(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ratner’s Star is a fantastic narrative in two parts built around an enticing plot idea. In part 1, “Adventures: Field Experiment Number One,” Billy Twillig is summoned to a Connecticut think tank, the School of Mathematics of the Center for the Refinement of Ideational Structures. Billy is a boy genius, a fourteen-year-old winner of the first Nobel Prize in Mathematics who has done brilliant work with the “zorg,” a kind of number but a “useless” one. The center occupies a huge cycloid—architecturally imaginative but impossible to visualize. Billy is summoned to the center to decode a mysterious radio signal that scientists believe is coming from a planet orbiting Ratner’s star. The signal is fourteen pulses, gap, twenty-eight pulses, gap, fifty-seven pulses.

The signal has already been pondered at length by many of the great gurus of mathematics. The great mathematician Endor, for example, spent weeks on the pattern but ended up by going to live in a hole in the ground—a typical DeLillo loser who literally goes to earth. When Billy finds him in his burrow, Endor is subsisting on plants and worms. The other scholars who study the strange pulses are given some of the looniest of all DeLillo’s loony characterizations: Peregrine Fitzroy-Tapps is one of the more amusing examples, hailing as he does from Crutchly-on-Podge, pronounced Croaking-on-Pidgett, a hamlet near Muttons Cobb, spelled Maternity St. Colbert.

Another absurd pedant is Gerald Pence, a student of myths who dresses in “old khaki shorts, bark sandals, and a string headband ornamented with eucalyptus nuts.” Pence blathers on about the occult in a rambling lecture that features a white-haired aborigine hidden beneath a white canvas on a miniature flatcar. The mystery beneath the canvas is not disclosed even when the canvas-shrouded creature moans and whirls, finally turning inside out before subsiding into a quiet heap.

Other incredibly named characters include a famous obstetrician, Hoy Hing Toy, who once delivered a baby and ate the placenta in “five huge gulps.” Elux Truxl identifies his name as a mere “nom de nom,” “the sound identity I have assigned to my nom.” Elux is a con man from Honduras who heads a cartel...

(The entire section is 921 words.)