Don DeLillo DeLillo, Don (Vol. 8) - Essay

DeLillo, Don (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

DeLillo, Don 1936–

DeLillo is an American novelist. In 1971 he made an auspicious debut with Americana, followed the next year by End Zone, a book ostensibly about football but in reality concerned with the growing corruption of language and life in America. Now, several novels later, DeLillo is gaining recognition as the serious, often brilliant writer promised by his first two novels.

It's pretty clear from the outset [of End Zone] that Don DeLillo's college football players are something more than your run-of-the-mill, helmeted and padded Neanderthals with talent for little more than running into each other at full tilt. American football is a confusing business, it's true, but the players in End Zone make claims for the game which extend way beyond bewildering numerical chants:

"Our uniforms are green and white", he said. "The field itself is green and white—grass and chalk markings. We melt into our environment. We are doubled in the primitive mirror."

Each of the men in the Lagos College team (anyone who cares to seek for significance in the name is welcome to do so) appears to be suffering some sort of identity crisis: not the least among them being Gary Harkness, whose view of football as a microcosm of the holocaust dominates the novel. Not that Mr. DeLillo restricts the analogies to matters of violence, logistics and partisan pride; the real comparison, it seems, lies in the abstruse terminologies: what Gary refers to as "elegant gibberish"….

All in all, the parallels seem self-defeatingly tenuous, with the attempts to mythologize the game sounding like an academic's apologia for leaving the library ("The spectator's pleasure, when not derived from the action itself, evolves from a notion of the game's unique organic nature"). The author's insistence on characterizing the rest of the cast as an odd lot does little to support the analogies he draws from their on-field activites. One of the players, Anatole Bloomberg, tells how he is oppressed by his name—"It was my name that caused the trouble, the Europeaness of my name. Its Europicity. And there was another thing. Some names possess a smell. I didn't like the way my name smelled. It was like a hallway in a tenement where lots of Bulgarians live"—and, paradoxically, the more we hear the less believable Bloomberg becomes. The voice is not his; he is a numeral in the author's tactical play.

It is significant, perhaps, that the book is most successful and most enjoyable when the narrative is forced to be straight about football and characters alike…. (p. 1045)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 14, 1973.

Once it was thought fashionable, particularly among writers of the Bloomsbury persuasion, to condescend to American literature. How vigorous it is, and yet inelegant. How magnificent its country energy, yet its language lacks breeding…. Now all has changed: among serious writers of American fiction mandarin is the most admired style. The reader is confronted with cleverness, skittering symbols, pockets of amiable pedantry, a language so musical that he can almost sing the paragraphs. Plots have been jettisoned for a theme-and-variations effect—a story that extends but does not progress. Characters have been dumped with the result that all the voices in the story echo but one voice—the author's.

The trouble with mandarin writing is not that it hasn't produced good fiction—it has produced some of our best—but that it is by definition an elite line of work, as difficult to perform well as it is tempting to imitate. Our very best mandarins are stalked by talented disciples: Donald Barthelme by Robert Coover, Thomas Pynchon by Don DeLillo. I have no doubt at all that if we hadn't had "V" and "Gravity's Rainbow" we would not now have "Ratner's Star." (p. 90)

To be really disappointing a novel cannot be really bad. What's needed is a developing tension between the author's talent and reader's hopes on the one hand and the author's performance and reader's frustration on the other. "Ratner's Star" provides such exquisite tension in large measure. DeLillo knows how to write brilliantly, even movingly, but he doesn't know when he's writing dully, doesn't know when his book has started to die in his typewriter. "Ratner's Star" is twice too long; as its terminal signs (failing inspiration, metastasis of exhausted ideas and dialogue) progress in the second half it becomes virtually unbearable. There are too many cartoon characters, too many familiar situations and too much talk without insight, without any real vision at all.

Part of this failing may come from running too closely in Pynchon's tracks (the story even has a mysterious recurring symbol, a boomerang, embarrassingly like Pynchon's V's and rockets), part from the difficulties of writing satire in an ambiguous age. What's gone wrong with much of our recent satire is that it hasn't changed at all in the past fifteen years, and our society has—or at least the way we think about society has changed. We need to rethink what's actually grotesque in our society and to that end I propose a temporary moratorium on such stock figures as life-denying scientists, mad generals, obsessive Jews with New York accents, evil psychoanalysts, sane lunatics, lecherous ministers. We can revive them in a few decades with their energy restored from lying fallow. (pp. 90, 93)

Peter S. Prescott, "Mandarin's Apprentice," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), June 7, 1976, pp. 90, 93.

There is no easy way to describe Ratner's Star, a cheerfully apocalyptic novel. Imagine Alice in Wonderland set at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies….

DeLillo has an ear for specialized language, and the satirical possibilities therein, that most novelists should be willing to kill for….

DeLillo parodies brilliantly and ruthlessly the cult of science, its heartlessness, its private languages, its barren self-love…. The book is, in the end, as elegantly meaningless as a mathematical abstraction, though it is considerably more unnerving and far more entertaining. (p. 86)

Amanda Heller, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1976 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), August, 1976.

With each day's new terrorist event—in Entebbe or Wall Street or mid-town Manhattan—it becomes more natural that terrorists start showing up as prototypical figures in novels; but in novels they have their uses. They replace the car crash as a means of violent and sudden death, replace psychiatrists and holymen as spokesmen of authority. Like the fools in Shakespeare they are satirical; like clowns, with their air of comic befuddlement, they call attention to the significance of things whose significance we had missed. Until their comeback, some of their powers—for instance, the power to effect retributive justice—had been lost to authors. Perhaps they are the only moral agents anyone can believe in now.

Still, nobody thanks a moralist, as Don DeLillo must know. His brilliant earlier books have been much praised but not so much read, perhaps because they deal with deeply shocking things about America that people would rather not face. "End Zone" (1972) connects football and nuclear warfare; "Ratner's Star" (1976) plays with science and science fiction; and "Great Jones Street" (1973) looks at rock music, nihilism and urban decay.

In "Players"… DeLillo wittily deploys terrorists to explore all the secret places in contemporary sensibility. In the prologue, passengers standing in the piano bar of an airplane in flight are watching a film of hippie marauders shooting and hacking to death a band of golfers…. The passengers laugh, cheer, clap. It is the terrorists whom they applaud. "To the glamour of revolutionary violence," remarks the author, "to the secret longing it evokes in the most docile soul, the piano's shiny tinkle brings an irony too apt to be ignored." This elegant, highly finished novel does not shrink from suggesting the complicity of Americans with the terrorists they deplore.

Though they give themselves timely airs, novels have never been very good at looking at what's going on in the world; the workbags of novelists are weighted with tricks for avoiding it. (p. 1)

[Nostalgia], one of DeLillo's many targets, is an implicit comment on the present, but the present gets lost in a welter of antimacassars. A sense of the present also gets lost in novels in the fashionable confessional mode, which, by funneling life through the mesh of private sensibility, do succeed in reducing it to manageable literary proportions but sacrifice any authentic social vision to idiosyncrasy and richness of characterization…. Not that novels are obliged to look grandly at the whole state of things, but it is significant how few try. It is a measure of DeLillo's bravura that he tries, and a measure of his art that, for all his deceptive simplicity, even plainness, he succeeds.

"Players" is about two Everymen, Pammy and Lyle Wynant, a fun New York professional couple. Since Freud, we've been used to the way novelists normally present a character: looks normal, is secretly strange and individual. In the first of the many inversions of appearance and reality that structure the book, Pammy and Lyle look interesting and seem to do interesting things, but do not interest themselves. The richness is only superficial. Put another way, the novel is not a romantic one about how they don't get along in society, but how they are of society and their normality is what we hate to recognize. The tone is comic; the style is Candid Camera. Their smallest gestures are closely observed: "Lyle checked his pockets for change, keys, wallet, cigarettes, pen and memo pad. He did this six or seven times a day, absently, his hand merely skimming over trousers and jacket." We hear not their impassioned but their odd bits of conversation, the ones they actually transact life with: "Goody, cheddar." "What's these?" "Brandy snaps." "Triffic." "Look out." "No you push me, you." Their voices are just distinguishable: Lyle is elaborate, ironic; Pammy credulous. (pp. 1, 16)

DeLillo abandons the ordinary assumption of fiction that action is caused by character and character by experience, some of which, at least, it's the author's duty to suggest. Pammy and Lyle have no history; they are without pasts, were never children, come from nowhere…. You experience the existence of Pammy and Lyle as though they were the subjects of a photo-realist painting, without curiosity or quarrel, the way the world of others is always experienced by the self. Pammy and Lyle: What made them like this? They are like this. Society disrupts the cherished relation of cause and effect dominated in fiction by the family; DeLillo suggests that the Zeitgeist may count for more than mother love….

What's clear in DeLillo's view is that repression is what people (Lyle and Pammy) seek. It's not that the structures of existing society are not repressive, but that these structures are not felt. Society is perceived as a void, an unmanageable chaos in which people must make their own order….

Few recent novels have found so admirably congruent a form for their subject. The tight, carefully balanced structure, recapitulating the book's idea of people's appetite for boundaries, might have seemed too rigid to contain the unruly, even violent, strangely comic events. Instead, it suggests the ruthless tendency of people to establish order over chaos…. DeLillo's attention to detail is masterful. He suggests that though freedom is what people ostensibly want, too naïve a definition of it brings a reaction as frightening as chaos. This is not a fashionable idea, but DeLillo convinces you that it is true. The discoveries of artists do not always—perhaps seldom—corroborate political fashions. But the wit, elegance and economy of Don DeLillo's art are equal to the bitter clarity of his perceptions. (p. 16)

Diane Johnson, "Beyond Radical Chic," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 4, 1977, pp. 1, 16.