a hyperserious social problem play, focussing on how the hero’s misadventure is treated in the press and on television. Brustein, in a program note, maintains that the play “exposes the media’s ravenous invasion of privacy,” but this is false. The hero, Michael Majeski, wants to be interviewed. He gives up his job, signs autographs, even has a Web site. The reporters and interviewers in the play are often bored with him (as are we) and his silly escapade, and if anything are reluctant to pry. Everything is seen from Majeski’s point of view, with nothing much about the inner workings of the media.
Nevertheless, by focussing on his hero’s obsession with achieving...
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Begley, Adam. “Don DeLillo: Americana, Mao II, and Underworld.” Southwest Review 82, No. 4 (1997): 478-505.
Extensively reviews Americana, Mao II, and Underworld, detailing significant thematic and stylistic developments in DeLillo's career.
Dee, Johnathan: “The Reanimators: On the Art of Literary Graverobbing.” Harper's Magazine 298, No. 1789 (June 1999): 76-84.
Assesses Libra as a form of “anti-history.”
DeLillo, Don with Adam Begley. “Don DeLillo: An Interview.” Paris Review 35, No. 128 (Fall 1993): 274-306.
An interview, originally conducted in late 1992, where DeLillo discusses the early beginnings of his writing career, his present writing habits and practices, a range of thematic and character developments in his major works, and the relation between his fiction and various American cultural phenomena.
Edmundson, Mark. “Not Flat, Not Round, Not There: Don DeLillo's Novel Characters.” Yale Review 83, No. 2 (April 1995): 107-124.
In this essay, Edmundson examines the revisions of conventional ways of representing characters in Mao II, Libra, and White Noise in terms of contemporary notions of self-identity.
Engles, Tim. “‘Who Are You,...
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