Don DeLillo DeLillo, Don (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)

Michael Oriard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 3253 words.)

J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Anthony Burgess

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 489 words.)


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

Richard Kuczkowski

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Valentine Cunningham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.