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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.)
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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 populate DeLillo's fictional worlds speak as learned metaphysicians. (p. 6)
DeLillo is concerned less with creating verisimilitude than with allowing his characters' deepest being to speak directly to the reader. DeLillo's novels are also characterized by wacky off-beat humor, by verbal virtuosity that startles and delights and often puzzles, and by multiple digressions into realms of quirky erudition or profound wisdom. The novels are a little like jigsaw puzzles assembled on a card table that is bumped—the pieces are all there but they do not seem to fit neatly together. Such is their author's intention; in the concluding novel of the quartet, Ratner's Star, a character speaks about some imagined contemporary writers:
There's a whole class of writers who don't want their books to be read. This to some extent explains their crazed prose. To express what is expressible isn't why you write if you're in this class of writers. To be understood is faintly embarrassing. What you want to express is the violence of your desire not to be read. The friction of audiences is what drives writers crazy. These people are going to read what you write. The more they understand, the crazier you get. You can't let them know what you're writing about. Once they know, you're finished. If you're in this class, what you have to do is either not publish or make absolutely sure your work leaves readers strewn along the margins.
DeLillo, of course, is teasing his audience here, but the reader, occasionally baffled by a particularly abstract excursion into seemingly irrelevant metaphysics, senses that the author is also at times purposely evasive—the center of the novels is not always clearly defined, but a lot of fun and wisdom is to be found along the margins. (pp. 6-7)
The quest of the soul for meaning that was begun in Americana, continued in End...
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Zone and Great Jones Street, and seemingly concluded in Ratner's Star is not a once-only progression on a linear course from confusion to enlightenment, but one completion of the cycle of human seeking. DeLillo offers no final answers; the importance to him is not the completion of the cycle, but the vision of reality which the process reveals. (p. 10)
The basic plot in each of DeLillo's four books is simple and spare; it is in the tangential excursions that his main ideas emerge, and the novels show remarkable unanimity in their primary concerns. The settings of the four novels is their first similarity, typified by Gary Harkness's description of the landscape in End Zone:
We were in the middle of the middle of no-where, that terrain so flat and bare, suggestive of the end of recorded time, a splendid sense of remoteness firing my soul. It was easy to feel that back up there, where men spoke the name of civilization in wistful tones, I was wanted for some terrible crime….
The "end zone" of [DeLillo's second novel] is thus the setting of the novel and of the other novels, too: not only the goal of the running back in a football game, but the human condition at the outer extremity of existence, a place where the world is on the verge of disintegration, and the characters teeter between genius and madness. (pp. 10-11)
In this region of end zones that DeLillo describes, characters struggle for order and meaning as their world moves inexorably toward chaos. DeLillo's men and women fight the natural law of entropy, while human violence hastens its inevitable consequences. (p. 11)
The characters in all four novels … perceive the world about them rushing toward oblivion, see order, rationality, and meaning increasingly elusive, and recognize their only hope to retard such disintegration in Thoreau's advice to simplify. David Bell observes that visionaries confront the "large madness" with purity of intention and simplicity; the rest face only complexity. But simplicity has its varieties: for the dropouts David encounters on the Indian reservation simplicity means conformity and obliteration of individual consciousness; for Americans, in general, it means the destruction of everything distinctive—forests, big red barns, colonial inns, snug little railroad depots—and their replacement with tasteless, identical structures. Even in a perverse drive toward uniformity, however, lies the possibility of regeneration, which DeLillo calls our American "asceticism," for asceticism too can be a ritual preparation for action. Gary Harkness embraces football because it is primitive, it harks back to "ancient warriorship," it is built on pain and discipline, and it epitomizes simplicity: "Existence without anxiety. Happiness. Know your body. Understanding the real needs of man."… His intention is not to obliterate uniqueness but to reestablish contact with the basic human values and virtues that are threatened by a violent and over-technologized society. Bucky Wunderlick's goal is similar when he says, "Least is best"; he attempts to "minimize," and to retreat to his room to test the depths of silence. Robert Pirsig observes that insight comes when monotony and boredom are accepted; this commitment Bucky makes as he awaits the inspiration to act. In Ratner's Star, too, Chester Greylag Dent chooses to live on the bottom of the ocean, in "the quietest place on earth," because, as he says, "True greatness always involves a period of complete withdrawal."… The appeal of mathematics itself is its simplicity; in a world of complexity, mathematics makes sense…. (p. 12)
The importance of mathematics is that it is a language without the ambiguities, imprecision, and distortions of verbal language, and it is thus considered in Ratner's Star as a possible solution to perhaps the most prominent issue in all four of the novels—the necessity of remaking language. The dislocation of characters from an ordered and meaningful center is consistently expressed in terms of the failure of language. (p. 13)
Final solutions, ultimate meanings are … not available to mankind, and the realization of this inescapable fact lies behind DeLillo's dominant attitude towards life. Life is a game, as Hemingway said, and writing fiction is a particular game within that larger game. "Game" is a broad category, and many kinds of games occur in DeLillo's fiction. Sexual play is described in Americana as "true public sport, a contest in which spectacle eclipsed outcome, winner gave nothing."… In the same novel "playing a game" is equated with consciously confusing others with teasing, unfathomable remarks. Games can also be profoundly serious: David Bell's father describes the advertising business as "a crap game in an alley for six million bucks"; the losers of the game can lose everything. David himself played dangerous sports in college—with sports cars, motorcycles, and motorboats—in which the closeness of death provided the satisfaction, and after college he plays tennis to assert his superiority over his opponents. (p. 14)
Besides the games characters play—for amusement, for domination, for self-fulfillment, or for their own sake—DeLillo's fiction is also suffused with a spirit of play itself or game-consciousness that similarly characterizes the fiction of John Barth and Robert Coover. In Ratner's Star Robert Softly introduces his colleagues to a game called halfball—similar to baseball except that runs, hits, and errors all count in the final score. A team can add to its total by committing errors, but those same errors can also contribute to the other team's score: "The errormaker must balance the gains he is making in his error column against the gains he is allowing the other player to make in the run column."… With slight alterations, the rules of halfball can describe DeLillo's fictional technique, for he tests limits and must weight consequences, too. No errormaker, DeLillo challenges his readers with copious digressions and excursions along the tangents of his topics. The pleasures of his novels lie largely in those digressions, but if the reader becomes completely disoriented, the author has digressed too far, and the gain is negated by a greater loss. To risk nothing is unsatisfying—Great Jones Street is the least impressive of the novels, the least risky, and the least game-like. To risk too much is self-defeating, however—Ratner's Star occasionally leaves the reader grasping for a center that eludes his outstretched mind. The most successful of the novels is End Zone, for reasons closely tied to the subject of the book, football. (p. 15)
[End Zone is] representative of the [other novels] in its concerns for simplicity, language, and violence. To consider DeLillo's major themes and his skill in handling them, one must fully observe them in the context of a single novel…. [The characters] live their daily existence at the extreme limit of human experience, psychologically and intellectually as well as physically. In this end zone of the mind, life is simplified; the characters confront the basic determinants of their existence in an effort to prevent their own surrender to chaos. (p. 16)
End Zone is, above all else, a novel about language, the center of man's striving for, and deflection from, order and meaning.
That the novel is explicitly about language is hinted on the very first page when DeLillo playfully warns the reader, "double metaphor coming up." Like his contemporaries William Gass, Robert Coover, and John Barth, he may be termed a "metafictionist"; like these writers, he is strongly aware of the nature of language and makes language itself, and the process of using language, his themes. DeLillo's consciousness of the reality of words as things is obvious at every stage in the novel….
A distinct play element is evident in DeLillo's use of language. Many words are spoken for their own sake, for their feel in the mouth of the speaker, for the harmony of their sounds, and for their originality. The book is filled with splendid vulgarity…. (p. 17)
But playfulness and the imaginative pleasures of language are not its only function in the novel. Words often bear great power in and of themselves. The name of the football team at Logos College is changed from Cactus Wrens to Screaming Eagles—to the obvious improvement of its hostile image. Players have their "private sounds," their "huh huh huh" or "awright, awright, awright," or "we hit, we hit" that become magic incantations producing high emotional intensity. Words like "queer," "relationship," and all "i-z-e words" are weighted with great significance for the characters, even when not specifically associated with any object or event. (p. 18)
DeLillo's primary intention, however, moves beyond his assertion of the creative power of the word to a judgment of language as an inadequate basis for our relationship to the objective world. Philosophers of language have taken two approaches to the limitations of language: some feel that language itself is inadequate by reason of its vagueness, unexplicitness, ambiguity, context-dependence, and misleadingness; and others hold that ordinary language is perfectly suitable, and that the mischief lies in deviating from ordinary language without providing any way of attaching sense to the deviation. DeLillo shares both skepticisms. The failure of ordinary language is manifested by the cliches that proliferate throughout the novel. The author's use of them is adroit and always with a purpose: he satirizes the cliche, exploits its meaninglessness, contrasts it to vital and significant language, revitalizes it with a skillful twist, or demonstrates how it cheapens experience and can lead to fraudulent action. The world of football is wonderfully appropriate as an arena for dissecting cliches, for no language is so fraught with them as sports jargon. DeLillo proves that even in sports reporting such overused terminology can be avoided by a sufficiently fertile imagination. Part Two of the novel, for instance, contains a stunning description of a football game and has more vitality than any such account in other literature or journalism. In details throughout the rest of the novel the author is equally original; for example, when Gary says of one of his teammates, "He's the defensive captain. He captains the defense," he turns an innocuous but essentially unresonant phrase into a metaphor for the defensive team as ship or military unit. He does not change the connotations of "defensive captain" but rather restores its original meaning. DeLillo's comic touch is nearly perfect in his undercutting of cliches. When Gary, for example, complains of the "ambiguity of the whole business," he could not possibly be more ambiguous himself.
If language is desensitized by overuse, attempts to recreate language are often equally inadequate. The primary examples DeLillo uses for the abuse of language are the various jargons that dominate a technological society. The terminologies of business, electrical engineering, game theory, abstract philosophy, militarization, and space technology are no more intelligible to the mass of mankind than is the complex jargon of football…. One of the novel's characters includes in his list of barriers to communication "that of multiple definitions" and "that of terminologies which are untranslatable." Both of these failures are demonstrated on the football field where the players themselves do not understand the jargon, where one coach talks of "a planning procedures approach whereby we neutralize the defense," and another only screams, "I want you to bust ass out there today." Neither coach communicates to his players how the job is actually to be done. (pp. 18-19)
Many writers have emphasized the destructive violence of football; DeLillo has more insightfully recognized the truer meaning of the sport. Football celebrates the ability of men to transcend the essential violence of existence, to create beauty where none seems possible…. Football in End Zone is the metaphor for positive violence, the kind of "violence" needed to recreate language and thus a new perception of life. Such a regeneration is to be achieved by simplifying existence and harking back to primitive origins in order to recover the primal uses of language. The metaphor for the negative violence that overwhelms such possibility is war. (p. 20)
Football is an "illusion that order is possible," and language has sustained the same illusion. To change history and correct the illusion, one must first change language. DeLillo attempts to make the change on a small scale in his novel, but writers conscious of the need for a new language face a paradoxical problem. If language patterns inherited at birth dictate the patterns of a man's actions, how can a writer change those patterns through the medium of his inherited language? As Tony Tanner observes: "Any writer has to struggle with existing language which is perpetually tending to rigidify in old formulations and he must constantly assert his own patterning powers without at the same time becoming imprisoned in them. That DeLillo is conscious of the problem is clear in the novel's ambiguous conclusion. The final paragraph reads:
In my room at five o'clock the next morning I drank half a cup of lukewarm water. It was the last of food or drink I would take for many days. High fevers burned a thin straight channel through my brain. In the end they had to carry me to the infirmary and feed me through plastic tubes….
The ending can be viewed as a vision of defeat—admission that the course of history is impossible to alter because the course of language is too firmly imbedded in our being. We are doomed to remain "a nation devoted to human xerography." The concluding incident can also be seen as a retreat into the most extreme simplicity of existence, to a complete voiding of old forms, to an asceticism from which Gary can begin to generate something new. It can be a Phoenix image of positive regenerative violence.
DeLillo does not attempt to solve the paradox with an easy answer…. [His] failure to finish his story indicates his own lack of clear solutions, but he has made the reader aware throughout the novel of the primacy of language and the need for using it in an original manner. His novel itself is at least a tentative step toward reconstructing language into a truer description of reality.
After End Zone DeLillo has continued the quest for a new language and an ultimate understanding of life's meaning. Although the ending of Ratner's Star brought the search to confirmed inconclusion, if so paradoxical a term can be used, it marked not a deadend for the writer but a culmination of one four-part exploration. Players does not so much mark out new territoy as retrace some early side paths and emphasize one in particular—the game-quality of life. The novel's model protagonists, Lyle and Pammy Wynant, create at least the illusion of order in their lives by playing inconsequential solo games—from Pammy's tap dancing to Lyle's arranging the contents of his pockets on his dresser in a systematic manner. Their attempts to play more meaningful games with other people lead only to complications and confusion, and to the eventual suicide of a sexually troubled friend. At the end Pammy sees that despite her efforts to live a contributive life, her fate (as well as that of Lyle, last seen waiting forlornly in a motel room) is expressed in the single word on a flophouse marquee: TRANSIENTS. The novel acknowledges no source nor even a specific quest, but portrays only disengaged people attempting to make life more than random interactions—and failing.
Players is as thoroughly game-centered as End Zone and is DeLillo's most self-conscious fiction. The novel's two parts, which recount first the Wynants' separate lives viewed on a split screen and then their attempts to alter them, are bracketed by a sort of Prologue and Epilogue that explicitly establish the artificiality of DeLillo's fictional creation. In his first four novels DeLillo chronicled the modern American's futile search for the mystery of existence. In Players he observes the attempts of a representative couple to create minimal order and meaningfulness in a world in which that mystery is hopelessly elusive. Whether Players signals the game-filled mode and interest of DeLillo's novels to come is impossible to predict, but we can say with certainty that his first five novels, though failing to answer the riddles of the cosmos, honestly and wittily ask the right questions, and in doing so establish Don DeLillo as an important original voice in contemporary fiction. (pp. 22-3)
Michael Oriard, "Don DeLillo's Search for Walden Pond," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1978), Vol. XX, No. 1, 1978, pp. 5-24.
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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 moral absolute in DeLillo,s terrible contemporary America. Elsewhere there is nothing but porn, corruption, death….
To say that Running Dog has all the fascination of a plastic formicary is to deny that it is a novel in the old sense. It moves, scurries, is very much alive; it even reaches conclusions, but these conclusions are premises. If the innocence of the content of the Hitler film is, after the slavering of the pornmen, a shocking anticlimax, this dithering man doing a Chaplin take-off is still the Great Dictator, and the Goebbels children are shortly to be killed by their own father. There is no health anywhere. The term evil has no meaning, since there is no definable good. The naiveté of this American picture, itself a symptom of post-Vietnam shock, is belied by the sophistication of DeLillo's verbal technique. The cutting is as rapid as that found in Eisenstein's October and often as confusing: With so little delineation of either character or mise en scène, things tend to run together, as in a dropped bag of rotten fruit. I came to Running Dog after a reread of Mann's Doctor Faustus—a more terrible picture of evil, since in that book evil corrupts the good—and found DeLillo's work a refresher course in the readjustment to contemporary literary values. There is something of Pynchon in it and a little of John Hawkes. DeLillo has his own voice, harsh, eroded, disturbingly eloquent.
Anthony Burgess, "No Health Anywhere," in Saturday Review (© 1978 by Saturday Review Magazine Corp.; reprinted with permission), September 16, 1978, p. 38.
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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 career. (p. 33)
Running Dog is a world of behavior and use. People are points on a graph, points nearly obliterated by the plot lines that connect them. Violence and copulation are sudden, reactive, without what Selvy calls "moderating precepts." The dialogue is tough, short and brittle; the writing narrows to a succession of subjects, verbs, and objects, bodies in motion. I'd like to think DeLillo wanted the reduced manner of the novel—its emptiness and verbal impoverishment—to reflect the characters' reduced lives, the culture's reaching its most probable state; but instead he seems to be exploiting his material. Because they are figures from our public mythology, a flood of ready-made associations and connections fills the gaps created by DeLillo's subtraction. The novel's first line is "You won't find ordinary people here," but in fact its characters are as ordinary as dollar movies, prime-time television, and People magazine. The novel itself comes to be a stimulus-response machine, a transistorized potboiler.
Most of DeLillo's other novels could have been reduced to the outline that Running Dog is, but no matter how bleak the behavior in these books they have a gaiety of language, a cross-cutting of discourses. One understands why DeLillo has given up on people; but one hopes he hasn't given up on words, of which fictional people are made. As Selvy travels toward his death, he lists what he has left behind: "All that incoherence. Selection, election, option, alternative. All behind him now. Codes and formats. Courses of action. Values, bias, predilection." The "incoherence" of multiple voices, the "codes and formats" of language itself, the "values" tested by silence—these are precisely what DeLillo leaves out of Running Dog, the qualities that make his other fiction so vital and lucid. DeLillo is too good, too verbally sophisticated a writer to knock off Jerzy Kosinski novels, which Running Dog resembles in its worst moments. A character in End Zone speaks of trying "to create degree of silence." That's DeLillo's gift, not zero degrees but degrees, fine gradients of something and nothing. (p. 34)
Thomas LeClair, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1978 The New Republic, Inc.), October 7, 1978.
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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 disturbing parallels, odd echoes, abrupt disjunctions, and grim humor—DeLillo has fitted these elements together into a novel as meticulously constructed as Selvy's gun. (p. 27)
Richard Kuczkowski, in New York Arts Journal (copyright © 1978 by Richard W. Burgin), #12, November-December, 1978.
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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.