Don DeLillo DeLillo, Don (Vol. 143) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Gregory Salyer (essay date September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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David Cowart (essay date Winter 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Maltby (essay date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Christian Moraru (essay date Spring 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lou F. Caton (essay date September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul Elie (review date 7 November 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James Gardner (review date 24 November 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Dana Phillips (essay date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Robert L. McLaughlin (review date January 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Tony Tanner (essay date Spring 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ruth Helyer (essay date Winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jeoffrey S. Bull (essay date Spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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John Loughery (review date Summer 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.”


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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


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